Friday, June 29, 2012

Rohingya issue: A humanitarian problem to be addressed politically

When we find an elderly Rohingya women on boat begging for shelter to a Bangladesh Border Guard with her hands folded and tears in eyes, it is difficult for us to control emotion recollecting reminiscences of the similar situation in 1971 while beseeching a BSF person for the shelter to save our lives from the atrocities of Pakistani marauders and their associates now under trial. In such a situation, while life and death is a question, the humanitarian consideration prevails supreme demanding a political intervention to resolve amicably with mutual benefits. This has happened this time when Rohingya refugees started to reach border of Bangladesh by boat from the neighbouring Arakan state of Myanmar for shelter due to communal violence and repression to innocents.

On the event of such national crisis, an inter-ministerial meeting held on 17th June at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has reaffirmed Bangladesh’s stance not to allow Rohingyas from Myanmar or to continue so in future. It might be recalled that the influx of about 2.00 lakh of refugees in Bangladesh in 1978 was the result of “Operation Dragon” launched by the then Burmese military ruler to eliminate unauthorised Muslims living in Arakan. Later on, after 16 months with continuous dialogue and negotiation, the Burmese government agreed to take back Rohingya refugees. Similar situation occurred in 1991 when the military rulers of Burma did not accept the result of general election in their country where Aung San Suu Kyi won with a big margin and Rohingyas voted for the winning party and celebrated her victory. The Government in a planned way thus, driven out about 2.70 Lakh Rohingyas and forced them to enter Bangladesh crossing the international boundary. After much negotiation, Myanmar has agreed to accept 2.50 Lakh refugees back with 20,000 left over at Cox’s Bazar and around. This time, the background situation is different which developed due to the communal riot between Rakhine Buddhists and Muslims that generated over the raping of a Buddhist girl.

It needs to be pointed out that Rohingyas were victims of state persecution in 1978 and 1991, while this time, it was merely a sectarian violence and therefore, they are not considered as refugees from Rakhine state.

Reality behind the problem is that Myanmar’s government considers the Rohingyas to be foreigner, while many citizens – including the local Rakhine Buddhist population see them as illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh and view them with hostility. This perception continued to sustain due to the absence of democratic political climate and acute scarcity of awareness building among the people of Myanmar for national unity and fraternity.

President of Myanmar Mr. Thein Sein might visit Bangladesh during July 15-17, 2012 and the Rohingya issue is going to dominate the agenda of discussion. Bangladesh is expecting the assurance from Myanmar to take back all Rohingyas now staying in Bangladesh as Refugees. This issue of Rohingya refugees might be resolved with mutual understanding and bilateral agreement considering it as political problem.

On the other hand, BNP acting secretary general Mirza Fakrul Islam Alamgir said on 15th June that his party believes in humanity on the Rohingya refugee issue and the government should therefore settle this issue through discussion with Myanmar. Many human rights organisations at home and abroad termed it as humanitarian issue. Mr. Craig Sanders, the country representative of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Bangladesh, visited Cox’s Bazar against the advice of the Ministry of the Foreign Affairs as reported. According to media reports, Sanders visited refugee camps at Kutupalang and Nayapara where undocumented Myanmar national took temporary shelter. Mr. Sanders was asked not to visit Cox’s Bazar since current problem was not a refugee issue rather an issue relating to sectarian violence in Myanmar. But he perhaps, has termed it as humanitarian refugee issue to be addressed according to UN Charter.

Many other citizens of Bangladesh strongly feel that the relation between Bangladesh and Arakan Muslims is historical and therefore should be addressed with the spirit of brotherhood. During the middle age of history of Bangla, great poet Alaul was the poet of Arakanraj. In this state, with the patronage of Arakan King, Hindi poet Malik Muhammad Jayshir composed the great epic Padmabati. The Arakan king encouraged Bangla literature so much to enrich and diversify Bangla language. Dara the eldest son of Mughal emperor Shahjahan, took shelter in Arakan and in the war with Maung king, Rohingyas supported the Emperor. Besides, during seventeen century, Umed Khan, son of Nawab Shayestha Khan received tremendous support from Rohingyas to drive away Maung pirates from Chittagong region.

Thus, it became a debatable question whether the Rohingya problem is a political or a humanitarian issue. It is true that there is a strong humanitarian aspect of this problem. But this issue cannot be resolved without political interventions. Mere sympathy or raising hue and cry cannot resolve a problem if not addressed with political acumen and mutual understanding. Only giving shelter to refugees can in no way alleviate the crisis until both the government arrives at a consensus to identify the crux of the problem and resolve it amicably.

Bangladesh Prime Minister visited Myanmar last year and received a grand reception reflecting the Myanmar changed policy dimension towards its neighbours. The President of the Myanmar Mr. Thein Sein is scheduled to give a return visit Bangladesh with an open heart on issues of mutual interest, trade and commerce, transport and communication and border issue etc. This will be an opportunity to open significant dialogue on the old dispute of Rohingya issue and resolve the same forever. Bangladesh people have a very soft corner towards Rohingya population because of historical bondage, religious fraternity, literary and cultural heritage and linkage.

Myanmar is also now looking for a changed political climate in their country and this is the moment to avail the opportunity for better understanding. With the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, the world is viewing Myanmar from a different perspective. This is the time to normalise the tensions by developing a very cordial neighbourhood policy to ensure ever lasting peaceful co-existence. An issue might be political or humanitarian but its solution lies in political initiative with mutual respect to each other’s sovereignty and citizens’ well being at large.

We expect political leaders of both the countries would address this humanitarian issue to strengthen the spirit of good neighbourhood policy and peaceful co-existence to grow together.

The writer is a former Adviser to Caretaker Government.