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South Asia

Economic And Political Reform Is Needed In Sri Lanka, Not State Violence

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Image source: Wikipedia

Sri Lanka’s worst economic crisis since independence has highlighted years of political and economic mismanagement and a reliance on state-sanctioned violence in response to legitimate protests. Legitimate reform and respect for human rights is required if the island nation is to act in the best interests of its people.

The crisis has resulted in the import-reliant country’s foreign currency reserves running dry, meaning that the government is unable to pay for imports of basic goods, including food and fuel. Rising inflation of 17 per cent has meant that any food available is now too expensive, with a kilogram of rice costing 500 rupees when it previously cost 80. The lack of fuel has meant that Sri Lankans are suffering through 12-hour power cuts, with the government asking people to work from home to save fuel.

Making matters worse, the government has defaulted on its foreign debts for the first time since independence. Sri Lanka’s debt is approximately $51 billion, making it now reliant on negotiations with its creditors, such as the Asian Development Bank, to pause payments so basic goods can be purchased.

As always, these issues are affecting Sri Lanka’s most vulnerable, particularly those in poorer rural areas, the elderly and people with disability. There are reports of people dying while lining up for fuel in the heat. This has the potential to worsen into a significant humanitarian crisis, with half the country sinking into poverty and food insecurity rising.

This is a big step back for a country that was once regarded as one of Asia’s success stories, formerly enjoying economic growth, burgeoning industries and a wealthier middle class. The was a sign of a country that was beginning to rebuild after a brutal civil war that affected all Sri Lankans.

While the government has blamed the crisis on the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent drop in tourism, the cause is closer to home, and the government deserves significant blame.

The President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, previously slashed taxes and focused on domestic markets rather than exports, creating an economy reliant on imports, which created unsustainable levels of debt. The government has also racked up huge debts to fund irresponsible infrastructure projects which has severely depleted the country’s foreign reserves. The banning of imports of chemical fertilisers left Sri Lanka’s large agriculture sector crippled and increased debt through the reliance on importing food.

The Rajapaksa family has ruled Sri Lanka for over two decades, with Mahinda Rajapaksa ruling as President between 2005 and 2015 and then as Prime Minister until his recent resignation. Gotabaya Rajapaksa has served as President since 2019 and several family members have long held prominent positions within the military and government. This has resulted in rampant nepotism, corruption and poor economic decisions that have turned the public away from the once popular family.

The crisis in Sri Lanka has led to nation-wide protests, which have rapidly turned violent. Protesters have stormed government buildings and government forces have been injured. Citizens are justifiably angry about years of poor economic decisions that has crippled the economy, leaving millions without the most basic of goods.

Authorities have reacted to this unrest with a heavy handed approach. The deployment of the military with orders to shoot looters on sight and the use of water cannons and tear gas had led to two deaths of the arrest of over two hundred people, including peaceful protesters. President Rajapaksa has also declared two state of emergencies, severely restricting the rights of Sri Lankans and giving authorities sweeping powers to detain legitimate protesters or those breaking curfew. This raises serious concerns about the governments respect for human rights and will do little to rebuild trust in government.

Instead of the use of violence to crush protests, the government needs to take responsibility and undertake meaningful economic and political reforms to address the crisis and quell unrest.

Human rights need to be at the forefront of any solution. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, has rightly called for any attacks on civilians and peace protesters to be independently and transparently investigated. State of emergency declarations and curfews should also cease, allowing Sri Lankans their right to peacefully protest about legitimate issues of concern. Any peaceful protester illegally detained needs to be released immediately.

The government should also work with international partners to find rapid solutions to critical problems, such as providing basic goods to their citizens. The decision by the World Bank to provide $600 million in assistance and ongoing negotiations with the International Monetary Fund are welcome. But more needs to be done.

The government needs to undertake meaningful economic reforms, including reversing damaging tax cuts and reducing debt, so the IMF will agree to a more substantial financial package that allows the country to recover.

The democratic process also needs to be respected. The government should maintain dialogue and consult with other political parties’, civil society and non-governmental organisations to find adequate solutions to the economic and political problems facing the country.

This includes negotiating with opposition parties to reach political solutions that lead to ongoing stability. However, while the embattled President has replaced his brother as Prime Minister in an attempt to ease political pressure, the opposition has so far refused to join an administration with the Rajapaksa family. A political solution may need to be found that finally breaks the link with the Rajapaksa’s so Sri Lanka can move forward as a nation.

