On or about August 15, the government of Myanmar, the government of Bangladesh, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) confirmed that some 3,450 people would be repatriated from the refugee camps around Cox’s Bazar back to Rakhine State, Myanmar.
This was the culmination of a secret accord between the two states and UNHCR signed on May 31, 2018. Their quarry, some 1 million Rohingya refugees subsisting on international humanitarian aid, were not party to this accord. Rohingya refugees were not even consulted, at least not in any way that stands up to the most cursory scrutiny.
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials were apparently pushing very hard on both governments, and on the day of the proposed repatriation, several Chinese diplomats showed up in Cox’s Bazar to observe the spectacle and claim some of the credit. When the time came for Rohingya refugees to obediently get on buses and return home — this was August 22 — not a single refugee showed up to be repatriated. People familiar with the Rohingya crisis were not even remotely surprised.
Three days later, on August 25, a large number of Rohingya were mobilized around a clear message calling for dialogue between the Myanmar government and Rohingya refugees. The Rohingya refugee organization, the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights (ARSPH) spearheaded this mass assembly with the objective of communicating to the world that repatriation without dialogue is not going to happen.
They no doubt knew that the failed repatriation effort on August 22 was still fresh in everyone’s minds. Some 200,000 Rohingya refugees held up banners, led symbolic activities (eg drama, theatre, etc), and made speeches. Their efforts hammered home a consistent, singular message: “We want to solve our problems with dialogue under the supervision of the Bangladesh government, the international community, ASEAN, and UNHCR. There will be no repatriation without talking to us.”
Let us think about this for a moment: One of the most persecuted minorities in the world is calling for dialogue with their oppressors so they can go home.
For two years, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s government has elaborately avoided any interaction with Rohingya refugee leaders, preferring to announce the formation of one commission after another, all of which call for the same thing; change in Myanmar and justice for all her citizens, including Rohingya.
In the past few days, the head of the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission (RRRC), Abul Kalam, and another seven camp supervisors (known as camp-in-charge or CiC) have been removed from their posts. Ostensibly the RRRC chief and the seven CiCs made some massive mistake because collective action taken by some 200,000 Rohingya refugees on August 25 took Dhaka by surprise.
And yet, ARSPH wrote to the authorities before the rally on August 22 informing them in detail of the rally, clearly outlining location, messaging, setup, and estimated the rally size to be between 300,000 and 500,000. The strong reaction from Dhaka and security services has been framed as “surprise” at the rally’s size. So now heads are falling. Of course no one was really surprised, senior officials in Dhaka have now obviously changed their tack. The question is: What made them change their minds?
Collective political action by the Rohingya doesn’t make Bangladesh look weak in the face of Myanmar’s barefaced efforts to deny Rohingya refugees the possibility of returning to the villages and hill tracts they were forced at gunpoint to flee from on August 25, 2017. On the contrary, the blame game being conducted in Cox’s Bazar at the moment reflects political uncertainty and disarray in Dhaka. This makes Bangladesh look inconsistent and weak.
Take the RRRC, Abul Kalam, the man has held down a job that would have worn out the average public official from Dhaka in a matter of weeks. He’s been doing it for nearly two years now — dealing with self-important UN agencies and NGOs, mediating between Rohingya refugees and irate host communities, dealing with a topsy-turvy local economy distorted by a huge international aid effort, all the while starved of resources.
The man is a hero and deserves to be lauded for his service to the nation and humanity. The current rash of punitive decisions coming out of Dhaka sends a confusing message, one that will be relished in Naypyidaw.
It is only people who know the situation on the ground, have earned the trust of key political players (both Rohingya and local Chittagonians), and have proven themselves able to steer an unruly aid effort in extremely challenging circumstances that will resolve the Rohingya crisis at the coal face. Removing men of Kalam’s calibre just means that Bangladesh is that much further from repatriating Rohingya refugees.
If Bangladesh fails to effectively engage the Rohingya, then the conversation about citizenship will eventually be with Bangladesh, not Myanmar. Ironically, that’s the best-case scenario.
The worst case scenario is that if Bangladesh is unwilling to effectively speak with the Rohingya about repatriation, the extremists will fill the breach. And to be clear they are there. They sit in European capitals demanding a fully-fledged UN invasion of Myanmar, something that will never happen.
They gather in tea houses in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, they plot in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Turkey looking for the next Syria, the next Palestine. Hijacking the Rohingya cause is not a stretch of the imagination. Imagine what it’s like being a young man in the camps of Ukhiya and Teknaf; no job, dependent on handouts, your homeland just over the horizon.
In the absence of a believable hope that they can go home, the next most appealing alternative is joining an armed group to take back that homeland. The problem is that the kind of armed group that extremists support amounts to terrorism.
The history of Rohingya armed rebellion is fraught with failure, infighting, and a profound lack of resourcefulness. Make no mistake: The next Rohingya armed group will be co-opted by foreign terrorists and freighted with their agenda.
The hubris that Dhaka is courting in Cox’s Bazar can be reversed. Organized political agency by Rohingya is not a threat. The alternative to engaging and working with Rohingya refugees now is dealing with jihadists later – that’s the real threat.
The wife of one of the transferred CICs, Naffy Sah, defiantly protested her husband’s removal from the post on Facebook, writing: “This was seen as a threat? No space for humanitarian or revolutionary instincts as a civil servant in a country which was born after suffering a genocide which it commemorates each year.”
Bangladesh has a higher calling to humanity and duty to Muslims everywhere to show that through dialogue, even the most intransigent and obstructive states can be brought around.
The example of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) after the Battle of Uhud was that something considered to be lost turned out to be a test of steadfastness, and ultimately a source of inspiration.
The regional group of states known as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), which includes Myanmar, has already been given a mandate by Asean and the Myanmar government to mediate the crisis. Asean cannot do this without Bangladeshi leadership and men of Abul Kalam’s mettle.
Even if the Myanmar government isn’t sincere, Bangladesh should forge ahead by working alongside Asean and Rohingya refugee groups like ARSPH to start a conversation about repatriation and exploring pathways for Rohingya refugees to obtain Myanmar, not Bangladeshi, citizenship.
Jamal Bin Fathoni works with an international humanitarian organization that promotes dialogue and conflict resolution.