The writer is an Asia-based journalist who writes on diplomacy, human rights, climate change, and the refugee crisis. 


More than one million people, forced to leave their homeland amid cycles of mass killings, gang rapes, and arson attacks for decades and who have taken shelter in a neighboring country as stateless people, can never be an internal matter of any country. The issue drew greater global attention with 700 thousand Rohingya fleeing their country and crossing the border to Bangladesh three years ago now within a span of just a few months. Thus, the Rohingya refugee crisis is no more a domestic or internal matter of Myanmar; rather, it is now one of the most crucial global crises.

For years Bangladesh has been hosting more than one million Rohingya refugees in the country’s southern part, in Cox’s Bazar, which is also the country’s main tourist hub due to the location of the world’s longest sea beach here. But the socio-economic and ecological patterns of the area have changed for the worse because of the adverse impacts of crammed makeshift settlements and the presence of a huge number of employees of different local and international aid agencies, NGOs, and INGOs, trying to tend to the world’s biggest refugee camp.

The Rohingya issue also contributes to Bangladesh’s image in the global arena. As a result, when the Muslim majority South Asian delta state opened its door to one of the world’s most persecuted people following the August 2017 brutal crackdown in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, the world’s actors appreciated it as a great example of humanity.

At the beginning of the crisis, even the country’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was given the title a ‘Mother of Humanity’ for sheltering the Rohingya. In the wake of global recognition, Hasina also termed the Rohingya as “brothers” and “sisters” and declared that in case of necessity Bangladeshis would share their food with them. She declared that “the citizens of the country [Bangladesh] would eat one meal a day and share another meal with them [Rohingya] if necessary”. [1]

But same Bangladesh is now seemingly in tension with the Rohingya refugees. Only after two years, Hasina began to address the Rohingya crisis as a regional threat. She not only said this in any domestic forum; rather she uttered it in the world’s largest forum of the 74th United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in September 2019. During her virtual speech, she also expressed frustration over no single Rohingya returning to their home country Myanmar due to the lack of safety and security, freedom of movement, and the overall dangerous environment in Rakhine State. [2]

In the 75th UNGA in 2020, Hasina also expressed her discontent for Myanmar’s failure to ensure a conducive environment in Rakhine State to begin the Rohingya’s repatriation process. She called on the international community to initiate an effective step for peaceful and sustainable repatriation of Rohingya [3] to their home country.

Since 2019, Bangladesh’s premier has also termed the Rohingya as a burden for Bangladesh [4] on different national and international platforms. Though only two years previously she had said: “We have the ability to feed 160 million people of Bangladesh and we have enough food security to feed the 700,000 [Rohingya] refugees.” [5]

The change of heart that Bangladeshi authorities underwent over the Rohingya issue actually tells us of the grave reality of the crisis. It never means that Bangladesh has changed its feelings of fellowship toward the Rohingya. What it actually means is that Bangladesh now feels that the real solution to the Rohingya crisis is peaceful and sustainable repatriation. And it is not only essential for Bangladesh’s domestic interests but also for regional stability.

A new scope of raising the Rohingya repatriation issue has been opened before Bangladesh due to the ascendance of a democratically elected government to power. So from the very beginning of the Suu Kyi government for the second consecutive term, Bangladesh has been trying to keep the repatriation issue on the international agenda. For the last one year, Bangladesh’s top leader has been addressing the Rohingya crisis on the global platform so that the repatriation issue remains high on the agenda when a new government comes to power in Myanmar for the next four years.

Bangladesh has already stated enough times that the Rohingya are citizens of Myanmar and they are now a great load for the overcrowded South Asian nation of above 165 million people. It is now the responsibility of Myanmar to take back its citizens and the international community should apply due to pressure to speed up the process. Bangladesh has the full four years at hand to settle the issue.

New scope through polls in Myanmar

Bangladesh must prove now with strong arguments and documents that more than one million stateless Rohingya who has been living in the country for years are Myanmar citizens and they fled their motherland under utterly brutal kinds of repression. In this regard, there are dozens of reports and studies done by the UN Fact-Finding Mission and other global rights bodies. Bangladesh should duly present those to the global platform and strongly demand from the new government in Myanmar for a specific timeframe for the repatriation. The Bangladeshi foreign minister has already told local media that Dhaka would ask Naypyidaw for a timeframe for Rohingya repatriation. [6]

Not only the host country Bangladesh but some other strong allies of Myanmar, including China and the UK, have also indicated that after the national polls and forming of a new government in Myanmar, the Rohingya repatriation issue would be brought to the limelight.

In late October this year, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi conveyed a message to Bangladesh stating that Myanmar had recently assured them of taking back Rohingya, [7] who were forced to take temporary shelter in Bangladesh following a military crackdown in Rakhine State.

Instantly after the Nov. 8, 2020, general elections in Myanmar, the UK government vowed to see Myanmar take an initiative for Rohingya repatriation. Lord Tariq Ahmad, Minister for South Asia and the Commonwealth at the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO), said the United Kingdom wants the new government in Myanmar to take steps towards the safe, voluntary, and dignified return of the Rohingya [8] to their place of origin in Rakhine State.

It can therefore be said that a new horizon of pressurizing Myanmar for Rohingya repatriation has been opened before the host country Bangladesh. Now many are wandering how diplomatically Bangladesh can handle the repatriation issue, keeping global actors on its side.

Available factors, historical facts Bangladesh can propagate over

A very recent study published by the Rohingya rights defender Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK (BROUK) on Nov. 23, 2020, states that Myanmar’s genocide against the Rohingya is continuing unabated. “The international community urgently needs to do more to stop the genocide, as Myanmar ignores the provisional measures set by the International Court of Justice (ICJ),” the report says.

