In a sudden move only one Rohingya family was taken back by Myanmar on Saturday 07 April 2018, from no man’s land between Bangladesh and Myanmar, which was seen by many as more of a mockery than usual business practice of two governments. Five of the six members of the family of Mr Akhtar who did not even stay in the refugee camp and was allegedly not from the Rakhine community were called in by the Myanmar to give it a flavour of repatriation.
The move was not successful however and was viewed with utter suspicion by Bangladeshi and global media alike. Bangladesh Home Minister termed this act of Myanmar as a farce and stated that the Myanmar authority should uphold the commitment to the bilateral deal signed in November 2017 and would take back all of the Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh. To the rightist activist and experts this act of Myanmar was simply eyewash and a public relations stunt who believe that this was yet another trick of Myanmar to delay and deny the process of repatriation of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar.
The same types of deliberate avoidance technique were apparent during the visit of the Social Welfare Minister of Myanmar to Bangladesh last week. While he was visiting a Rohingya refugee camp and was having an interaction with some Rohingyas his comments created more confusion and uncertainty about the prospect of Rohingya repatriation. He was very specific and determined while stating that Myanmar would offer Rohingya National Verification Code (VRC) to the returning Rohingyas not the full status of citizenship. The Refugees present in the camp broke into a visible uproar and began violently protesting the minister. For many, there were more than enough reasons to remain apparently unconvinced by the minister’s word and doubts about the sincerity of the government of Myanmar. As a matter of fact the Minister’s visit to Bangladesh created more confusion and generated far greater frustration than paved the way for a peaceful resolution.
Especially, his comments on the details of the formalities and procedure of initial registration of all Rohingyas in Bangladesh and follow-up vetting and confirmation by Myanmar authority before repatriation was viewed with utter suspicion and was seen by many as more of a political statement than a respectable commitment from a state to a state. Suffice to say that his comments revived the bitterness that was inflicted by not following up properly on the commitments made in the Repatriation treaty that was signed between Myanmar and Bangladesh in November, 2017.
As per the repatriation deal the process of repatriation should have commenced on 23 January, 2017. But only a week before the repatriation was to begin the authority of Myanmar tagged a condition that they want family wise list of Rohingyas. Bangladesh agreed and handed over a list of all the refugees to Myanmar accordingly. But now the Myanmar authority is saying that they do not agree with many of the names included in the list and that the verifications and the forms were not done as agreed in the deal. While Bangladesh is bearing the brunt of immense socio economic and environmental consequence of this exodus, the international relation experts continue to fear substantial uncertainty over the prospect of repatriation because the conditions for return of Rohingyas are very elusive. Although the Rohingyas want guarantee of citizenship and UN controlled safe zone in Rakhine province for them, Myanmar is now saying that they would only offer RVC status initially before granting full citizenship and would also build temporary camps for housing the returning Rohingyas.
The sense of desperation on our side was very firmly and resolutely reverberated by our Prime Minister herself, when she commented that there was virtually no progress on repatriation of Rohingyas, although Bangladesh had been making numerous efforts, including signing a deal with Myanmar. She vented her frustration to the Secretary General of Amnesty International Salil Shetty when they met on 15 April, 2018. From Bangladesh point of view, the need for repatriation was so contingent and urgent that Prime Minister’s Foreign Policy Advisor went to the extent of suggesting imposition of further sanctions against Myanmar. He went on record to claim that nothing would happen without pressure. He feels that since Rakhine province of Myanmar is not safe and not properly secured it is very unlikely that the Rohingyas would go back to Myanmar. Under this condition the international community and the foreign policy experts have become more and more sceptical about the safe, dignified and sustainable repatriation of Rohingyas and branded this move as a trick to slow down repatriating and avoid international pressure.
From the above discourse it is apparent that from our side soft power diplomacy was pursued during the ongoing crisis as means of reactive strategy. The government of Bangladesh displayed optimum restraints and compassionateness while dealing with this sensitive issue always upholding the spirit of humanity. Our Honourable Prime Minister had demonstrated an astute example of statesmanship right from the beginning of the crisis and allowed the influx of almost three quarter of a million Rohingya refugees to Bangladesh purely on humanitarian consideration displaying supreme magnanimity. As recorded till date a total of about 1.1 million Rohingyas are now staying in Bangladesh. It would not be impractical to assume that there could be more Rohingyas who have not been recorded and the number could hover around one and a half million approximately.
It is being felt that such a humanitarian approach from our side might have been misconstrued by the Myanmar Government as some form of softer and human stance in our state power and policy. Since this is not the case, there probably is a need to revisit our Rohingya policy and as well our foreign policy vis-à-vis Myanmar. We should formulate a more proactive policy and set out a strategic roadmap that would spell out graduated response against all sorts of future contingencies those could arise from Myanmar and also from any other state time to time in future. Such a strategic roadmap should incorporate all the elements of national power. This should include coherent foreign policy formulation, hard and soft power diplomacy, surveillance and intelligence gathering as per the demand of the situation. Necessary military options should also not be excluded where and when necessary from the list of probable courses of actions.
It is needless to mention that for a country of only 56,000 square miles with a overburdened population such influx of refugees who are in no way able to contribute to the growth of Bangladesh is likely to create an additional pressure on our economy. Thus any further influx either from Myanmar or from any other country should be thwarted through persuasion of a coherent proactive foreign policy.
The author is a security analyst and was Ambassador of Bangladesh to Maldives. Email: Kazisarwar71@gmail.com.