Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh premier, in her recent address before the United Nations (UN) 72nd General Assembly, has called for creation of a `safe zone` under internal supervision for the Rohingyas of Myanmar, within Myanmar from where they are being systematically forced to leave owing to prevailing horrendous life-threatening conditions. The virtually continuous spell of recent violence against the Rohingyas of Rakhine province in the Arakans in western Myanmar, pillage and plunder of their property, and physical depredations, which commenced with the ethnic riots between the Rohingyas and the majority Burman community in 2012, has intensified with the Myanmar national government`s de-facto connivance with the extremists of the majority community and lack of state action to protect them. The outcome is a huge influx of nearly a million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, with some of the refugees spilling over to the east to ASEAN countries, particularly Indonesia, Malaysia and western Thailand. India has a small number of approximately 35000 displaced Rohingyas, with only some of them of recent origin. It is undoubtedly a growing refugee problem of crisis proportion and international dimension.
The situation in Rakhine is getting exacerbated, particularly with the small militant outfit, ARSA (Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army)`s sporadic attacks on Myanmar`s security forces since October 2016 and disproportionate countervailing action by the latter. With no discernible ameliorating action being initiated by the Myanmar central administration at Naypitaw, and in fact abetment of forceful eviction of the Rohingyas, the problem is only expected to get accentuated. Bangladesh urgently requires a remedy which controls the law and order conditions in Rakhine, allows the Rohingyas still there, to live in safety, have relief succor, enables Dhaka to temporarily manage administratively and financially the huge Rohingya refugee burden with initiation of a process for eventual return of the refugees to Rakhine. The issue is, how can Bangladesh activate the international community, the United Nations (UN) and its agencies and particularly ASEAN and India, the countries most affected by the refugee problem and its socio-economic and security dimensions, and China, a peripheral country, to intervene in this humanitarian crisis. The `safe zone` proposal has to be appreciated in this context.
Premier Indira Gandhi and the Indian Government had adopted a decisive stand in early 1971 after the Pakistani military regime`s crackdown on the Bengalis of former East Pakistan, to drum up an international campaign to impress upon the UN, its Security Council member countries and the international community at large, that conditions have to be created to stop the atrocities in the then eastern province of Pakistan, halt the huge refugee influx from there to India`s eastern border states and create conditions within East Pakistan for their eventual return to their places of origin. Bangladesh today, is virtually in a similar position. Bangladesh Government cannot be expected to acquiesce in the existing situation in Rakhine, with grave ramifications to its polity, economy and security. The `safe zone` proposal has a relevance in this backdrop. The moot point is whether it can be implemented in the existing international scenario. The political milieu and balance of forces within Myanmar, overall ethnic conditions in that country, the views of the bordering countries like India and China, and the consensus which can be evolved within the UN and its agencies like the UN Human Rights Council, will be of essence. The prospects of execution within a suitable international legal framework, has also to be considered.
Naypitaw will definitely resist, and in fact has been trying to thwart any move for international supervision of any aspect of its management of the Rakhine situation and Rohingyas, considering the move as a compromise of its national sovereignty. The uncompromising attitude of Naypitaw towards the Rohingya muslim community and also to the non-Burmans of Rakhine, have contributed to this stance. The issue however is, whether the international community will allow Myanmar government to pursue what has been described as its anti-Rohingya ethnic cleansing policy by the UN Secretary General, Antonio Gutteres and the organization`s human rights rappoeurter on Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, many other countries including USA and the European Union, which is leading to a human catastrophe and affecting adjoining countries in various ways. Some balance will have to be struck in the matter which does not substantively compromise Myanmar`s sovereignty and allows rehabilitation of the Rohigyas under assured conditions, in the places of their recent origin ie. Rakhine. A `safe zone` policy is difficult to implement under conditions of war or conflict between armed combatants, though international law and Geneva Conventions have enabling provisions for the purpose. However, in the existing conditions in Rakhine, involving exercise of huge state coercive power against a select community, involvement of extremist civilians resorting to mob violence and isolated assaults of an armed outfit, enforcement of a `safe zone` with international support and monitoring in concert with the Myanmar national government, may be a feasible proposition and inescapable option.
On humanitarian grounds and also apropos customary international law, the Rohingya refugees cannot be forcibly repatriated from the places where they have sought refuge as either asylum seekers, refugees or illegal migrants, without violating the principle of `non-refoulment`. Moreover, deportation of the refugees cannot be conceived in the conditions created by Naypitaw by mining stretches of the Myanmar-Bangladesh 272 km. boundary. With preponderant uncertainties looming over the safety and livelihood conditions of the Rohingyas in Rakhine, particularly in the rural areas – and the community has a substantial rural spread, there seems no immediate prospect of the Rohingya refugees returning to Rakhine. A realistic option in the present and likely future circumstances is to ensure implementation of the recommendations of the Kofi Annan Commission (KAC), set up by Naypitaw. The KAC final report (`Towards a Peaceful, Fair and Prosperous Future for the People of Rakhine`) submitted on 23rd August, 2017, deals with a myriad of issues viz. deteriorating socio-economic conditions of Rakhine, need to re-visit the citizenship law of 1982, specification of residency rights of non-citizens, ensuring dignified conditions in the camps of internally displaced persons, need of recognition of the interests of neighbouring countries in the Rakhine situation by Myanmar government, amongst many other related matters. Premier Sheikh Hasina has also proposed implementation of the KAC report concomitantly with the `safe zone` proposal.
The international community should at the earliest, build up a consensus with China, India and ASEAN on board, to give an implementable content to Sheikh Hasina`s proposal of instituting a `safe zone` and execution of the KAC report. This would be within the ambit of international law, in the most pressing interest of the Rakhine people at large – the Rohingya muslims, small non-muslim non-Burman community and the majority Burmans of the province, and requirement of strategic stability in the region. The consensus can only evolve through unanimity among the permanent members of the UNSC and convergent policies of Dhaka and New Delhi. Government of India should play a decisive role in this regard, by trying to find common ground with China. China has already shown signs of factoring in Bangladesh`s interests in the matter and declaring intent to assist the latter towards Rohingya refugees` welfare , though has not indicated any intention to persuade or pressurize Naypitaw to control Rakhine violence more effectively with an impartial provincial administration. The over-cautious attitude of New Delhi towards Naypitaw for various reasons viz. not antagonizing Myanmar government to avoid consequent advantage to China vis-à-vis India`s strategic interests involving control of anti-India insurgents in Myanmar territory, obtaining suitable investment opportunities, etc., needs to be tempered taking a long view of the Rohingya problem and also the immediate fallout.
Myanmar Government has not yet indicated acceptance of the KAC report even in-principle. It is possible that, some parts of the report may be eventually accepted for implementation or the report taken up for execution in a diluted and unmonitorable manner. Furthermore, the implications of the KAC report for the northern and eastern areas inhabited by other ethnic communities cannot be ignored by Naypitaw. There is however, a fundamental difference between the conditions in Rakhine and the other ethnic areas to the extent that, the latter has been accommodated within the Panglong framework for national reconciliation and resolving the interest of these communities within Myanmar, there has been a long history of armed insurrection in these areas and even now more than 20 armed groups co-exist with the Burman-dominated Myanmar armed forces, and these communities are not disenfranchised from the country`s citizenship unlike the Rohingyas.
In this backdrop, it may be appropriate for the international community to decisively initiate a process towards instituting a `safe zone` or `safe zones` within Myanmar to be administered directly by the central government at Naypitaw, with an oversight mechanism under aegis of UNSC, consisting of observers from ASEAN countries, Bangladesh and India. Substantial financial support for upgrading the socio-economic conditions in Rakhine would also be necessary apropos the recommendations in the KAC. Without such accompanying measures with UNSC backing, safe haven/s cannot be created for the Rohingyas. With credible protective measures in place, a substantial segment of the refugees may return to Rakhine. However, quite a few of them may still not return owing to the persecution they have experienced periodically over the past 50 years since the Ne Win junta took control of Myanmar.
(The author is a retired IDAS officer)
The views expressed are the author’s own.