The Rohingya issue viewed from Bangladesh

Naonori Kusakabe (Tokyo University of Foreign Studies)



Mass Rohingya refugees

On August 25, 2017, an armed force calling itself the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked police and military institutions with hatchets and bamboo spears and killed 12 border guards and police officers. The Myanmar national army responded to this with a large-scale cleanup operation of Rohingya villages. According to a survey by Doctors Without Borders, within one month, this operation killed 6,700 Rohingya people. Namavanee Ratna Patten, Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, visited the refugee camps in November 2017 and issued a condemnation to the Myanmar government for organized brutal actions such as collective rape of women by Myanmar national army soldiers, which applies as a “sin against humanity”. Local media reported that, in the last half a year, as many as 700,000 Rohingya people have crossed the border. This has led to a situation where about 1.11 million, including those Rohingya people already in Bangladesh, are living their lives in refugee camps.

              This is not the first time that Rohingya people have flowed into Bangladesh en masse. In 1978 about 200,000 refugees entered the country fleeing from persecution by the Myanmar military government. Almost all are regarded to have repatriated within a year after talks between the governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh.

              Also, in mid-1991, Rohingya people continued to cross the border escaping from robberies, forced labor and violence, all carried out by the Myanmar army. In the peak period, over 5,000 people a day were crossing, and about 270,000 in total were accommodated in the 21 refugee camps set up in Cox’s Bazar district in the Southeast as well as in the hilly district of Bandarban. The Bangladeshi government initially expressed support to fellow Muslims and received refugees, but there were so many to handle that the government sought early repatriation through bilateral negotiation. Around that time, there were 60,000 refugees from Bangladesh’s Chakma tribe (an indigenous ethnic minority who are frequently victims of  murders and violence by Bengali settlers and the army) in Tripura State in Eastern India. Therefore, it was not favorable in terms of diplomatic relations with India that Bangladesh suspended that issue and accepted Rohingya refugees. As a result, Bangladesh and Myanmar released a joint statement regarding the refugees’ repatriation on April 28, 1992, and the situation was coming to an end with the involvement of the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees. However, there are quite a large number of Rohingya people who did not repatriate and who still remain in Bangladesh. 

              At the end of May 2012, in Rakhain state, a Buddhist Rakhain girl was assaulted and killed by a group of likely Muslim Rohingya. This incident triggered an intensification of the retaliation conflicts between both ethnic groups and on June 10, a state of emergency was declared. Also in this process hundreds of Rohingya people sought asylum in Bangladesh.

              In this way, these Rohingya people who were denied returning to Myanmar and stayed in Bangladesh had either lived at one of two official refugee camps remaining in this country or led a life among the general public of Bangladesh. According to the UNHCR, in 2016, more than 300,000 Rohingya people lived in Bangladesh. However, since the British colonial period, these people have freely come and gone by crossing the bordering Naf River between the two countries. They speak the Bengali language with a Chittagong accent from Southeast Bangladesh. It is not so easy to distinguish between Bangladeshi and Rohingya people as many have Rohingya ancestors or relatives in the border area. Therefore, it is difficult to grasp the exact number of Rohingya, and it has been said that the actual amount could outnumber the estimate made by the UNHCR.

             Amid this situation, on October 9, 2016, an armed group, which later declared themselves as Harakah al-Yaqin, attacked three police facilities and killed nine police officers in Rakhain state. The Myanmar national army regarded this incident as an attack by Rohingya people and took military action under the name of crackdown, which led to nearly 70,000 Rohingya people crossing the border to Bangladesh within two months. Prime Minister Hasina of Bangladesh had talks with the Vice Foreign Minister of Myanmar on January 12 in the following year in Dhaka, capital of Bangladesh, to negotiate for repatriation including the request to “bring back” Rohingya evacuees to the Myanmar side. On the other hand, the Myanmar government began exhaustively exposing Rohingya armed forces within the country. On February 15, the State Counselor Office announced the completion of the National Army’s cleanup operation of armed forces and the restoration of order.

