Decades of Rohingya Tensions Still Strain the Myanmar-Bangladesh Relationship

Decades of Rohingya Tensions Still Strain the Myanmar-Bangladesh Relationship
Photo Credit:Reuters/達志影像
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The Rohingya crisis isn't a recent phenomenon, but new kinds of international pressure will be needed to resolve it.

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By Dr. Syeda Naushin Parnini

Violence against the Rohingya in Myanmar’s north-western Rakhine state has generated a massive influx of refugees to Bangladesh that will test bilateral relations. Between August and November 2017, the Myanmar military’s "clearance operations" forced more than 622,000 Rohingya to cross the border into neighboring Bangladesh.

The influx of refugees has been continuous, even as relations between Bangladesh and Myanmar have undergone frequent ups and downs.

The Bangladesh government has faced the Rohingya crisis since Bangladesh’s independence. In the 1970s, an anti-insurgency campaign of Myanmar’s then military government in Rakhine state saw widespread violations of human rights and brutal acts against the Muslim-minority Rohingya. Nearly 300,000 Rohingya were forced to cross the border at that time. During 1991–92, a second wave of over 250,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh to escape the ongoing military crackdown. Since the 1970s, more than one million Rohingya have taken refuge in Bangladesh. The influx of refugees has been continuous, even as relations between Bangladesh and Myanmar have undergone frequent ups and downs.

The largest influx of Rohingya into Bangladesh took place in 1990–91. The UNHCR subsequently facilitated a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between Bangladesh and Myanmar in April 1992 under which Myanmar agreed to the return of those Rohingya refugees who could prove residency in Myanmar prior to their departure for Bangladesh. But the UNHCR withdrew from the repatriation process in December 1992 due to concerns over the forceful repatriation of some Rohingya refugees, which jeopardized the broader repatriation framework.

The Myanmar government’s complicity in the violence against the Rohingya poses a challenge for resolving the crisis.

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has laid out a five-point plan that calls for protection of the Rohingya in UN-supervised safe zones inside Myanmar. But the Myanmar government’s complicity in the violence against the Rohingya poses a challenge for resolving the crisis. Bangladesh and Myanmar have agreed on few concrete measures and the international community is watching.

The United States has called the treatment of the Rohingya "ethnic cleansing" and threatened sanction against those responsible. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, while visiting Dhaka in November 2017, proposed a three-phase plan for resolving the Rohingya crisis, starting with a ceasefire followed by bilateral dialogue.

At an Asia–Europe Meeting summit on 13–14 November 2017, the foreign ministers of member countries called for an immediate cessation of hostilities, halting of refugee outflow and early return of the displaced Rohingya from Bangladesh. They also called for the implementation of recommendations from the Advisory Committee on Rakhine State, which was a joint initiative between the Myanmar government and the Kofi Annan Foundation.

Amid this mounting pressure, Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi agreed to sign a MOU on 23 November 2017 with Bangladesh based on the 1992 agreement which would enable the two countries to start repatriating the verified Rohingya in Bangladesh. But Bangladesh signed the MOU without specifying deadlines for the initiation and completion of repatriation, hoping that the forcibly displaced Rohingya would start returning to their homeland within two months.

Resolving the Rohingya crisis will require coordinated local, regional and international diplomacy to urge the Myanmar government to cease its atrocities against minorities.

Still, there is some cause for optimism that Bangladesh–Myanmar relations are ripe for cooperation to solve the Rohingya crisis. Myanmar has partially democratized and peacefully settled maritime disputes with Bangladesh through the demarcation of maritime boundaries.

In November 2017, Myanmar’s Minister for the Office of the State Counsellor, U Kyaw Tint Swe, visited Bangladesh. He exchanged with Mahmood Ali, Bangladesh’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, the long-awaited "instrument of ratification" of a 1998 agreement demarcating the land north of the Naf River that separates the two countries. Myanmar and Bangladesh also formed a Joint Working Group on 20 December 2017 to oversee the repatriation of the Rohingya.

But the Rohingya are stateless and not protected by any government. Resolving the Rohingya crisis will require coordinated local, regional and international diplomacy to urge the Myanmar government to cease its atrocities against minorities.

Uncertainties over the statelessness of the Rohingya mean the international community has not seriously considered humanitarian intervention. International relief agencies such as the UNHCR, World Food Program and various NGOs are involved in the provision of aid to Rohingya refugees.

But the Rohingya crisis is fundamentally a human security issue (though encompassing non-traditional security concerns). The UN, ASEAN, Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and other key players such as the United States, China, India and Russia must — in keeping with their own responsibility to protect — place pressure on Myanmar’s government to stop these mass atrocities.

Read next: Is Myanmar's Leadership Too Old for the Job?

Dr. Syeda Naushin Parnini is a Research Fellow at the Center for Democracy and Elections (UMCEDEL), The University of Malaya.

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article from East Asia Forum. East Asia Forum is a platform for analysis and research on politics, economics, business, law, security, international relations and society relevant to public policy, centered on the Asia Pacific region.

TNL Editor: Morley J Weston