Sri Lankan’s have shown that they desire legitimate change in response to this unprecedented crisis. They demand meaningful political and economic change that will allow Sri Lankans to buy basic goods and reduce poverty. The government, whether it includes the Rajapaksa’s or not, needs to listen to the people and not respond with violence by respecting their human rights and undertaking meaningful change.

I am a correspondent, freelance writer and commentator based in Melbourne, Australia. I write articles, reports and op-eds on important global political and humanitarian issues, including human rights abuses, international law, conflict and displacement. My work is published through online publications, media outlets, not-for-profits and academic websites.

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South Asia

Growing insecurity in Rohingya Refugee Camps: A Threat to South Asian Security?

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A young Rohingya girl holds her brother outside a youth club in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. © UNHCR/Vincent Tremeau

5 years have passed since the Rohingya refugee influx in August, 2017.  Bangladesh is currently hosting 1.2 million Rohingya refugees in 34 camps in its southern district of Cox’s Bazar. The increasing rate of trans-border crime in those bordering camps is not only making the Rohingya refugees vulnerable and prone to crimes but also threatening South Asian security as a whole. The Rohingya community leader’s speech of “We don’t want to stay in the camps. It’s hell.” in the ‘Go Home’ campaign in 20th June, 2022, made us rethink about the security situation in the camps and how the safety and security of Rohingya refugees is linked to South Asian Security.

Security Situation inside the Rohingya Camps

More than 1,200,000 Rohingya refugees are now living in the camps in Ukhiya and Teknaf in Cox’s Bazar, making it the largest refugee settlement in the world. While Bangladesh has the ninth-highest population density in the world, around 40,000 to 70,000 refugees are living in per square kilometre in the Rohingya camps, which is 40 times higher than the average population density in Bangladesh. With no sign of repatriation combined with the lack of economic alternatives for Rohingyas and the difficulty in maintaining law and order in overcrowded camps, frustrated Rohingyas are increasingly becoming involved in criminal activities or being targeted by criminal groups.

Currently, around 14 armed criminal gangs are operating in the camps, in which seven gangs known as Hakim Bahini, Hasan Bahini, Sadeq Bahini, Nurul Alam Bahini, Nur Mohammad Bahini and Hamid Bahini are in Teknaf and seven gangs named Munna Bahini, Asad Bahini, Jamal Bahini, Manu Bahini, Rahim Bahini, Kamal Bahini, and Giyas Bahini are active in Ukhiya camps.

According to law enforcement agencies at least 10 groups among these are engaged in 12 types of crimes including murder, rape, kidnapping, drug smuggling and human trafficking. The fighting over controlling the camps among the armed gangs is also deteriorating the security situation inside the camps. A Rohingya refugee in the camps said in an interview, “Everything seems calm in daytime. After sunset, the situation becomes fully different.” As there is no police or army surveillance from 4 pm to 8 am, camps come under the control of gangs at night. They are equipped with weapons like lead meat choppers, knives and other made weapons.

According to Prothom Alo report citing the police, in the last two and half years, more than 50 Rohingyas have been killed in clashes between Rohingya armed gangs over establishing supremacy in the camp area, drugs and gold smuggling, money laundering and extortion.  Recently, the Armed Police Battalion (APBn) has recovered M16 assault rifles with 491 bullets from a camp in Ukhiya which indicates the worsening security situation in the camps. At night Rohingya women are also taken from their houses & are return in the morning. At least 59 women have been raped in the Rohingya camp. As crimes often go unpunished, no one in the camps has the courage to speak against the criminals. Sometimes, for ensuring own security, Rohingyas themselves, including children become engaged with smuggling, narcotics trafficking and other crimes.

As of May 2022,a total of 12,97 cases have been filed against 3,023 Rohingyas. Among them, 73 cases are in charge of murder, 762 are narcotics cases, 28 cases are filed on the allegation of human trafficking, 87 for illegal weapons, 65 are rape charges, 35 for kidnapping and ransom, 10 for robberies, and 89 are other cases related to crime and violence.

Besides, it is believed that Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a Rohingya insurgent group are also active in Rohingya camps and made contract with a Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB). ARSA is not only relying on arms like AK-47s, M-22s, M-21s and M-16 rifles but also gaining support through other means. More than 500 madrassas in the Rohingya camps are  said to be controlled by an ARSA affiliates which will help ARSA to gain sympathy, spread propaganda and extend their network.