              The above-mentioned attack by ARSA then happened, directly creating as many as 700,000 refugees. The Myanmar government undertook a cleanup operation since they saw ARSA as the same organisation as Harakah al-Yaqin. The operation was mainly conducted by the Myanmar national army but apparently the police, border guards and general public in villages partially took part. In this operation, which evicted a large number of Rohingya to Bangladesh, the army set fire to villages with the aim of erasing all places for ARSA members to hide. The series of actions went far beyond the operation to “clean up terrorism” as it included shooting from the bank at those crossing the river to run away, and laying landmines to prevent their return. The UN and international NGOs criticized the activities, which included tortures, prosecutions and rapes, that were openly taking place in the name of the search for ARSA.    


Between Myanmar and Bangladesh

Rohingya is the name that Bengali Muslims living in the Rakhain state of Myanmar use for themselves. The Myanmar government, however, does not recognize the existence of the ethnic group of Rohingya in the country at all, claiming that they are Bengali illegal immigrants. According to the Nationality Act of Myanmar, which came into effect in 1982, those other than ethnic groups whose residence was recognized prior to 1823 would be individually examined and classified into the categories of “associate citizens”, “naturalized citizens” or “foreigners”. The Rohingya are called “Bengali” and legally treated as “foreigners”.

              Despite the fact that a number of Rohingya have lived in Myanmar for generations, many Myanmar people take the government’s official position as self-evident. In addition to the government’s historical understanding of the Rohingya as a non-indigenous ethnic group, their status as minority Muslims in Myanmar is leading to conscious discrimination with the aim of elimination. Theravada Buddhists, who make up nearly 90% of total citizens, do not strongly feel conscious discrimination towards Christians or Hindus but have strong feelings of hatred towards Muslims. Therefore, ungrounded stories and rumors such as Muslims who bear many children taking over Buddhist Myanmar one day, or Muslims deceiving Buddhist women to get married and convert them to Islam, have spread among the public.

              Furthermore, unlike so-called “Myanmar people”, the Rohingya people have Bengali features such as darker skin and craggy facial features. Many of them speak their unique language, which is one dialect of Bangladesh’s national language, Bengali, and do not speak Myanmar’s official language of Burmese so well. These things encourage discrimination towards the Rohingya. In this way, it can be said that from each viewpoint of history, ethnicity, religion, language and race, the Rohingya have been the subject of persecution in Myanmar.

           On the other hand, the Bangladeshi government does not recognize the Rohingya as their citizens, either. As stated above, a mass of Rohingya refugees flowed into the country in the late 1970s and early 1990s, but the Bangladeshi government feared that it would continue and has stopped granting them refugee status since 1992. Since Bangladesh has not ratified the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol , the decision whether to grant asylum as refugees depends on the government’s judgment at that time. When Buddhists and Muslims clashed in Rakhain state in 2012, the government not only refused to accept the Rohingya but was not willing even to provide different types of humanitarian assistance. As for national sentiment, they sympathize with the Rohingya, who are the same Bengali-speaking Muslims as they are, but in reality it is difficult for Bangladesh to accept many of them given the severe financial difficulties of that nation.  


Between India and Bangladesh

After the attacks of 2016 and 2017, the Bangladeshi government showed support for the Myanmar government’s position by, for example, sharing their concerns about Muslim armed forces. The backdrop to this is that, since the terrorist attack in Dhaka in 2016, it was necessary during the cleanup operation of Islamic armed forces for the Bangladeshi government to cooperate with Myanmar’s national army. Also, from their own experience of coping with refugees, Bangladesh would like to maintain an amicable relationship with Myanmar in order to ultimately repatriate the refugees. In order to stress that they did not touch upon the violation of human rights by Myanmar’s national army as well as to show that no Bangladeshi organizations took part in the attack by the ARSA, Bangladesh supported Myanmar’s responses.

