A few miles away from the village in Chittagong, where I grew up, a huge human tragedy is unfolding and growing. An exodus of hundreds of thousands of helpless, devastated men, women and children, some of them badly wounded from the atrocities of Myanmar’s military, is taking place across the Myanmar-Bangladesh border. Every day, dead bodies of women and children come floating down the border river Naf, mostly the victims of the sunken boats full of fleeing families.
The arguments that the Myanmar government is using to deny the Rohingya their citizenship are ludicrous, to say the least. Today's Rakhine state was historically known as the Kingdom of Arakan. That kingdom at one time extended to include my district Chittagong in present-day Bangladesh. Much later, Arakan became a province of British India. History keeps drawing and redrawing borders. But people’s ties to their land remain unaltered. Whichever side gains possession of their land becomes their country.
At independence from Britain in 1948, and under successive governments, Burma recognised the people of all ethnicities within its borders, including the Rohingya, as full citizens, with representation in parliament. It was the military juntas in 1980s who redefined Burmese identity to exclude the Rohingya. Accordingly, they stripped the Rohingya of their citizenship, and used military and political means to expel the Rohingya from the country. Thus began the systematic persecution aimed at ethnic and religious cleansing.
Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees have been living in resource-poor Bangladesh for the last couple of decades only to save their lives. After August 26, 2017, the refugee influx reached an unprecedented and dangerous level, with around 300,000 Rohingya entering Bangladesh in just the last two weeks.
I wrote an open letter to the United Nations Security Council on September 4, 2017, urging immediate action to halt military attacks on innocent civilians that are forcing them to leave their homes and flee their country. The situation inside Myanmar has fuelled the rise of armed groups of Rohingya demanding "independence” for Arakan. A quiet corner of Asia, inhabited by extremely poor people but blessed with enormous economic and human potential, is poised to explode.
Proximity and common economic aspirations mean that Bangladesh and Myanmar have compelling reasons to be the best of friends. Both our countries are trying to emerge from our past, build partnerships and forge a new world for our people. I have long argued for Myanmar’s inclusion in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation and for Bangladesh’s admission to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, so that both countries are able to form cooperative bonds with two of the strongest groups of nations in Asia.
But the ongoing violence makes such a case difficult. Luckily, we don’t need to look too far for a possible solution. It is contained in the report of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State appointed by the government of Myanmar and headed by Kofi Annan. The report provides excellent recommendations, which have been accepted by the Myanmar government.
Mr Annan’s report spells out in clear terms the corrective actions that must urgently be taken. They include provision of full citizenship to the Rohingya; freedom of movement, rights and equality before the law; communal representation (the lack of which affects the Muslims disproportionately); and facilitating UN assistance to ensure the safety and security of the Rohingya refugees returning home. The full and immediate implementation of the Annan commission’s recommendations will bring the crisis to a swift end.
The process of peacemaking must begin without delay. The fear expressed by the ACRS about the possibility of radicalisation may become a reality if the government of Myanmar fails to act. The opportunity for peace will be squandered if silence and inaction persist.
I suggest, as a preparatory step, that the government of Myanmar appoint the Annan commission members immediately to an “Implementation Committee” with the responsibility to:
- Oversee the implementation of the ACRS recommendations
- Take immediate steps to halt the violence and stem the outflow of refugees
- Invite international observers vulnerable areas on a regular basis
- Create conditions for the return of refugees who have already left the country
- Build camps within Myanmar for the returning refugees to facilitate their rehabilitation with UN financing and supervision
- Grant citizenship to the Rohingya as prescribed in the ACRS report under the exclusive authority of the Implementation Committee
- Guarantee and uphold political freedoms and the freedom of movement for all citizens.
Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto head of government, should undertake a visit to the refugee camps in Bangladesh to address the terrified people living there. She should tell them that Myanmar is as much their home as it is hers. This single act of leadership will wash away all the suspicions and begin the process of healing.
The new Myanmar that Aung San Suu Kyi says she wants to build cannot have any form of discrimination on any ground, be it ethnicity, religion, language or culture. The new Myanmar must be based on human rights and the rule of law. This is a moment in history when she has to choose a path for her nation and for herself – peace and friendship, or hatred and confrontation.
Dr Muhammad Yunus, founder of Grameen Bank, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006