A Threat to South Asian Security

Since Cox’s Bazar provides a strategic route for smuggling and a shelter to Rohingyas refugees who have lack of economic alternatives, the bordering Rohingyas camps are turning into a breeding place for criminalities and the insecurity in the camps can threaten the security of the whole region.

Cox’s Bazar is used as a direct route from eastern India to Nepal for arms smugglers to reach Indian and Nepali buyer. United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), an insurgent group seeking independence from India, also buys arms from China and smuggles them using Bangladeshi ports and overland to India.

The Naaf river, the border between Bangladesh and Myanmar, is also the busiest drug route in the region. Almost 80% of Yaba enter in Bangladesh through Naikhyangchhari and 70% of them are stored in Rohingya camps before distributing them and Rohingyas are increasingly getting involved in peddling yaba for their survival.

Besides, drug trafficking, Rohingyas are also taking part in trans-border crimes, including human trafficking, extremism, arms fighting and the camps can be a potential base for extremist activities and the insecurity in the camps and border could transcend to Bangladesh anytime and create insecurity for the whole region of South Asia. As there is a growing concern over the recruitment of refugees by the extremist networks like Hizb-ut Tahrir and Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), as well as by radical Islamist groups like HeI. It is also reported that the influence of HeI is growing among the traumatized and frustrated Rohingyas which could fuel militancy not only in Bangladesh but also across the South Asian region. Along with this, the Rohingya militant groups bordering Myanmar i.e.  Arakan Rohingya National Organization (ARNO), Rohingya National Alliance (RNA), the Arakan Rohingya Islamic Front (ARIF), and Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO) could also recruit from Rohingyas and threaten regional security.

From security perspective, ensuring the security of Rohingyas is directly linked to the security of the region Though Bangladesh has taken several measures to ensure the security of these displaced people, it is tough to maintain law and order in the densely populated camps near the border. Therefore, safe, sustainable and dignified return of these displaced people is the only solution. Since Rohingya refugees have also expressed their desire to go home through the “Go Home” campaign, in which thousands of Rohingyas in Ukhiya & Teknaf camps staged demonstration on World Refugee Day demanding their repatriation back to Myanmar. Bangladesh as well as the international community should act together to facilitate Rohingya repatriation to ensure the security of Rohingyas as well as the South Asian region before its too late.

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South Asia

Rohingya repatriation between Myanmar-Bangladesh

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

Refugees find themselves in a situation of limbo because of the prolonged refugee scenario. They are neither eligible for repatriation nor do they qualify as citizens of the host nation or a third country. However, they must deal with the harsh reality of the nature of vicious politics because of the complexity of state systems and the institutional weaknesses of international institutions.

Prolonged refugees, according to UNHCR (2004), are trapped in an impenetrable and protracted condition of limbo. Despite not being in danger or facing threats, they significantly lack access to basic rights, financial aid, and support for their psychological and social needs. As they are pushed toward outside help, they feel unable to escape the core of forced dependence.

Are Rohingya refugees in some way contributing to an ongoing, serious refugee crisis? In relation to the Rohingya crisis, statistics from UNHCR shows that more than 0.7 million Rohingya fled to Bangladesh in 2017. There are 1.1 million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, the prime minister of Bangladesh stated in 2018 during the 73rd United Nations General Assembly.

For this South Asian emerging nation in 2017, the flow of this deluge was nothing new. These migrants have been entering Bangladesh since the 1970s after being forcibly uprooted by the military dictatorship.

According to a survey, there were around 0.25 million refugees in Bangladesh throughout the 1990s. Nearly 0.02 million people were returned after the 2000s, but the SPDC (State Peace and Development Council) and the Bangladeshi government’s inability to settle their differences has made this process difficult to complete.

The world’s most persecuted minority, who is clearly stateless and has strong proof of persecution and genocide on account of race, ethnicity, and religion, is currently being cared for by Bangladesh. The responses of international organizations like the UN and its branches like the ICJ and IOM are not positive enough for Bangladesh in this regard to produce a permanent solution.

West African nation Gambia filed a 35-page application with the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in November 2019 against Myanmar. The ICJ’s extraordinary victory in the Gambia v. Myanmar case regarding the ethnic cleansing and genocide of Rohingya people is the first of its kind. This was founded on an “erga omnes” premise, which periodically reports on the situation of the Rohingya.

However, Bangladesh continues to push for international organizations to take humanitarian action through the UN. Though this worry might attract their attention and drive them to consider ensuring human rights for these forcibly displaced persons, it has instead placed a heavy load on Bangladesh.