           Securing the trading route to China through Myanmar as well as the rights regarding trade with Rakhain state contributed to this response. 90% of Bangladesh’s border faces to India. In order to go to China on land from the Northern side, it is necessary to pass through India. The current ruling party, the Awami League (AL), is pro-India but has included omnidirectional diplomacy in their manifesto since the parliamentary general election in 2014, and regard relations with China as important. China is the largest import partner for Bangladesh. On October 14, 2016, Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, visited and pledged economic assistance as much as 2,000 billion yen equivalent. Furthermore, Bangladesh received two submarines from China in highly confidential circumstances, which shows the enhanced presence of China especially as regards military equipment in recent years. Following these developments, it is necessary for Bangladesh to secure routes to China without passing through India, which is itself experiencing tense relations with China, from a diplomatic as well as economic point of view, so cooperation with the Myanmar government was indispensable.

              Also, on the Northern side of Cox’s Bazar, where Rohingya refugees are now living, there is the Chittagong Hill Tract. There are still now constant conflicts over the implementation of a peace accord after a land issue between the Bangladeshi government and an indigenous ethnic group began there. In this area, several bases of Islamic armed forces have been identified. Further north from there is Northeastern India, where there are many causes of conflict between ethnic groups as well as religions. Bangladesh and India share concern about the formation of networks of financial resources for armed forces, arms and people trafficking through these regions. The two countries have close ties both politically and economically, partly because the AL has been the ruling party of Bangladesh since 2009. Also, as the trend of transnational Islamic armed forces is a common concern of both countries, the two governments have moved in step with one another regarding the issues resulting from the attack by the ARSA, which is suspected of being related to those forces.

              India embraces a Muslim population of 180 million, which is the third largest in the world. Even with this size of Muslim population, the majority of Indian citizens are Hindus, and Muslims are in the minority. After Prime Minister Modi, who is well known for his words and deeds on Hindu supremacy, took over the government in 2014, it is said that Muslims have been feeling increasing social exclusion and political discrimination. In such circumstances, it can be said that the Indian government is in fear of the Islamic armed forces in the country taking extreme actions in response to persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar.

              In India, on August 28, 2017, the Union Minister of State for Home Affairs, Kiren Rijiju, announced in parliament a policy to expel Rohingya refugees. The reasons given were the threat to the security and lowered wages resulting from the influx of cheap labor. Within the country, even before the incident in August stated at the beginning of this article, there had been 40,000 Rohingya refugees, of which 16,000 were recognized as refugees by the UNHCR. However, the Indian government claims that recognized Rohingya refugees should be expelled in the same manner. Following this, two representatives of the Rohingya sued at the supreme court of India to withdraw this deporting policy by the government, but the ruling has been postponed.

              Furthermore, India has been accelerating its assistance towards infrastructural building in the Rakhain state of Myanmar. By connecting Northeastern India to Sittwe, a coastal city in Rakhain state, by land and sea, the plan is to promote economic development in the Northeastern region of India. In this way, the AL-led Bangladeshi government, taking a pro-India stance influenced by India supporting the Myanmar government in terms of security and in the interest of development of Rakhain state, was avoiding criticism of the Myanmar government while requesting the repatriation of refugees, right after the incident. The Rohingya have found themselves isolated from Myanmar, Bangladesh and India.

              The government of Bangladesh has maintained a refugee policy that limits humanitarian assistance to a minimum, ensuring that the Rohingya can just about survive and cannot come any further across the border. Therefore, the situation has reached a point where those refugees sit on the side of the street asking for food while protecting themselves from rain and wind with a plastic sheet sold for about the equivalent of 1,000 yen. Children and elderly people especially have become dramatically weaker, and not a few Rohingya have lost their lives in Bangladesh after having survived a narrow escape from Myanmar.

