The tussle between Myanmar and Bangladesh over the fate of the Rohingya refugees looks likely to become the next chapter in the Rohingya tragedy.
Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi has said that those Rohingya who can prove their origin in Myanmar will be able to return. This promise is meaningless because 99% of the refugees will not be able to prove their origin. Myanmar has done its best over the past few decades to deny Rohingya individuals proper documentation, from residency cards to birth certificates. Of the few who had managed by some means or other to obtain such documents, most will have had them seized or destroyed during the last few years of violence, and especially now with the military crackdown which pushed them over the border to Bangladesh. When the army is shooting at your children you flee – you do not go back to your burning house to get birth certificates.
Ms Suu Kyi, of course, knows this. The offer is an empty platitude from a fallen rights icon who is just going through the motions, and who, as far as we can see, is just as eager as the military leaders who are leading the crackdown to see the cleansing of the Rohingya from her country over and done with. The inevitability of this genocidal process is plain for all to see.
But as if removing the entire Rohingya population from Myanmar was not enough, this promise will also make the lives of the refugees in Bangladesh much more difficult. Bangladesh is not a wealthy country. It is not a particularly politically stable country either. The efforts they have made to absorb the inflow of refugees deserve all the more credit for that. But for all that they have done, to say that Bangladesh has been ‘welcoming’ to the Rohingya would be a gross overstatement.
Constraining the Rohingya
Sheikh Hasina, the leader of Bangladesh, has certainly had a good rhetorical approach to the refugee issue. Her voice stands in stark contrast to the tone-deaf coldness of Aung San Suu Kyi. For that, at least, she is the hero of this story. But her policies fall rather short of the rhetoric. Perhaps she fears that her country does not have the resources to live up to her expressed good intentions. Or perhaps she fears the political backlash from hardliners – of which her country has plenty.
But Bangladesh is doing its best to constrain the Rohingya to the refugee camps they are building, enforcing strict edicts which tightly control the movement of Rohingya individuals. Not too dissimilar to how Myanmar treated them for decades. There seems to be a real concerted effort from the government of Bangladesh to ensure that the Rohingya do not interact with the local population. The parallels with how they were treated in Myanmar are, once again, painfully obvious.
But Ms Suu Kyi’s promise of the possibility of return is justifying and enabling the position of Bangladesh on this matter. It enables the government to believe, or maybe just pretend to believe, that the refugee population is going to be temporary. In these circumstances, the seggregation can be justified. And even the fact that Bangladesh has so far refused to give the Rohingya full refugee status under international law can also be quitely ignored.
Yet Myanmar will not allow the Rohingya back. You do not go to all the trouble of ethnically cleansing a population, and radicalising them, just to take them back with open arms. And even if they were allowed back, who in their right mind would want to go back to a life of constant threat and endless genocidal discrimination?
Whether Bangladesh wants to accept it or not, their new Rohingya population is going to be permanent. But by treating them as a temporary population, Bangladesh will inflict many of the same miseries upon them as Myanmar did. They were born stateless in Myanmar, and their children will be born stateless (in refugee camps) in Bangladesh. If Bangladesh does not take a realistic approach to this, they risk repeating all the mistakes of Myanmar.
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim