Ethnicity, Identity and Nationality: A Case Study of Rohingya Problem - III
by R Hariharan on 22 May 2018 0 Comment

Part III: International Intervention


In the past, Myanmar and Bangladesh had bilaterally handled the Rohingya issue, making pragmatic compromises. However, the results were temporary as Myanmar never addressed the core issue of Rohingya citizenship status. However, after Rohingyas refugees figures swelled to nearly a million in Bangladesh in 2017, it placed a heavy economic and administrative burden on Bangladesh. The plight of Rohingya refugees in such large numbers triggered international concerns. The ushering in of democratic rule in Myanmar in 2011 saw it becoming the focus of international power play involving China, India and the US and its allies. Growth of Islamist terrorist groups in South Asia and their efforts to take advantage of the Rohingyas’ plight has added yet another international security dimension to the issue. 


All these changes have inevitably internationalized the process of resolving the Rohingya issue. This has transformed the national problem of both Myanmar and Bangladesh into an international one, making it difficult for the both governments to handle it to the satisfaction of both internal and external stakeholders. International intervention through the UN agencies and other powers like India, China and ASEAN has to be examined in this complex backdrop.


UN intervention


In the past, international attention in Myanmar had focused to suppression of fundamental freedoms and ethnic conflicts during Gen. Ne Win’s autocratic military rule, than specifically on the Rohingya issue. The military regime had been tardy in ratifying and enforcing international covenants on civil rights. In fact, even with an elected government in power now, Myanmar has not ratified a number of international covenants on civil and political rights, protection of all persons from enforced disappearances etc.


So global attention was more focused on the restoration of democratic rights and ending ethnic conflicts in Myanmar. The UN mandated and established the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar in 1992. It has been extended annually since then.  The UNHRC had been regularly reporting about the gross violations of human rights, including those of Rohingyas in Myanmar from 1992 onwards.


However, UN intervened in Myanmar to facilitate the repatriation of 250,000 Rohingyas who fled to Bangladesh as refugees when army carried out ‘Operation Dragon King’ in Northern Arakan in 1978. Thanks to the intervention, about 125,000 refugees were repatriated to Myanmar. Similarly, UN intervened in 1989 after about 250,000 Rohingya sought refuge in Bangladesh when army launched an operation in Rakhine State. In 1992 also, Rohingya refugees were repatriated with the help of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC).


In a significant move relevant to the Rohingya crisis, Ban ki Moon, then UN Secretary General, introduced ‘Human Rights Up Front’ initiative in 2016 to bring the UN system together to be mutually supportive, help prevention and prioritise human rights. The initiative sought to prevent the most serious life threatening violations.


The UN is involved in helping to resolve the Rohingya crisis 2017 in the following ways:

-        The UN Security Council and General Assembly to discuss political measures to ensure accountability of Myanmar for its actions and take follow up measures to bring peace;

-        The Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights (OCHR) to monitor and report on human rights violations perpetrated against Rohingyas

-        Coordinating and organizing relief assistance to Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and internally displaced persons in Rakhine State through the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, UN Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator and International Organisation for Migration.


The UN-supported humanitarian conference held on October 23, 2017 raised more than $344 million to fund critical programmes for aid to Rohingya refugees. Thirty five donor countries also pledged in-kind aid worth $50 million. At the functional level in Bangladesh, the UN agencies were active in coordinating distribution of relief and assisting Bangladesh authorities in maintaining relief camps.


UN Security Council action


The UN Security Council unanimously approved a strongly worded statement on November 6, 2017 and urged Myanmar to “ensure no further excessive use of military force in Rakhine State” after the presidential statement condemned the violence that led to more than 600,000 Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh after an insurgent attack on security forces on August 25, 2017 led to brutal retaliatory action by security forces.


The Security Council on Monday expressed “grave concern over reports of human rights violations and abuses in Rakhine State, including by the Myanmar security forces, in particular against persons belonging to the Rohingya community.” It asked Myanmar to restore civilian administration and apply the rule of law, and take immediate steps in accordance with their obligations and commitments to respect human rights.


The US


The US response to the Rohingya issue was slow in coming. Then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the US held the military leadership responsible for the Rohingya issue, drawing a distinction between the Aung San Suu Kyi-led government and the military in handling the Rohingya issue. It has already put an embargo on all military sales; it further restricted its engagement with Myanmar army and withdrew all military aid to emphasize its condemnation of the brutal actions against Rohingyas. 


The US does not appear to have a carefully worked out strategy in handling the Rohingya issue. Tillerson, who vacillated on the issue during his visit to Myanmar in November 2017, later condemned ethnic cleansing of Rohingya in a strong statement. He said “After careful and through analysis of available facts, it is clear that the situation in Northern Rakhine state constitutes ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya,” and added that the US supported an independent investigation into what happened in Rakhine state.




