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Rohingya repatriation: Has the world forgotten about the Rohingya crisis?

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Rohingya refugees fleeing conflict and persecution in Myanmar (file photo). IOM/Mohammed

In August 2017, the Myanmar army committed atrocities to the Rohingya people in Arakan state of Myanmar including rape, torture, burning the houses, killing. To escape from death, the Rohingya people fled to Bangladesh. The Rohingya crisis has been identified as one of the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.The United Nations (UN) has defined the crisis as the ‘textbook case’ of ethnic violence.

And considering the sufferings of the Rohingya refugees, Bangladesh opened doors for them from a humanitarian ground. Bangladesh is hosting more than 1.1 million Rohingya refugees, including the Rohingyas who came earlier (before August 2017) in the country. Notably, Bangladesh is providing shelter, food, medicare and other facilities/services to the Rohingyas for a long time. The local people of Cox’s Bazar also showed great sympathy to those refugees sacrificing their lands, forests and other resources. Bangladesh has made tremendous sacrifices, including the forests. Initially, the country made Rohingya camps in 6,500 acres of land. It is already three years passed. But a successful Rohingya repatriation seems a dream to many given the current contexts. In this article, I attempt to show why successful repatriation is essential, why it failed, and the role of the international community in this regard.

Why repatriation necessary?

First, Rohingyas are creating an extra burden for Bangladesh, given the socio-economic realities of the country. Notably, being one of the densely populated countries in the world with limited resources, it becomes a daunting task for Bangladesh to continue its wholehearted supports for the Rohingyas in the days to come.

Second, Rohingya refugees have clear security implications for Bangladesh and beyond. It is reported that Rohingya criminals are becoming involved in the deterioration of the law and order situation in Cox’s Bazar, which becomes a grave concern for the locals. The local people who showed wholehearted support to the Rohingyas are worried now due to the increased criminal activities by the Rohingya criminals. It is reported that there are instances of murders in the Rohingya camp. In addition, after the murder of Jubo League leader Farooq by the Rohingya criminal, there were tensions among the locals.

It is argued that the longer the refugees stay in the refugee camps, the more likely they become a threat to peace (cited in Bariagaber, 1999: 605). Thus, prolonging the Rohingya repatriation will be problematic for Bangladesh, which merits serious attention from the international community. In this context, successful repatriation of the Rohingyas becomes essential.

Third,one can also argue that there are regional and international security implications of the Rohingya crisis. The international community can also consider this factor and take significant steps to resolve the Rohingya crisis and provide a better and secure life to the Rohingyas.

Finally, as a human being, Rohingyas deserve a better and secured life with dignity and fundamental human rights. Thus, ensuring their basic human rights becomes a moral responsibility of the international community.

Why Rohingya repatriation failed?

Bangladesh-Myanmar signed a repatriation deal on November 23, 2017, though no progress has been observed in making repatriation successful. On July 29, 2019, Bangladesh handed over a list of 55, 000 Rohingyas for verification for repatriation. Myanmar only cleared 3,450 Rohingyas for beginning the repatriation. Notably, Rohingya refugee repatriation to Myanmar has been failed twice, one in November 2018 and another in August 2019. Against this backdrop, one can ask: What factors have accounted for to the failures of Rohingya refugee’s repatriation to Myanmar? To answer this question, one can identify the following factors.

First, the absence of conducive conditions/environment in Myanmar is the major hindrance to the successful repatriation of the Rohingyas. Myanmar government showed apathy towards repatriation. One can also argue that the Myanmar government did not show firm commitments in the repatriation process. Though in the declaratory postures they are showing the international community that they are interested in the repatriation, when it comes to operational policies, they are reluctant in the repatriation process through not creating favourable conditions/ conducive environment for the Rohingyas. Rohingyas are scared that if they are back, the Myanmar army will kill them.