              In support of aid workers in Bangladesh, it should be added that the crisis management skills of the country’s NGOs and international aid organizations must be never underestimated. So-called the largest NGO in the world, BRAC provides assistance not only in this country but many more in Asia and Africa. Meanwhile, the Gramin group is led by Dr Muhamad Yunus, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for the introduction of microcredit (offering interest- and security-free loans to those in poverty in order to promote entrepreneurship). Both organizations are internationally famous for successfully contributing to poverty reduction. Their emergency relief schemes have accumulated experience every time there have been natural disasters, and they have been strengthened by support from bilateral donors such as Japan as well as the Red Cross member states.  

              Despite this, the government, fearing a large-scale influx of refugees, granted permission for only limited assistance to NGOs and international organizations when the refugee issue arose. When the government dealt with refugee issues in 1991, one forceful and conservative Islamic group used the name of an NGO and entered the camps for political activities. Since then, the government has tightened regulations, especially towards NGOs, and has granted permission only to those small organizations that were originally active in Cox’s Bazar. As for the UN organizations, the government left the task of general coordination to the International Organization for Migration, which did not have many experience of refugee assistance, rather than the UNHCR, which had an issue with the government regarding the repatriation program in 1992. In this way, distribution of goods did not fully reach the people, and the surrounding environment of the camps deteriorated.  


A sudden expansion of assistance

However, the increasing number of refugees and the international community’s higher awareness of the situation made it unavoidable for the government to change its passive refugee policy. At a telephone meeting between the Indian Foreign Minister Swaraj and Prime Minister Hasina on September 15, 2017, Minister Swaraj described the changing situation as having “turned into a global matter from a regional one” and discussed what action should be taken. As a result, from mid-September, assistance for Rohingya refugees by UN organizations and NGOs was gradually expanded. At the same time, Prime Minister Hasina ended up issuing a condemnation to the Myanmar government, with which Bangladesh had until then followed suit, for not accepting the repatriation of refugees.  

              In the backdrop to Bangladesh’s policy change, there was heightened criticism by opposition parties and conservative Muslims over the insufficient assistance given to Rohingya refugees. In particular, Hefazat-e-Islam (HI), a conservative Islamic hard-line pressure group, actively criticized the government. The HI representative made the comment that “if torturing Rohingya did not stop, jihad must be launched against Myanmar” and took a harder offensive against the government. Prior to the parliamentary general election planned at the end of 2018, the largest opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), an Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), and its supporting organization HI, politicized the Rohingya issue and used it to criticize the ruling party, which the AL cannot ignore in their political calculations.

              The AL has been implementing their new policy following requests by Islamist organizations in 2017 for such measures as more description of Islam in state textbooks and the granting of public status to religious schools. A strongly supported view about this policy change in a field where the AL had never worked before is that a party once advocating secularism is now trying to win over an Islamist group in consideration of the general election. Thus it cannot be denied that the change in action towards the Rohingya people is part of this stance.  

              Also, since Cox’s Bazar has a strong support base consisting of the BNP and JI, one AL candidate from this region once criticized party executives for not reacting to the Rohingya issue sooner, being concerned that a lack of reaction would only have a negative impact on the election. Following this, Prime Minister Hasina visited a refugee camp on September 12, 2017, showing sympathy towards the refugees.  


Repatriation agreement discord

Towards the repatriation of refugees, the number of which keeps increasing by hundreds each day, the governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh held meetings in Naypyidoaw, Myanmar, from November 15, 2017, and signed an agreement on the 23rd. However, they neither agreed on the concrete process of repatriation and due date of completion, nor disclosed the agreement. According to local press reports, this agreement is based on the treaty concluded for the repatriation program in 1992, in which Bangladesh requested the completion of repatriation within one year and the UN organizations’ involvement in the repatriation process. The Myanmar side requested that repatriation start within two months of the signing but made objections to Bangladesh’s requests. Based on the agreement, both countries began compiling a list of Rohingya people who had crossed the border. Because work on the Bangladeshi side has not yet been completed, repatriation of refugees did not start on January 23, 2018 as planned.    


