Photo: Amran hussain

Policy neglect to active engagement


The year 2012 was a critical year for the Rohingyas of Burma. At a time when Burma was re-claiming admission into the community of nations through instituting incremental reforms in its domestic political process and the icon of democracy and change, Noble laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, was on her trail to acknowledge international accolades bestowed on her, the Burmese state was engaged in serious violations of rights of the Rohingya community in the northern Arakan state.

The images of charred corpses, torched hamlets and wailing women and children dismayed the international community and conveyed messages of large-scale massacres and destruction of properties. Once again the world community stirred up to the plights of the Rohingyas, labelled by the UN as “the world's most persecuted minority.”

In June 2012, in the aftermath of the alleged rape and murder of a Rakhine woman by few members of the Rohingya community, all hell broke loose. By invoking medieval conception of justice of punishing everyone for the act of a few errant members, not only did the Buddhist Rakhines inflicted disproportionate harm on the Rohingyas, on occasions induced and led by the monks; the Burmese state too instead of providing protection to the victims became an active party in the carnage.

In the face of atrocities committed by the state agencies and hostility faced from their Buddhist counterparts there was little option available to the Rohingyas but to seek shelter across the border. Bangladesh became an obvious choice for the persecuted Rohingyas.

In sharp contrast to the position taken during 1978 and 1991-92 flows, this time Bangladesh took a firm stand in denying access to the group. The reasons put forward in denying asylum have been justified on several grounds. Some have argued that Bangladesh is already burdened with a large population and lacks resources to provide meaningful services to its own nationals.

The underlying assumption of such a stand is that the state has the primary responsibility to provide for its own citizens and thus is unable to take responsibility of aliens, even those fleeing persecution. Others have pointed out that the Rohingyas who stayed back from the earlier flows have been very disruptive to the local community and environment.

Another group, included among them was the Bangladesh High Commissioner to the UK, highlighted the propensity of the Rohingyas to militant activities including terrorism; while the more astute ones noted the presence of Islamic fundamentalists among the group.

Poor migrants are made scapegoats for all social ills of host communities all over the world, though very little hard evidence is presented to back such claims. Migrants are also blamed for environmental degradation and skewing the labour market. All these result in criminalising migrants and presenting them as security threats. The Rohingyas in Bangladesh are no exception.

The failure of successive administrations in Bangladesh to investigate into the factors that contributed to the steady flight of the Rohingyas after 1991-92 has created a situation in which the Burmese military junta secured a free hand to engage in ethnic cleansing of Rohingyas from the Arakan state. Instead of subjecting the population to overt violence that invite unwanted international attention (creating large outflows, with bayonet and bullet wounds), tidy but low keyed policies of high taxation, restrictions on freedom of movements and marriage, forced labour and relocation of villages were pursued robustly. All these were done at a time when the Rohingyas were denied their rightful claims to Burmese citizenship.

It may be stated that Bangladesh's single-track policy of engaging with Burma on the economic front without drawing international attention to the latter's Arakan mis-adventure has undermined its own national interest.

Bangladesh's failure to competently steer through the Rohingya issue in its bilateral relations with third countries and in multilateral forums allowed Burma to go scot free in expelling tens of thousands of Rohingyas to Bangladesh and other countries such as Malaysia and Saudi Arabia. In its bilateral or multilateral diplomatic initiatives, one hardly finds any evidence of Bangladesh making a convincing case of drawing international community attention to the plight of the steady streams of expelled Rohingyas.

It is in this context of policy inertia of Bangladesh that Burma engaged in yet another round of expulsion following the June 2012 sectarian violence. As groups of Rohingyas began reaching Bangladesh land and sea borders to seek asylum, security forces were mobilised to deny them entry. Boats were dispatched to stop arriving Rohingyas in high seas. The in-coming Rohingyas were no longer viewed with empathy and understanding, rather were seen through national security lens.

Through a series of speech acts senior ministers and state functionaries securitised the Rohingya issue and presented them as undesirable aliens. Statements of the highest executive and high-ranking functionaries of the state were clear and unequivocal: Bangladesh cannot afford to bear the burden of additional load of people. “It is not Bangladesh's responsibility,” noted one very important figure. Labelled as 'intruders' and 'infiltrators' both by the government as well as a section of the influential media, there was little support for the Rohingya cause. A member of the National Human Rights Commission of Bangladesh is on Al Jazeera's record stating that even though the Burmese government treats the Rohingyas as did the Nazis the Jews, they are essentially the responsibility of the international community. While the prime minister clearly articulated her government's position that the “Rohingyas are not Bangladesh's problem,” her foreign minister attempted to justify Bangladesh's stand on the premise that Bangladesh was not obliged to provide them asylum as the country was not a party to the 1951 International Refugee Convention.

It may be noted that not being a state-party to 1951 Convention does not absolve Bangladesh to provide asylum to people fleeing persecution. Apart from committing to uphold the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Bangladesh has ratified quite a few of other international human rights treaties. Those include, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on Rights of the Child and the Convention against Torture; all containing provisions that prohibit state parties to send people/children back to the countries of origin where they are likely to be persecuted/tortured and their life and liberty could be at stake. As Bangladesh is party to all the above international instruments the country is under legal obligation not to “re-foule” the Rohingyas to Burma.

A point has been made that victims of persecution of the non-state actors do not qualify for asylum, a stance shared by the National Human Rights Commission of Bangladesh. This is a flawed interpretation of international refugee law.

Para 65 of Status Determination Handbook on Refugees of UNHCR, the authoritative text on the asylum, clearly states that the agents of persecution can be State agents as well as non-State actors. Therefore, to qualify refugee status one does not have to be subjected to only “State persecution.” Persecution in the hands of non-state actors is very much a legitimate ground for seeking asylum. Persecution is a broad concept and encompasses human rights violations and other kinds of serious harm and intolerable predicament.

The television footages and narratives of the victims as well as independent observers on recent turn of events of Arakan leaves no trace of doubt that the Rohingyas meet all these pre-requisites and thus qualify to seek asylum. The Burmese President's denial of any responsibility of the Rohingyas and his call for their third country re-settlement is the obvious attestation to the grave plight of the Rohingyas.

Photo: Star Archive

It may not be out of place to state here that while the rest of the world is aghast with the Burmese government's persistent mistreatment of the Rohingyas, Bangladesh leaders have been presumptuous in expressing confidence in measures taken by the Burmese government. As a frontier country that is bearing the brunt of the Rohingya inflow, Bangladesh should re-formulate its Burma policy. Instead of being obsessed with economic diplomacy (that so far yielded little results), the country should strive to seek a balance and begin highlighting the Burmese state's ill treatment of the minority Rohingyas.

No one can dispute Bangladesh government's view that the international community should exert pressure on Burma to restore citizenship rights of the Rohingyas and create enabling conditions for their return in dignity. Onus also lies on Bangladesh to do its part by providing entry and asylum to the Rohingyas fleeing persecution, allowing specialized NGOs to extend them with basic services and calling on international community to share the burden.

In no way Bangladesh should jettison its long-standing reputation of being a humane and a rights respecting nation. Perhaps time has come to frame a national law for refugees to avert policy confusion that the Rohingya case has presented. 2012 marked the 20th anniversary of the flight of the Rohingyas to Bangladesh. The year 2013 can be the beginning of a fresh look towards this group of forsaken people.

The writer teaches International Relations and coordinates the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU), University of Dhaka. He is also the President of human rights organisation, Odhikar.


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