Second, the failure of the international community to repatriate the Rohingya refugees in Myanmar becomes another critical factor.It seems that international community has confined its role in providing reliefs, foods, healthcare services, money to the Rohingya refugees and sometimes made an occasional visit to the Rohingya camp in Cox’s Bazar and took photographs and shared those (photos) in the social media and beyond. To a larger extent, the international community has bypassed their key responsibility to repatriate the Rohingyas to their homeland through pressurizing Myanmar. Thus, it will not be wrong to claim that the international community has totally failed to create a conducive environment in Myanmar which makes security concerns among the Rohingyas. Thus, those Rohingyas are not interested in to repatriate in Myanmar.

The most concerning is that it seems that the Rohingya issue is losing interest in the international community. There is already shrinkage of funds for the Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar. If the international community totally fails to repatriate the Rohingyas, it will create a disastrous situation for Bangladesh. It is well known that Bangladesh is a densely populated country in the world with limited resources, as noted earlier. Thus, the country cannot afford to continue its supports to the Rohingyas. In addition, there is a stronger possibility of conflicts between the Rohingyas and local people in the days to come given the socio-economic realities of the society.

One can argue that the United Nations has so far failed to pressurize Myanmar and create a conducive environment for the repatriation. Considering the narrowly defined self-interest, Russia, China, India whole-heartedly supports the Myanmar government. Though China and India bear dissimilarities in many issues, in the case of Rohingya issue, they maintain a similar stand, supporting the Myanmar government. Notably, Myanmar is a crucial state for China’s Belt and Road Initiative project, while the country is key to India’s act east policy. In addition, the UNHCR, ASEAN, EU, USA, Japan also failed to pressurize the Myanmar government and facilitate the Rohingya repatriation.

Third, the political economy of the refugees/NGOs is also responsible for the failure of the repatriation process of the Rohingyas. Khaled Muhiuddin (2019) writes that foreign aid ‘is prolonging the crisis. It is common sense that if Rohingya refugees are having a better life in Bangladeshi camps than the one they experienced in Myanmar, they will see little reason for going back to Myanmar. That is why efforts to ensure safety for Rohingyas in Myanmar are more important than providing comfort to them in the Bangladeshi camps’. Thus, foreign aid is benefiting both the NGOs and the refugees.

Around 150 international and local NGOs are working in the 34 Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar. It is claimed that the political economy of the NGOs also works as a major hindrance to the Rohingya repatriation process. A resident of Cox’s Bazar, Rafiqul Islam Rafiq claims that various NGOs, including the UN agencies, demotivate the Rohingyas to repatriate (Bangla Vision, August 25, 2019). Fazlul Quader Chowdhury, president of BAPA and CAB, Cox’s Bazar contends that both international and local NGOs are telling the Rohingyas that this [Cox’s Bazar] is your place, it was once your place, a part of Arakan State. Since this is your place, you do not need to leave this place (Bangla Vision, August 25, 2019). A. N. M. Helal Uddin, president, civil society forum, Cox’s Bazar claims that if these Rohingyas leave, their (NGOs) business will be stopped. They are motivating the national crisis. The government should find out those NGOs and take actions against them (Bangla Vision, August 25, 2019).

Fourth, the economic interest of some local people also works as a hindrance to the repatriation. A resident called Jasim Uddin points out that the Rohingya refugees have created a huge business for the hotel, restaurant, flat owners who do not want that Rohingyas leave Cox’s Bazar(Bangla Vision, August 25, 2019). He claims that economic interest is the main factor of these owner classes, who devoid of patriotism. Notably, 1000 locally made weapons including knifes were seized from the NGO office SHED (Society for Health Extension and Development) who was working in the Rohingya camp (Osmany, 2019). Notably, SHED failed to provide any legal documents i.e. operating license to use these weapons (Aziz, 2019). Thus, it becomes important to monitor vigorously and ensure the accountability of the local and international NGOs who seek greater profits from prolonging the Rohingya crisis.

Fifth, one can also look at the role of the scholars and scholarship critically to resolve the Rohingya crisis. The Rohingya refugee crisis did not receive serious attention from the intellectual community. Even the role of Bangladeshi scholars is minimal in producing serious scholarship on the issue. The scholars cannot avoid their responsibility to resolve the crisis.

