Friday, June 29, 2012

No reason to abandon Rohingyas

Apparently, Bangladesh's pushback of helpless Rohingyas from its territorial waters into those of Myanmar seems to have worked. Or has it? Given that 30,000 were afflicted in the latest eruption of ethnic violence in Rakhine state capital Sittwe, this may have been just a stalling operation.

Since no media is allowed in the troubled zone, there's no way knowing whether those sent back by us are safe. Perhaps, Bangladesh's stern approach has gone down well with the Myanmar authorities. For once, we could bite the bullet and let them float into the elements of nature, or shove them into the tunnel of uncertainty.

Clearly, all this is a palliative, and not a cure of the disease. Because the fundamental issue of statelessness of the Muslim minority in the Rakhaine state of Myanmar remains intact. Persecution and ethnic cleansing of varying intensity follow from this non-existent status of not even second class citizens.

So long as this seminal question of nationality is not resolved, Rohingyas in boatloads or trickles would keep coming in through the 200km long porous border between Bangladesh and Myanmar.

Thus, we find in the UNHCR's version, eight unregistered Rohingya refugees to every registered one. In contrast, government's ratio between listed and unlisted refugees stands at 15 to 1. This demographic pressure on an already densely populated part of Bangladesh is headed for snowballing with severe repercussions in the horizon.

One reputed international observer Derek Tonkin's position on this fallacy is unassailable: "The statelessness of the Rohingya is a breach of Article 15(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which provides that: 'Everyone has the right to a nationality'."

When a country is at the receiving end of fallout from either a willful persecution of the Rohingyas by the military as in 1978 and 1991 and internal ethnic violence as erupted lately, it has to defend its national interest. Bangladesh has every right to address the problem bilaterally, and if necessary, internationally. But a hands-on role is missing.

What is difficult to understand is Bangladesh government treating the latest dimension to the Rohingya question in a way that it can make all the difference between good and bad bilateral relations. Why must this be so; an issue has arisen and it must be dealt with, first compassionately and then by taking it up at the government-to-government level in a no nonsense manner.

Now, why have a short memory? In both times that the spates in Rohingya exodus were triggered by military operations in Myanmar, we arranged repatriation of the refugees by engaging the military authorities, post-1978 and 1991. We could work out a solution, incomplete that it might have been, albeit under the auspices of the UNHCR. Why then the latest upshot of ethnic raw nerves centering around a criminal act but allowed to proliferate as a religious-ethnic reprisal by the majority community under military watch should be handled like "glass with care" approach? By accident, if you like, the core issue has come to the fore, through a haemorrhage though. And if the wound is 'band-aided' now, it would bleed again.

In a sense, the international community is also playing kid glove with Myanmar authorities. The West is supersensitive to the cause of consolidating the pro-democracy and open economy gains and advancing the freedom and leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi to complete the process of Myanmar's opening to the world. So, why rock the boat?

Suu Kyi's appeal to reason, her sagacity, and persistent theme of reconciliation have inspired analogies with Nelson Mandela. This is something to draw on. One of the first Suu Kyi statements on her release from house arrest had been to call for speedy resolution of ethnic minority issues. We are looking to her to take a conscientious role in resolving the "nationality" issue of the Rohingyas. We are heartened by her expression of concern over "the handling of the situation by local Rakhaine authorities, in particular their failure to dampen anti-Muslim sentiment. Suu also calls on Buddhists to 'have sympathy for minorities'." (Xinhua)

Suu Kyi's growing international image is of value to the military who still retain the levers of power but understands the efficacy of withdrawal of sanctions on and investment in Myanmar. Pragmatism suggests they should swim with the current.

The two foregoing factors taken together, condition in Myanmar couldn't have been potentially more conducive than it is today towards settling all the ethnic minority issues that bristle the Myanmar body-politic.

There is a third element that the Myanmar government needs to consider to reshape its policy towards the Rohingyas. Ethnic groups like the Karen and Kachin are "insurrectionist" espousing the aspirations of small nations. While attempts are made to assimilate them into the Myanmar society, why should the innocent, armless Rohingyas be left behind?

The writer is Associate Editor, The Daily Star.