Tom Andrews, the UN special rapporteur on Myanmar, issued a warning to the international bodies regarding the Rohingya crisis just a few days ago during his visit to Bangladesh in December 2021. Bangladesh “cannot and should not bear this duty alone,” he said, urging foreign groups to express grave concern. He went on to say that Myanmar, not Bangladesh, was the origin of the conflict and where it will ultimately be resolved.

Bangladesh, a developing nation with a population of 160 million, is being horribly impacted by the Rohingya people in terms of social, economic, and political spheres. Rohingyas have been in a condition of limbo since at least 2017, which is now more than five years ago.

They have been relocated, assisted, and given security by Bangladesh and several international organizations, but they still yearn for a long-lasting solution.

Bangladesh has been taking every action imaginable to bring the Rohingya refugees’ home. Since the 2017 refugee inflow, the Bangladeshi government has worked with various international groups to promote peaceful voluntary repatriation; however, the Myanmar military junta has consistently resisted these efforts. Refugees from the Rohingya minority are currently suffering greatly as a result of the political unrest in Myanmar.

As Cox’s Bazar’s refugee camps are already overflowing with 1.1 million Rohingya refugees, the Bangladesh is moving them to Bhasan Char in order to provide for them improved living conditions.

International organizations had doubts regarding the safety and security of the Island; however, Bangladesh eventually persuaded them to cooperate. Bangladesh was left with no choice but to relocate some Rohingya refugees to Bhasan Char. Bangladesh now faces a security danger from overcrowded camps. The Rohingya camps in Bangladesh are home to numerous terrorist and armed rebel organizations. One of them is the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). Despite the issues, Bangladesh has continued to push for bilateral discussions while also applying international pressure to the junta.

Myanmar, on the other hand, is a lawless state that disobeys international law and order. The arrangements established for the peaceful return of Rohingya refugees were broken.

In Myanmar, the regime has been increasingly hostile since the military takeover. Myanmar is utterly unwilling to help the Rohingya refugees develop a strong sense of desire for return. There is no “supranational” authority in anarchy, which is advantageous for Myanmar. It is now time for the international community to recognize that the Rohingya refugee crisis has grown into a regional security issue.

Myanmar-related news indicates a new genocide. the country’s rebel and protest groups are being repressed by the military junta with violence.

The Myanmar military is still buying new weapons from China and Russia, including the SU-30SME multi-role heavy fighter, the YAK-130 light attack advanced jet trainer, the K-8W advanced trainer, and Ming class attack submarine, among others, despite an arms embargo. The world community is concerned that these weapons could accidentally attack defenseless populations. A peaceful voluntary return will face further obstacles as a result of internal unrest in Myanmar.

The Rohingya catastrophe, which forced 1.1 million individuals to leave their country of birth due to state-sponsored persecution, was of a size that is easy to comprehend. When the state commits the crime, the environment becomes more hostile. The main duty of the state is to uphold the rights and interests of its citizens.

Refugees are currently skeptical of the military junta in Myanmar. They have a long and painful history of persecuting people. Therefore, persuading the refugees to return home voluntarily won’t be simple. Myanmar must extend their hands in mutually beneficial ways. More discussions between international parties, including the Rohingya, will build confidence and facilitate a peaceful voluntary return of the Rohingya refugees. Humanity and peace should ultimately triumph over all other factors.

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South Asia

Why the implementation of the CHT peace agreement is still elusive?

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When the “Top boxer” of Bangladesh, for the past eight years, Sura Krishna Chakma raised the national flag of Bangladesh in the first-ever professional boxing tournament held in last month, it reminds the contribution of the UK Ching Marma and other minority people who fought valiantly in the Liberation war of Bangladesh in 1971.

Bangladesh began its independence journey with a population that is ethnically homogeneous, with less than 1% of the population being ethnically diverse. However, Bangladesh had struggled to deal with Chittagong Hill Tracts’ (CHT) tribal people as they have been waging an insurgency movement for autonomy. Later, Peace Accord was signed aiming to end the conflict in 1997. But, after 25 years of its signature, the treaty is still failing to instil trust among national political parties and factional groups. Currently, the situation in the CHT area is a complex mix of conflicts and negotiations. The area is also beset by ethnic tensions between indigenous communities and groups, interferences from neighbouring states, widespread poverty, resource scarcity, and low literacy rates.

Why peace in the CHT is still elusive?