Finally, international media also failed to internationalize the issue and influence the policy formulations regarding the crisis. In the initial days, though the mainstream global media provided enough attention to the issue, in the latter days, they totally forgot the crisis. I wonder, if the same thing happens in the developed world, would the global media response be the same?

To conclude, Bangladesh, alone cannot resolve the Rohingya crisis. Sheikh Hasina, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh strongly contends in addressing the 75thUnited Nations General Assembly that the Rohingya crisis has been created by Myanmar and thus has to resolve the crisis by Myanmar. In this case, since Myanmar is not interested in resolving the crisis, it is the international community that can pressurize the Myanmar government and facilitate successful repatriation. In fact, the role of the international community, including the major powers, international media becomes essential to encourage Rohingya repatriation. The role of the scholars and scholarship also becomes necessary. The bottom line is that for the greater cause of humanity, the international community must come forward to pressurize Myanmar government and facilitate successful repatriation. The world needs to remember that Bangladesh has already done a lot to the Rohingya refugees. Now, it is the responsibility of the international community. Isn’t it?

Md. Shariful Islam is an assistant professor in International Relations at the University of Rajshahi, Bangladesh. Currently, he is on study leave and pursuing Ph.D. in International Relations at South Asian University, New Delhi. Email: shariful_ruir[at]ru.ac.bd

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South Asia

Opposing Hindutava: US conference raises troubling questions

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Controversy over a recent ‘Dismantling Global Hindutava’ conference that targeted a politically charged expression of Hindu nationalism raises questions that go far beyond the anti-Muslim discriminatory policies of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government and ruling party.

The conference and responses to it highlight a debilitating deterioration in the past two decades, especially since 9/11, of the standards of civility and etiquette that jeopardize civil, intelligent, and constructive debate and allow expressions of racist, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic attitudes to become mainstream.

Organizers of the conference that was co-sponsored by 53 American universities, including Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, Columbia, Berkeley, University of Chicago, University of Pennsylvania and Rutgers, insisted that they distinguish between Hinduism and Hindutava, Mr. Modi’s notion of Hindu nationalism that enables discrimination against and attacks on India’s 200 million Muslims.

The distinction failed to impress critics who accused the organizers of Hinduphobia. Some critics charged that the framing of the conference demonstrated a pervasiveness of groupthink in academia and an unwillingness to tackle similar phenomena in other major religions, particularly Islam.

The campaign against the conference appeared to have been organized predominantly by organizations in the United States with links to militant right-wing Hindu nationalist groups in India, including some with a history of violence. The conference’s most militant critics threatened violence against conference speakers and their families, prompting some participants to withdraw from the event.

Opponents of political Islam noted that Western academia has not organized a similar conference about the politicization of the faith even though powerful states like the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt have lobbied Western capitals against the Muslim Brotherhood and its Turkish and Qatari supporters with notable successes in France, Austria, Belgium and Britain.

Academia was likely to have been hesitant to tackle political Islam because Islamophobia is far more prevalent than Hinduphobia.

Moreover, perceptions of political Islam, are far more complex and convoluted. Islam is frequently conflated with political expressions and interpretations of the faith run a gamut from supremacist and conservative to more liberal and tolerant. They also lump together groups that adhere and respect the election process and ones that advocate violent jihad.

Scholars and analysts declared an end to political Islam’s heyday with the military coup in Egypt in 2013 that toppled Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brother, who was elected president in Egypt’s first and only free and fair poll. Political Islam’s alleged swansong loomed even larger with this year’s setbacks for two of the most moderate Islamist political parties in Tunisia and Morocco as well as hints that Turkey may restrict activities of Islamists operating in exile from Istanbul.

A more fundamental criticism of the framing of the Hindutava conference is its failure to put Hindutava in a broader context.

That context involves the undermining of the social cohesion of societies made up of collections of diverse ethnic and religious communities since Osama bin Laden’s 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.

The attacks fueled the rise of ultra-nationalism and politicized expressions of religious ultra-conservatism not only in the Hindu world but also in the worlds of other major religions.

These include politicized ultra-conservative Islam, politicized Evangelism and Buddhist nationalism. Right-wing religious nationalism in Israel, unlike Islamism and politicized Evangelism, is shaped by ultra-nationalism rather than religious ultra-conservatism.