Historic documents also prove that the Rohingya are the original citizens of Arakan [the former name of Rakhine]. Notable Rohingya scholar Dr. Mohammed Yunus in his book “A History of Arakan (Past and Present)” mentions the name of eleven Muslim Kings who successively ruled Arakan for one hundred years from 1430 to 1530. He also describes the historic presence of Rohingya in Arakan since the 7th century.

According to historical records from the British period up to the 2010 election, there were Muslim participants in all Myanmar’s parliamentary elections and they served the nation as lawmakers as well as ministers. Even most Rohingya were given voting rights in the 2010 national polls, resulting in two Muslim Rohingya parliamentarians at Myanmar’s lower house of parliament and one at the upper house. Two more Rohingya lawmakers were also elected to the regional parliament in Rakhine State.

But suddenly before Nov. 8, 2015, national election Muslim candidates were disqualified from the election, and the Rohingya Muslims were suddenly disenfranchised. Even a Muslim parliamentarian, Shwe Maung, who was elected in 2010 as a candidate from the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), was disqualified and he appealed to the court. He was turned down from the voting race in a lame excuse that his parents were not Myanmar citizens. [9]

Therefore, Bangladesh should form a very strong research team with experts. They will have to collect all available documents to legally prove before the world that the Rohingya are nationals of Myanmar and they have faced cycles of brutal repression for decades. Even now those who are still in Myanmar face brutal treatment. So, it is the responsibility of Myanmar to immediately take back their people with rights and dignity and the Rohingya who are still inside the country should be treated properly.

Issues Bangladesh can place before the world

More than one million members of the persecuted people living in squalid makeshift tents in Bangladesh have little scope to trust the Suu Kyi administration for restoring their citizenship rights and dignified repatriation. The military-backed Myanmar government with Suu Kyi as its de facto leader is still denying that the Rohingya are their citizens and treating them as illegal Bangali [Bengali]. Even the approximately 600 thousand Rohingya who are still in Myanmar mostly in Rakhine State have been deprived of their citizenship rights under a controversial 1982 Citizenship Law.

On Nov. 8, 2020, national polls of the Buddhist-majority Southeast Asian country of above 54 million people, the Rohingya along with some other minority ethnic communities were sidelined from the elections. No Rohingya people have also been allowed to run in the elections. [10]

According to official data and available reports in the mainstream global media currently above 120 thousand Rohingya inside Myanmar have been confined in the Internally Displaced People (IDP) camps like open prisoners without any basic rights like freedom of movement, freedom of expression, and education.

Still, genocidal acts are ongoing in Myanmar [11] under direct state orders despite the fact that the Suu Kyi government and the Tatmadaw [Myanmar army] are being tried by the UN top court for genocide. Dozens of global rights defending bodies have expressed concerns [12] several times about the ongoing genocidal acts in Myanmar against the minority Rohingya Muslims as well as on some other ethnic groups. But Myanmar has not taken any steps yet.

Even still now no investigating committee or international representative has been allowed by Myanmar authorities to visit the Rakhine State to assess the allegation of ethnic cleansing and genocide perpetrated by the Myanmar army with the full support of the government.

In the context of this ground reality, it can be stated undoubtedly that Myanmar is not at all willing to get Rohingya back to their home country with a guarantee of rights and dignity.

Bangladesh should put the aforesaid ground facts before the global actors through all possible diplomatic channels to put pressure on Myanmar. Otherwise, with the passage of time, the repatriation issue will be weakened and frustration will peak, leaving the Rohingya more and more vulnerable to radicalization, illegal migration to any third country or so many other criminal activities including narcotics, prostitution, etc. In such cases, the whole region would be affected worse.

Bangladesh Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen told me recently that the sustainable repatriation of Rohingya is crucial for the peace and stability of the entire region. “Otherwise, if repatriation is delayed, it may create pockets of radicalism [13] that may create uncertainty in the region, frustrating hopes for a better future for the region.”

How Bangladesh can convince its allies

Recently India has provided a submarine to Myanmar [14] and invested a huge amount of funds in Myanmar. Obviously, it may seem alarming for Bangladesh. But here lies the real diplomacy for Bangladesh. Dhaka should immediately contact New Delhi and ask the Modi administration to put pressure on Myanmar for Rohingya repatriation. The Sheikh Hasina government has long had very warm relations with India. So Dhaka should ask to appeal to India to put pressure on Myanmar. 

It is notable that already on different occasions India has assured Bangladesh to stand in favor of Dhaka in the Rohingya repatriation issue.[15] Bangladesh should tell India very straightforwardly that it is the moral obligation of India to compel Myanmar to take back its people from Bangladesh’s refugee camps. India is now enjoying transit, transshipment, and seaport facilities from Bangladesh. So Bangladesh has a huge scope to put diplomatic pressure on India over the Rohingya repatriation issue.

China is also now working on many mega projects in Bangladesh [16] including the country’s biggest Padma Multipurpose Bridge project. Currently, nearly one million Chinese citizens are involved in different projects and business activities in Bangladesh both formally and informally. So, Bangladesh should also extend its diplomatic dialogue with China so that this main ally of Myanmar puts pressure on the Suu Kyi administration to take back Rohingya.

Finally, it can be stated that with all proper documents Bangladesh should approach the international communities especially those with economic ties with Myanmar, and say that Rohingya are the genuine citizens of Myanmar for generations after generations. Those people have been suffering genocide and other inhuman repressions for decades before the eyes of the civilized world. For the sake of humanity, the international community must take due steps immediately for the peaceful and dignified repatriation of Rohingya for the greater interest of peace and tranquility in the region.

* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.


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