Syed Badrul Ahsan
The Bangladesh government is today in need of a credible and coherent approach to the Rohingya issue now that the problem threatens to overwhelm us. The approach can be devised and implemented at two levels, within the country politically and abroad at the diplomatic level.
It is important for the government to go for a decisive move where handling the crisis is concerned. Such a step has now become inevitable owing to the massive influx — and it is on-going — of the refugees from Myanmar. Bangladesh’s borders were not to be opened to the Rohingyas, as the government went on insisting all along. Perspectives changed through the sheer weight of circumstances, giving the Rohingya issue all the characteristics of a grave humanitarian crisis.
Moves needed at home
The first step for the government relates to security in the coastal regions of the country. The entry of the Rohingyas is certainly a godsend for the clandestine militant organizations active in the south-eastern region of the country. With the precedent already there of such bodies as the Jamaat-e-Islami and other fanatical bodies recruiting Rohingyas for militant activities, the task for the security forces becomes all the more crucial. The army, navy, coast guard, police, RAB and the various intelligence agencies must be on standby to check and repulse any attempt by any organization to derive sinister advantage from the entry of the refugees. National security first, and nothing but national security, should be the topmost priority.
Along with security measures, the government should take it upon itself to brief all political parties in the country on the situation on a regular basis. Given that the government has consistently stressed its commitment to an expansion of the nation’s democratic base, it is important that the BNP, Jatiyo Party, Workers Party, CPB, JSD and others be kept apprised of the developing situation and the government’s response to it. One need hardly mention that as complex an issue as the Rohingya influx requires an approach that will lead to a national consensus in a handling of it. The Prime Minister can take the lead in engaging the political parties in healthy conversations on the problem. For their part, the leaders of the parties will need to respond favourably to such an overture.
A channel of communication needs to be opened with Myanmar by the Bangladesh government. Given the intransigence of the Naypitaw authorities regarding the Rohingya issue, it is quite likely that Myanmar will not respond to Bangladesh’s move. Even so, the Foreign Office can acquaint the Myanmar authorities, through their ambassador in Dhaka, with the proposal. Besides, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina may make the bold move of writing to Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi on the issue, and perhaps even propose a summit meeting with the Myanmar leader. If a response comes from Suu Kyi, the services of the Prime Minister’s Advisor on International Affairs, Gowher Rizvi, may be put to constructive use.
Meanwhile, the government will need to coordinate relief programmes for the refugees with the UNHCR and other organizations. The government cannot, at this point, afford to stretch its resources, which is why aid organizations both at home and abroad will need to be engaged in providing succor to the Rohingyas.
At the diplomatic level, Bangladesh should not be waiting for other nations to come forth with their positions on the Rohingya issue. Its diplomacy will therefore call for a proactive approach, of course on an emergency basis. The emphasis should be for the government on sending messages and diplomatic teams to those nations whose support in a resolution of the crisis is of critical importance. Special envoys should be dispatched to Beijing, Moscow, Washington and Delhi as their governments have so far been unable to articulate clear positions on the Rohingya problem. Beijing and Moscow have not condemned the Myanmar government’s actions in Rakhine state. On his recent visit to Myanmar, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi chose to stay away from any discussion of the Rohingyas with Suu Kyi.
Bangladesh therefore must launch a concerted and focused diplomatic offensive in the four capitals, the objective being to draw attention not only to the pressure it has come under as a result of the refugee influx but also to devise the ways and means by which the Rohingyas can make it back to their country.
Each and every Bangladesh diplomatic mission abroad should be entrusted with the responsibility of keeping the governments of the host countries apprised of the situation. At the same time, the country’s high commissioners and ambassadors must be ceaseless in underlining the requirement for a swift resolution of the crisis in their meetings with the foreign ministers and senior diplomats of the countries they are posted in. Our diplomacy must not be reactive. It must not be one of defence. A full-fledged offensive is called for.
At the United Nations, the Commonwealth, the OIC and SAARC, diplomacy at its most intense will be called for. Reports, reviews and position papers from the government on the Rohingya crisis will be necessary not as one-offs but as exercises in need of constant follow-ups.
These are grave times for Bangladesh. Much of the country has been ravaged by floods. The security forces remain busy flushing streams of militants out of their hideouts. Law and order remains vulnerable. Elements both at home and abroad remain active in attempts to destabilize the country.
Strategic thinking is therefore called for in tackling these issues, not least in the matter of the Rohingyas.
Syed Badrul Ahsan: Associate Editor, The Asian Age. Contributing Columnist, Shottobani