The worlds of religious ultra-nationalism and politicized expressions of religious ultra-conservatism are often mutually reinforcing.

Scholar Cynthia Miller-Idriss’s assessment of the impact of Al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks on the United States is equally true for India or Europe.

“In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the rise of violent jihadism reshaped American politics in ways that created fertile ground for right-wing extremism. The attacks were a gift to peddlers of xenophobia, white supremacism, and Christian nationalism: as dark-skinned Muslim foreigners bent on murdering Americans, Al-Qaeda terrorists and their ilk seemed to have stepped out of a far-right fever dream,” Ms. Miller-Idriss said.

“Almost overnight, the United States and European countries abounded with precisely the fears that the far-right had been trying to stoke for decades,” she added.

The comparison of politically charged militant nationalist and ultra-conservative expressions of diverse religions takes on added significance in a world that has seen the emergence of civilizationalist leaders.

Scholar Sumantra Bose attributes the rise of religious nationalism in non-Western states like Turkey and India to the fact that they never adopted the Western principle of separation of state and church.

Instead, they based their secularism on the principle of state intervention and regulation of the religious sphere. As a result, the rejection of secularism in Turkey and India fits a global trend that conflates a dominant religious identity with national identity.

Sarah Kamali, the author of a recently published book that compares militant white nationalists to militant Islamists in the United States, notes similar patterns while drawing parallels between far-right xenophobes and militant Islamists.

Militant Islamists’ “sense of victimhood […] is similar to that of their White nationalist counterparts in that [it] is constructed and exploited to justify their violence… Both mutually – and exclusively – target America for the purpose of claiming the nation as theirs and theirs alone, either as a White ethno-state or as part of a global caliphate,” Ms. Kamali writes.

Similarly, the Taliban defeat of a superpower energized militant Islamists, as well as proponents of Hindutava, with Islamophobic narratives spun by Mr. Modi’s followers gaining new fodder with the assertion that India was being encircled by Muslim states hosting religious extremists.

Modi is essentially helping the recruitment of…jihadist groups by taking such a hard, repressive line against the Islamic community in India, who are now being forced to see themselves being repressed,” said Douglas London, the CIA’s counter-terrorism chief for South and South-West Asia until 2019.

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Panjshir – the last stronghold of democracy in Afghanistan

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The Taliban’s rapid advance in Afghanistan has briefly stalled only in the face of strong resistance mounted by the people of the country’s recalcitrant mountainous province of Panjshir. Whoever controls the region’s passes controls the routes leading to China and Tajikistan, but to seize this mountain valley and, most importantly, to keep it permanently under control has always been a problem for all invaders. Eager to let the international community see for the first time in 40 years a united Afghanistan as a sign of their final victory, the radical Islamists were prepared to make any sacrifices, including filling the approaches to the Panjshir Valley up with dead bodies. Moreover, the Taliban’s longtime ally Pakistan, which, regardless of its status of an ally of the United States, has provided them with direct military support. In fact, Islamabad admitted its less than successful role when it proposed signing a truce to find and take out the bodies of its special Ops forces who had died during the attack on the valley. However, drones flown by Pakistani operators, professional commandos (possibly once trained by the Americans), air support and other pleasant gifts from the allies eventually bore fruit letting the Taliban be photographed in front of the mausoleum of Ahmad Shah Massoud Sr., the famous “Lion of Panjshir,” who controlled the valley from 1996 to 2001. The Islamists also took control of the province’s central city of Bazarak.