In recent years, remote areas of CHT have become more prone to violence due to the involvement of various active groups in the area. The four ethnic political groups – PCJSS, Jana Samhati Samiti (Reformist-MN Larma), United People’s Democratic Front (UPDF) and UPDF (Ganatantrik) – in the region appear to be at odds with one another. They have no ideological disagreements but are involved in inter-conflict for narrow self-interest rather than protecting the minority rights. All factions have specific armed wings with advanced weapons such as rocket launchers, automatic sniper rifles, and heavy machine guns, according to law enforcement. They extort wood trade, cooking markets, livestock markets, transportation, and a variety of other services, each on their own turf. Ransom for the abduction of ethnic groups and Bangalis are also a major source of income. Contractors also have to pay at the rate of 10 percent of the original budget. To stay safe, locals were forced to maintain good relationships with all parties. They are compelled to pay monthly tributes to remain in their homes. There are even reports of indigenous women being abducted and raped by rival groups. They are so vulnerable and frightened that they do not even move after the sunset. The inter-group conflicts have claimed more than 1100 lives since the signing of the peace accord. Although according to the terms of the accord, the guerrillas were to surrender and surrender their weapons but many haven’t surrendered arms yet.

What’s to blame for the present unrest?

The agreement’s lethargic implementation has reignited separatist tendencies among the Paharis. Recently, the Kuki-Chin National Front (KNF), an insurgent organization of small ethnic group, demanded a separate state in CHT with full autonomy and threatened strict armed movement. Prior to this, The UPDF, a breakaway group, continues to oppose the treaty and seeks full regional autonomy.

The most pressing concern in CHT, however, is extensive Christianization among the tribal population. ‘Evangelization’ is generally carried out by the missionaries through a number of NGOs operating under the umbrella of “development partner.” Christian missionaries use money and other worldly trappings to entice poor tribal people to become Christians. So far, 4344 families in CHT became Christian in the last two decades and the number of churches increased dramatically from 274 in 1998 to 644 in 2022. It’s worth noting that more than a third of the Bandarban district’s tribal population is now Christian.

Impact of the Peace Accord on the Situation of ethnic People

Certainly, the Peace Accord made room and rendered opportunities for the CHT’s development. In these 25 years, comprehensive and systematic development efforts have contributed to the socio-economic development of the Pahari people, which immensely contributed in reducing the gap between the Pahari and Bengalis. Many tribes are well-integrated into mainstream middle-class Bangladeshi society, with officers and ambassadors serving in Bangladesh’s military and diplomatic corps.

With its contrasting topography of hilly terrains, immense lakes, wide-open spaces, as well as rich ethnic and cultural diversity, tourism industry flourished in the CHT. Tourism boosted due to the infrastructural projects connecting the remote and mystic parts with the main areas of the country and security ensured by the law enforcement agencies from the precarious hilly terrain to the remote bordering area. The treaty also integrated the CHT people into the mainstream economy, while permitting them to retain their specific ethnic and cultural identities.

The ‘Small Ethnic Groups Cultural Organisation Act 2010’ was passed in order to safeguard and foster the cultural expressions of Bangladesh’s small ethnic groups. Small ethnic groups’ rights are now more recognized by the government in Bangladesh than before. The development allocation per capita in the CHT districts is significantly higher than in the rest other districts. The government has amended some laws to allow for the implementation of the peace accord mainly the formation of the ‘CHT Regional Council’ and the ‘Ministry of CHT Affairs’, establishing the ‘Land commission’ to deal with conflicts over land and natural resource rights. The government is also gradually reducing military camps. The number decreased from 546 to 206. Another feature of post-agreement development in the hills has been the influx of development partners and the extension of NGOs and INGOs in the CHT area.

Way Forward

The first and foremost, the Bangladesh Government must take into cognizance the factors behind the failure of establishing peace in CHT areas to ensure peace in the hilly region. Secondly, the implementation of the remaining articles should also need to be prioritized. So far, out of 78 provisions, 48 provisions of the Accord have been implemented. Hill people strongly believe that the implementation of the Accord is the key to solving problems in the CHT. Thirdly, it is crucial to control the armed factions to evict violence and restore peace to CHT on an urgent basis. Fourthly, both the Hill and the Bengali people emphasize that land disputes need to be resolved immediately. And finally, there is a need for consolidating the progress achieved so far.

Nevertheless, an established misconception is prevailing among the hilly people that their voices are not heard and they are treated differently from the rest of the Bengalis. To eradicate this misconception and build trust and harmony, more initiatives should be undertaken by the government.

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