Situation at the refugee camps

The author visited some Rohingya refugee camps in February 2018. Driving south from the touristic center of Cox’s Bazar, a banner stating “Mother of Humanity” is put up across the road every few kilometers, fully emphasizing the achievement of assistance to the Rohingya by the current government. After about two hours of driving there is Kutupalong Refugee Camp. In this camp, which has been developed into a hill, about 100,000 Rohingya people live in what one staff member of an assisting organization describes as a “mega camp”. From the flat, level land to the hill, it is so crammed with houses made of bamboo and vinyl, as well as tents showing the logos of assisting organizations, that it is not possible to view the vast campsite as a whole. There is a large market where dried fish, vegetables, chewing tobacco and other daily goods are sold. Wells, simple plastic-made water facilities, toilets and free clinics, all built by assisting organizations, show that there are many organizations providing assistance there.

              However, in addition to its density of living, unhygienic toilets as well as running sewage without any drainage systems reveal the camp’s extremely poor sanitary environment. In Bangladesh, it starts raining in April and the full-scale rainy season begins in June. In toilets without roofs, filthy water overflows very quickly, which could be expected to cause infectious diseases. It is easy for those with low resistance such as pregnant women, children and the elderly to catch these diseases, therefore it is necessary not only to improve the sanitary environment but also to spread awareness of sanitation.

              One worrying phenomenon in the rainy season is landslides. Many people live on the very soft ground of a hillside and it is clear that only a few days of heavy rain could cause landslides immediately. May is the season of cyclones, and disaster management should not wait. According to a survey conducted by the government and the UNHCR announced in March, 100,000 Rohingya people must move for their safety.


Hindu refugees

The image of Rohingya tends to be of Muslims, and this is not mistaken depending on how it is defined, but there do exist a few camps for Hindus in Cox’s Bazar. In these camps there are basically communities organized by religion. At the camp the author visited there were 100 households composed only of Hindus. A camp leader told the author that they would not call themselves Rohingya.

              Among these 100 households, 26 are headed by females without husbands for some reason. In general such families could be in the position of being less advantaged in terms of access to relief supplies and voice in the community compared to families headed by males. In this community, a group of families headed by females live near each other and close to a main road, which shows that such matters have been taken into consideration.

              The author was introduced to ‘A’ as one of the women in extraordinary hardship among the families headed by females. Her husband and daughter were killed by the ARSA, Rohingya’s armed forces that are Bengali Muslims. A group of people covering themselves with masks attacked the village at night, slashed villagers and set the place on fire. A ran to Bangladesh for her life but her husband and daughter could not. Today she lives on relief supplies such as rice, beans and oil distributed at the camp, but she never gets up, only lying down for most of the time, from which it is evident that she needs some psychological support.

              However, this requires extra attention. Including A, all the Hindu people the author heard from bore witness that the ARSA attacked, but they had not seen the faces of those who attacked. The Myanmar government announced that ARSA members attacked Hindu villages because   were spies of the Myanmar government, but the truth is never known. Earlier these villagers had contact with Muslim communities but after this incident they no longer have such contact at the evacuee camps in Bangladesh.

              As for their lives, although a proper survey would be required, as far as the author could see toilets, wells and tents are available and no issues can be seen for Hindu minorities in their villages in terms of receiving relief goods. Just as one general issue, many people complained of the lack of firewood for fuel. In the Muslim communities markets are spontaneously created and firewood is piled up for sale. Local media have reported that Rohingya refugees have cut down large amount of trees to use as firewood. The firewood acquired there would reach refugees through markets in the camp or individual networks, but it can be expected that Hindu people in small communities do not have access to it and must rely on relief supplies.


