By P.K.Balachandran/Ceylon Today
Colombo, June 26: In this day and age, when human rights are a major concern of the United Nations, it is ironic that no country that claims to be a democracy or a votary of human rights is ready to accommodate even a fraction of the world’s largest displaced and stateless community – the 1.3 million Rohingyas of Myanmar.
The Rohingyas, who are Bengali-speaking Muslims, had been driven out by successive Buddhist-dominated Myanmar governments, with the military junta being particularly harsh on them.
Bangladesh, which is sheltering 900,000 Rohingyas, is unwilling to continue to do so on economic grounds and population pressure. Dhaka is vigorously pursuing the goal of repatriating them to Myanmar. China has neither a policy nor a tradition of taking refugees. India, which has a tradition of accommodating persecuted people, is now too security conscious to take in outsiders, especially Muslims, on security grounds.
According to a report in Indian Express in 2017: “ India’s national security fears are based on intelligence reports linking the radical Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army to the Lashkar-e-Taiba; key individuals in ARSA, or its front organizations such as Rohingya Solidarity Organisation, are allegedly close to (the wanted Pakistan terrorist) Hafiz Saeed. RSO has a Pakistan chapter, and the Jamaat-ud-Dawa front Falah-e-Insaniyat had a presence in Rohingya refugee camps in 2012.”
The Bangladesh government has been doing three things to face the grim situation: (1) secure international financial aid to house and feed the refugees; (2) get China, India and ASEAN to persuade the Myanmar military junta to take them back, (3) coax the junta itself to take them back.
Initially, millions of dollars did come from the international community, but its interest has waned. China and ASEAN have tried to intercede with the junta, but with little or no success. India has kept aloof as it considers the Rohingyas a breeding ground for Islamic radicalism.
Most importantly, China, India, ASEAN and the US, all have economic interests in being in the good books of the military junta as Myanmar is rich in minerals. Deposits of antimony, chromium, nickel, PGM, copper, gold, lead, zinc, silver, tin and tungsten are in abundance. In terms of past production and potential mineral wealth Myanmar ranks high among Asian countries. It is in the world’s interest to be in good terms with the regime in Yangon. And most importantly, the junta is entrenched. None of the world’s powers are sanguine about the prospects of the pro-democracy movement.
Bangladesh’s bid to negotiate with the junta led to the latter agreeing to take some Rohingyas back after stringent scrutiny. But the refugees themselves did not want to go as there was no proposal to give them citizenship denied to them under a 1982 law. Also, the junta gave no guarantee that they will be free from various disabilities imposed on them, including the restriction on movement. According to Human Rights Watch, the 600,000 Rohingya who remain in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, live in squalid camps and villages.
Currently, there are almost 150 internationally funded NGOs operating at Cox’s Bazar, the main refugee camp. To maintain the refugees and relocate a portion of them to the Bhashan Char island, Bangladesh has already spent around US$ 1.3 billion. However international aid has been diminishing.
“In 2021, only USD 366 million was allocated for the Rohingya community which was only 65% of the required USD 1 billion of total fund. In 2022-23, the rate has grown up to 72%. If this continues, the local and international NGOs won’t be able to fulfill their project and commitment goals to sustain their assistance,” says Ajit Agarwal, a former consultant with the Asian Development Bank.
Shayna Bauchner, Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch says: “Bangladesh is frustrated with its burden as host, but sending refugees back to the control of a ruthless Myanmar junta will just be setting the stage for the next devastating exodus. Myanmar authorities have held about 140,000 Rohingya arbitrarily and indefinitely in camps for more than 10 years. The camps, which have been in constant disrepair due to Myanmar authorities’ restrictions, were severely damaged by Cyclone Mocha on May 14.”
A major concern among Rohingyas is a Myanmar government booklet on repatriation which says that they will be given National Verification Cards (NVCs), which are documents that do not grant Myanmar citizenship. NVC-holders have not been granted meaningful freedom of movement.
While the junta is putting obstacles in the way of repatriation, the Bangladesh has also been intensifying restrictions on livelihoods, movement, and education, creating a coercive environment designed to force people to consider premature returns, HRW says
Writing in the US journal Foreign Affairs on June 19 2023, Ye Myo Hein and Lucas Myers say that geopolitical issues have complicated the Rohingya problem. China sees the pro-democracy movement in Myanmar as an American front. This has pushed Beijing towards the junta.
Pro-US ASEAN has extended its blessings to the pro-democracy movement, but the China-US rift has put it in a tight spot. ASEAN would like the US and China to cooperate. For Washington and its Western allies, the entrenchment of a military junta beholden to China would portend diminished influence and greater instability throughout Southeast Asia.
However, the US attitude to the junta is not cut and dry, Ye Myo Hein and Lucas Myers say.
“The United States’ approach to post-coup Myanmar has consisted of a cautious and pragmatic balancing act between values and interests. Washington opposes the junta, yet it is also wary of alienating its allies and partners in the region, some of whom have maintained engagement with the Burmese military since the coup.”
“High-level U.S. officials have met with Burmese opposition resistance leaders, and the U.S. government has issued targeted sanctions against high-ranking military officials. But the sanctions have left untouched the junta’s most prized asset: Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise, a military-owned firm that generates some $1.5 billion in annual revenues and offers the regime much-needed access to foreign currency. Washington has also refrained from imposing secondary sanctions on those who do business with the junta, such as Thai energy companies and Singaporean financial firms.”
“Important U.S. allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific, such as Australia, India, and Japan, have voiced their concern about the Myanmar crisis but fear that excessive pressure would open the regime to greater Chinese influence. As a result, they have maintained or, in the case of India, expanded their economic and diplomatic ties to the junta and are unlikely to provide support to the Burmese resistance,” the authors add.
On China’s stand, Ye Myo Hein and Lucas Myers say: “China’s attitude to the junta has also been ambivalent. “From the Chinese perspective, the outbreak of a civil war next door—China and Myanmar share a 1,300-mile border—was bad news for regional stability and for China’s multibillion-dollar investments in Myanmar under the Belt and Road Initiative. China was and remains one of the Myanmar military’s leading arms suppliers, but it has never quite trusted the military’s leadership, which it views as too unpredictable. Beijing also supports some of Myanmar’s ethnic armed groups, including by acquiescing to an underground cross-border arms trade.”.
However, Beijing has now embraced the junta. Actually, China and indeed all others, have much to gain by siding with the junta given the fact that Myanmar is sitting on billions of dollars of mineral wealth. In the face of such natural wealth, issues like democracy and justice for the Rohingyas are put on the back burner, naturally.