The Rohingya issue had always been a source of friction between Myanmar and Bangladesh. But the 2017 Rohingya crisis with its extremist dimensions has increased Bangladeshi concerns as Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League government has been carrying out intense operations against jihadi terrorism infesting the country. So Bangladesh is extremely wary of giving asylum to Rohingya refugees flooding the country lest jihadi groups also infiltrate with them.


However, both the government and people of Bangladesh were sympathetic to the plight of Rohingya refugees. Bangladesh is accommodating and administering them despite its limited resources with help from international agencies. Bangladesh’s generous help and empathy despite a resource crunch has been praised by UN agencies and many countries. The US has conveyed President Trump’s appreciation of Bangladesh for hosting a million displaced persons and assured of the US’ continued political and humanitarian support in addressing the Rohingya crisis.


According eyewitness accounts, Bangladesh has set up a separate civilian authority to manage the refugee as soon as the crisis started. All domestic and international aid agencies can work only after gaining approval from this governing body. In September 2017, thousands of troops of Bangladesh army were deployed to manage the refugee camps. They manage the headquarters where goods are stored and guard roads leading to the camps. The camps are divided into administrative zones under leaders chosen by the army. Each leader is responsible for 200 families and ensures everyone gets provisions from distribution sites and handles disputes. A large surveillance system has been set up and intelligence officers control entry into camps to ensure prevention of drug and human trafficking as well as control recruitment by Rohingya militant bodies.




India has always been averse to allow the Rohingyas to cross over both legally and illegally. It is untenable to permit the entry of Rohingya refugees both from national security and political points of view. Bangladesh and Myanmar borders have been conduits for illegal smuggling of arms and drugs and human trafficking. This has encouraged a number of extremist groups operating in the northeast region to seek sanctuaries both in Bangladesh and Myanmar to enable them to carry out hit and run attacks.


So despite the magnitude of the human tragedy, New Delhi had firmly sealed the border to prevent entry of Rohingyas. Already in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, where Pakistan is waging a proxy war using Jihadi extremist groups, 40,000 Rohingyas have settled down illegally. Evicting them has already become a political issue. In the northeast, illegal immigration is a major political issue and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party came to power for the first time in Assam state with a promise to cleanse the state of lakhs of illegal Bangladeshi migrants.


However, India is providing humanitarian assistance to both Bangladesh and Myanmar to handle the Rohingya refugees and to facilitate their rehabilitation after their return to Myanmar. It has avoided using its political and diplomatic pressure on Myanmar to assist the early repatriation of Rohingyas. Bangladesh as close neighbor and ally of India is a little unhappy at this.


India launched Operation Insaniyat to organize delivery of 700 tonnes of relief material to Bangladesh for Rohingya refugees. In the first consignment, it airlifted 53 tonnes of multiple consignments of relief material urgently required by the refugees – rice, pulses, sugar, salt, cooking oil, tea, ready to eat food, biscuits, mosquito nets etc.


India views rapid socio-economic and infrastructure development that would have a positive impact on all communities in Rakhine state as the only long term solution for the Rohingya problem. With this in view, India signed a memorandum in December 2017 with Myanmar for providing $25 million over the next five years “intended to help the government of Myanmar achieve its objective of restoration of normalcy in Rakhine state and enable the return of displaced persons.” Proposals under Indian assistance include prefabricated houses, building schools, healthcare facilities and building bridges in the state to help Rohingya refugees returning from Bangladesh.




China had built multi-faceted relations with Myanmar during the period of military rule from 1962 to 2010. China’s assistance largely enabled the military regime to partly neutralize the impact of international sanctions regime during the military rule. China became the main supplier of weapons and military equipment to Myanmar armed forces after international sanctions banned arms supply to the country. China has been involved in a number of strategically important projects along the coast of Rakhine State.


Chinese firms were involved in the construction of 2380 km of oil and gas pipelines from Arakan coast to China’s Yunnan Province. China is also involved in upgrading Myanmar’s oil fields and refineries. Petrochina is building a major gas pipeline from Shwe oil field off Rakhine coast to Yunnan to exploit around three trillion cubic feet of natural gas. After 2011, China’s influence had started waning a little due to entry of Western powers and India.


The Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar infrastructure link (BCIM corridor) is a strategically important part of President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). So it has become imperative for China to ensure security along the Western borders of Myanmar, particularly Rakhine State.


Usually, China prides itself in not interfering in the internal affairs of other countries. Moreover, China, not unlike India, has close strategic relations with Bangladesh also. So it has been cautious in handling the Rohingya issue. China seems to have decided to assume the role of a mediator between Bangladesh and Myanmar in view of its strategic interests. China persuaded both Myanmar and Bangladesh to sign an agreement on November 23, 2017 to allow the return of Rohingya refugees back to their homes in Rakhine state. The three-point Chinese peace plan draws upon the detailed recommendations of Kofi Annan Commission (KFC) report on the Rohingya issue, submitted to Myanmar government in September 2017. 