Beyond each nation’s intentions

According to the Constitution of Bangladesh Article 123 Section 3(a), in the event of its government’s dissolution due to expiry of the term, a general election should take place sometime between 90 days prior to the dissolution date and the date of dissolution. Since the first parliament session of the current government was on January 29, 2014, the next parliamentary general election is expected to be held sometime between October 31, 2018 and January 28, 2019.

              However, in advance of the parliamentary general election, the battles between the ruling   and opposition parties are getting fierce. Especially after frequent incidents such as someone close to the opposition parties being taken into custody and some attacks, the conflicts between the two sides have deepened and the consultation for implementing a fair election is still waiting to progress. The previous general election in 2014 was boycotted by a union of the BNP and 17 other opposition parties, and the AL gained more than two thirds of the seats. The opposition union repeatedly requested another election under the government system for a neutral election administration, but the AL has never responded.

              On February 8, 2018, the BNP chairman Zia was sentenced to five years in prison for embezzlement, and the party’s senior vice chairman Tarique Rahman, who was in London, was sentenced to ten years. Following chairman Zia’s imprisonment, the BNP conducted demonstrations across the country. Some people see the series of arrests of BNP leaders as an attack on the BNP that uses the constitution’s stipulation that any person who has been sentenced to more than two years of imprisonment is not eligible to run a candidacy in a parliamentary general election.

              The spokesperson for the UN Secretary General appealed to the international community for support for the Rohingya refugees while releasing a statement requesting that the Bangladesh government hold a fair election. As long as the UN assists Rohingya refugees on a large scale, it requires that Bangladesh maintain a democratic regime. From now on, it can be considered that the international community will further pressurize the AL to implement a fair election.

              The Hasina administration in the shadow of the next parliamentary general election cannot help dealing with the ever graver issue of Rohingya refugees very carefully, as a single mistake can lead to unavoidable criticism from within the country and abroad. Insufficient response to the refugee issue or forceful repatriation without any safety confirmation could lead to criticism of the government by Islamic groups and opposition parties.

              On the other hand, the poorest segment of the country is not pleased with the government prioritizing the refugees and has begun to see assistance to the Rohingya negatively. In 2017, when the price of rice soared due to repeated large flooding, some argued wrongly that it was because of this assistance. Therefore, it is expected that for the time being, at least until the election is over, the response to the Rohingya refugees will not greatly change and will remain as refugee assistance with the support of overseas assistance and careful repatriation. It is easy to criticize such a response by the Bangladeshi government but at the same time, we must be aware of the fact that Bangladesh, which has its own population in poverty of 40 million, has accepted a very large number of refugees to the country.

              In terms of Japan, it is highly praised by the international community that Foreign Minister Taro Kono visited the refugee camps at an early stage in November 2017 and promised assistance. On the other hand, Japan abstained from the resolutions condemning the Myanmar government at the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly on November 16, 2017, and the UN Human Rights Committee on December 5 in the same year, which provoked some discontented voices within the Bangladeshi government. The Japanese government hopes to lay a restraint on Myanmar and China becoming closer to each other, while Western countries have strongly condemned the Myanmar government. Also, Japanese officials probably have a goal in mind to resolve the issue through dialogues with both the Bangladeshi and Myanmar governments. The key from now on will be how to realize this goal.

              At the camps, as stated earlier, sedimentary disasters during the rainy season and the spread of infectious diseases are expected to expand. International cooperation is urgent and essential to protect the lives of 1.11 million people living there. It is also necessary for a third party perspective to observe the progress of the repatriation program based on the bilateral agreement to see whether it is being implemented, is securing the safety of Rohingya people in Myanmar and is under their consent. We are at the point where the issue of Rohingya refugees should be dealt with not only bilaterally between Bangladesh and Myanmar but also as a refugee issue in Asia as a whole. The international community must continue the support both by government, through Official Development Assistance, and NGOs to ensure that the future of the Rohingya people is not affected by the internal politics of Bangladesh.