Having deprived the province much of its Internet access, the radicals, who control most of the Afghan territory, found it easier to wage an information war. Their claims of victories were now more difficult to contest, even though information about their retreat did reach the outside world. Reflective of the heavy losses suffered for the first time by the Taliban and their allies – the Haqqani Network and other remnants of al-Qaeda, as well as by the regular Pakistani army is the brief truce arranged by Islamabad. Looks like the mountain passes leading to Panjshir were literally filled up with corpses…

As for Massoud Jr., the young lion of Panjshir, and his supporters, they retreated to the mountains. In fact, they had nowhere to fall back to. The problem of Afghanistan is its ethnic diversity. Thus, the country is home to 23 percent of ethnic Tajiks, most of whom live in the Panjshir Valley. However, the Taliban rely mainly on the Pashtuns, who account for over 50 percent of the country’s population. As for the new masters of Afghanistan, they are ready to carry out ethnic cleansings and even commit outright genocide in order to bring the valley into submission. To make this happen they are going to resettle there their fellow Pashtun tribesmen. Local men aged between 12 and 50 are already being taken away and, according to the National Resistance Front, no one has seen them again. However, due to the information blockade, the Taliban will not hesitate to refute such facts. One thing is clear: Massoud’s Tajik fighters and the government troops that joined them are fighting for their lives, and there will be no honorable surrender!

The main question now is whether the young lion of Panjshir will receive the same support as his father once did, or will find himself without ammunition and food. After all, the Taliban leaders have reached certain agreements with the United States. Suffice it to mention the numerous remarks made, among others, by President Biden himself about the Taliban now being different from what they were 20 years ago.

But no, the Taliban`s remain the same – they have only hired new PR people. Meanwhile, hating to admit their defeat, Brussels and Washington will have to engage in a dialogue with those who are responsible for the tragedy of September 11, 2001, and for the numerous terrorist attacks in Europe. The Taliban are pretending to make minor cosmetic concessions. Minor indeed, since they are still depriving women of the opportunity to work and study, destroying higher and secondary education and brutally clamping down on people who simply do not want to live according to religious norms.

The United States is actually helping the “new-look” Taliban. Their potential opponents, including the famous Marshal Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek, left the country under various guarantees, and Washington is trying to keep them from any further participation in the conflict. Democratic politicians naively believe that by creating an Islamic state and ending the protracted civil war in Afghanistan the Taliban will ensure stability in the region and will not move any further. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan do not think so and are strengthening their borders and preparing to protect their Afghan compatriots, because they know full well that the Taliban`s are not a national political party; they are a radical Islamist ideology.

It knows no borders and spreads like a cancerous tumor, destroying all pockets of Western culture. It can only be stopped by force. However, the two decades of US military presence in Afghanistan showed that Washington, which quickly took control of the country in 2001, simply had no strategy to keep it. The Afghans were given nothing that would appear to them more attractive than the ideas of radical Islam. As a result, the few Afghans who embrace European values are fleeing the country, and those who, like Massoud Jr., decided to fight for their freedom, now risk being left to face their enemy all by themselves.

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Misjudgements in India’s Afghan policy

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India’s Afghan policy has always been obsessed with the desire to deny Pakistan the “strategic depth” that Pakistan, according to India’s perception, yearns. If India had a pragmatic policy, it would not have found itself whimpering and whining like a rueful baby over spilt milk.

India supported the invasion of Afghanistan by both the former Soviet Union and the USA, both losers. President Trump mocked Modi for having built a library for the Afghan people. Trump expected India to contribute foot soldiers, and by corollary, body packs to the Afghan crisis. India played all the tricks up its sleeves to convince the USA to make India a party to the US-Taliban talks. But the USA ditched not only Modi but also Ashraf Ghani to sign the Doha peace deal with the Taliban.

India’s external affairs minister still calls the Taliban government “a dispensation”. Interestingly, the USA has reluctantly accepted that the Taliban government is a de facto government.

Humanitarian crisis

The United Nations’ Development Programme has portrayed a bleak situation in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is faced with multifarious challenges. These include prolonged drought and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, upheaval caused by the current political transition: frozen foreign reserves, and rising poverty.

About 47 per cent of its people live below the dollar-a-day poverty line. If the poverty line is pushed to $2 a day, 90 per cent of Afghans would be poor. About 55 per cent of Afghans are illiterate.

Ninety seven percent of the population is at risk of sinking below the poverty line, As such, Afghanistan teeters on the brink of universal poverty. Half of the population is already in need of humanitarian support. The UNDP has proposed to access the most vulnerable nine million people by focusing on essential services, local livelihoods, basic income and small infrastructure.