Though China has suggested the three-point plan to defuse the Rohingya crisis, it is significant that it did not condemn the human rights abuses committed against them. According to Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi, the first phase of the three-phase plan was “to effect a ceasefire on the ground, to return to stability and order, so the people can enjoy peace and no longer be forced to flee.” The second and third phases would facilitate an orderly return of those who have fled to Bangladesh and “work toward a long term solution on poverty alleviation” to resolve the Rohingya crisis in the long term.


Myanmar has managed to seal the borders and announced a ceasefire on the ground in Rakhine State. However, the Rohingya population in Rakhine State continues to suffer restrictions and fear the army. This has not created a climate of confidence required to encourage Rohingya refugees to return to Rakhine State as agreed between Myanmar-Bangladesh. China will not be able to provide meaningful economic assistance as part of the long solution unless the refugees return to Rakhine State.


However, China is unlikely to pressurize Myanmar for reasons of real politick. Its carefully calibrated approach aims to retain its involvement in the critical issue without irking both Myanmar and Bangladesh. With this, probably it hopes to fill the space created by the US failure to come up with a plan to enable Aung San Suu Kyi to handle the Rohingya crisis more effectively.


Part IV: Conclusion


Rohingyas have for long sought to lead a normal and peaceful life in Rakhine state where they have probably been living since the 14th century. However, after the 1978 military crackdown and denial of citizenship rendering them stateless under the new citizenship and nationalities act, they have been leaving Myanmar periodically as refugees or to emigrate overseas. According to the Arakan Project quoted by BBC in January 2018, Rohingyas population estimates in various countries are: Myanmar-484,000, Bangladesh-947,000 (including those who migrated since August 2017), India 40,000, Indonesia-1000, Malaysia-150,000, Pakistan-350,000, Saudi Arabia-500,000, Thailand-5000 and UAE-50,000.


Nearly two million expatriate Rohingyas are supporting the struggle for preserving the Rohingya identity and culture and to seek justice in Myanmar. So the Rohingya struggle both within and outside Myanmar is likely to continue. The rise of Jihadi terrorism probably increasingly finds favour with the disillusioned Rohingya population; this segment could overwhelm the moderate segment of Rohingya population. Thus at present, conditions in Rakhine State provide ideal conditions for radical Islamic groups supported by expatriate Rohingyas community and armed and trained by Jihadi extremist groups, particularly in Bangladesh.


Myanmar has so far been tardy in implementing strategies to create a safe environment for refugees to return to Rakhine Sate with confidence. Myanmar has no option but to progressively implements an action plan based on the Kofi Annan Advisory Commission’s recommendations to create a safe and friendly environment. Aung San Suu Kyi as a leader of international stature should be encouraged to draw up plans to integrate Rohingyas in the national mainstream. The government will have to systematically carryout a nation-wide integration campaign in schools and work places to create better understanding between the Buddhist Bamar community and Muslims as a whole. Only then the government structural and systemic reforms both in the constitution and governance would become meaningful to yield long term results to usher in permanent peace. 


Unless the 2008 constitution is amended to end the army’s role in the legislature and government, the elected civilian government cannot be expected to function effectively. Then only can it take charge and be accountable for defence, internal security and border security which are at present controlled by the commander-in-chief. Till Aung San Suu Kyi gathers enough support among the people and political parties to amend the constitution to make it truly democratic, she will continue to be compelled to make compromises on the Rohingya issue.


In the near term, the international community has to ensure that Bangladesh is provided all assistance and resources to look after nearly a million Rohingya refugees. It should also assist Bangladesh in preventing the spread of extremism among Rohingya refugees. Both Bangladesh and Myanmar should be encouraged to continue their bilateral interactions to evolve and implement a time-bound plan for systematic repatriation of refugees. Political and diplomatic intervention and development assistance by India, China and ASEAN can help this process to progress. They can also use their influence to ensure Myanmar creates suitable conditions in Rakhine State for Rohingyas to return home and resume their normal lives.


Rohingya insurgency in Rakhine State has the potential to grow in strength with the support of expatriate Rohingyas with its international fallout. As Kofi Annan cautioned “unless concerted action – led by the government and aided by all sectors of the government and society – is taken soon, we risk another cycle of violence and radicalization, which will further deepen the chronic poverty that afflicts Rakhine State.” International community has to understand Myanmar government’s limitations in acting positively due to constitutional and legal road blocks. Rather than periodically threatening to impose sanctions, UN interlocutors can be usefully engaged to work out solutions with the military hierarchy and the government to cooperate in amending the citizenship and nationalities enactments. Major powers involved in the region can influence Myanmar to take measures to act positively on this aspect.



Courtesy: South Asia Analysis Group, Paper No 6369, 20 April 2018

[See Notes and references from original]

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