Currently, the gross national product of Afghanistan is around $190 billion, just a little more than the $160 billion economy of Dhaka city. The country’s legal exports of goods and services every year account for $1 billion. It imports$6 billion worth of goods and services every year.

About 80 per cent of world production of opium comes from Afghanistan. Every year, Afghanistan produces nearly 10,000 tons of opium and the revenue generated from it amounts to $7 billion approximately. About 87 per cent of the income of opium producing farmers comes exclusively from this single product. The illicit opium export by Afghanistan is worth $2 billion every year. The role of opium is significant.

About 80 per cent of public expenditure in this country is funded by grants. Since 2002, the World Bank has provided Afghanistan with a total of $5.3 billion as development and emergency relief assistance. The IMF earmarked for Afghanistan $400 million in Special Drawing Rights (SDR) for combating the Covid-19 pandemic in the country.

The United States has frozen about $10 billion worth of Afghan assets held at various banks in Afghanistan. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has withdrawn the $400 million worth of SDRs allocated earlier to Afghanistan for addressing the Covid-19 crisis. The World Bank has not said anything as of yet, but it may also put restrictions on its funding to Afghanistan.

India’s lip service to Afghanistan

India provided around $3 billion in aid to fallen U.S.-backed Afghan government.  It trained the Afghan army and police. But now it is not willing to pay or pledge a penny to the Taliban government. Look at the following Times of India report:

“India did not pledge any money to the Taliban ruled Afghanistan probably for the first time in 20 years. That it has not done so as Jaishanker declared … (At UN, India offers support to Afghanistan but does not pledge money. The Times of India September 14, 2021).The Hindu, September 11, 2021

India’s tirade against Afghanistan

Indian policymakers and experts say they see no guarantees that Afghanistan won’t become a haven for militants. “Afghanistan may be poised to become a bottomless hole for all shades of radical, extremist and jihadi outfits somewhat similar to Iraq and Syria, only closer to India,” said Gautam Mukhopadhaya, who was India’s ambassador in Kabul between 2010 to 2013.  He added that the Taliban victory could have an “inspirational effect” not only for Kashmir’s rebels but wherever religiously-driven groups operate in the broader region… Lt. Gen Deependra Singh Hooda, former military commander for northern India between 2014-2016, said militant groups based across the border in Pakistan would “certainly try and push men” into Kashmir, following the Taliban victory in Afghanistan  (With Taliban’s rise, India sees renewed threat in Kashmir, Star Tribune September 14, 2021). “Meanwhile, Rajnath Singh conveyed to Australian Defence Minister Peter Dutton that the rise of the Taliban raises serious security concerns for India and the region. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has appealed for an injection of cash into Afghanistan to avoid an economic meltdown that would spark a “catastrophic” situation for the Afghan people and be a “gift for terrorist groups.”). Afghan economic meltdown would be ‘gift for terrorists,’ says U.N. chief” (The Hindu, September 11, 2021)

 India’s former envoy to Kabul, Ambassador Gautam Mukhopadhyay is skeptical of the conciliatory statements by the taliban government. He advises: “We should welcome recent statements by Stanekzai and Anas Haqqani that suggest some independence from the ISI. But we should also ask some hard questions and judge them by their actions and words, and not let down our guard, both with regard to our multiple security concerns such as whether they can protect us from the Ias and ISI, sever ties with other terror groups, especially those supported by the ISI against India, deny Pakistan strategic depth, and preserve and build on our historic P2P and trade ties; and a genuinely inclusive govt in Afghanistan that accommodates the majority of Afghans who want the rights and freedoms enshrined in the 2004 Afghan Constitution or at least acceptable to the Afghan people.” (Taliban move to form govt, Naya Afghanistan brings new challenge for India, September 2, 2021).

Concluding remarks

India wants a “central role’ to be given to the UN in Afghanistan. India’s mumbo jumbo implies that Afghanistan should be made a UN protectorate. Indian media is never tired of calling the Afghan government a bunch of terrorists. They have even launched video games about it.

India needs to rethink how it can mend fences with Afghanistan that it regards a hothouse of terrorists.

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