Syed Badrul Ahsan
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has spoken of taking the Rohingya issue to the United Nations. With the General Assembly going into session later this month, the prime ministerial statement comes at an appropriate time. She will have an opportunity, as she addresses the UNGA, to draw the attention of the global community to not only the plight of the hapless Rohingyas but also to the severe economic and social constraints the crisis has pushed Bangladesh into. As many as 370,000 Rohingyas have fled Myanmar in the last couple of weeks and entered Bangladesh. Add to this number the tens of thousands already here from previous phases of the conflict in Rakhine state. And what you have is a burden Bangladesh can shoulder only up to a point. Beyond that point, the international community has to step in.
The Prime Minister now needs to take a leaf out of the late Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s book. Back in 1971, at the height of Bangladesh’s War of Liberation, with 10,000,000 Bengalis fleeing from a genocidal Pakistan army to West Bengal and India’s north-eastern states, it was Mrs. Gandhi’s onerous responsibility to impress upon world leaders the gravity of a situation caused by a denial of democratic and human rights to the people of occupied Bangladesh. She toured Europe, visited Britain and travelled to the United States. It was diplomacy at its most intense, observed especially in the course of her testy exchanges with US President Richard Nixon and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger in the White House. In the end, the Indian leader came back home in triumph. Her foray to the West had made her fellow leaders there understand better the complex nature of conditions in a region that would soon become a sovereign Bangladesh.
More than four decades later, Sheikh Hasina finds herself in a situation not much different from the one which Indira Gandhi confronted in 1971. The Bangladesh leader’s presence at the UN, where she will focus on the Rohingya crisis, will make a difference. But at the same time, she should look beyond the UNGA, for in modern diplomacy bilateral dealings count a whole lot more. And since the world outside Bangladesh is cognizant of the Rohingya issue and yet has so far been unable to bring the Myanmar leadership round to an appreciation of the grave nature of the crisis, Sheikh Hasina needs to develop a fast-track strategy of persuading global leaders to engage in a more proactive approach to the crisis.
And that is where Sheikh Hasina needs to do an Indira Gandhi. Her focus should be on those nations which, to Bangladesh’s disappointment, have so far refrained from — other than coming up with platitudes — taking clear positions on the Rohingyas through putting pressure on Myanmar on doing its bit to put a stop to the trouble. China, Russia and India, despite being our neighbours, countries with whom Bangladesh has good diplomatic, defence and trade relations, have so far come forth with tepid responses to the crisis. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid stress on bilateral India-Myanmar relations during his recent visit to Naypitaw, carefully avoiding engaging Aung San Suu Kyi on the Rohingyas. The Chinese envoy in Dhaka has already castigated the Rohingya militants, whose proper identity is yet unknown, for precipitating the crisis by attacking Myanmar’s security forces. In similar fashion, the Bangladesh leader has also made such observations. She should not have. As for the Russians, they have said no encouraging words on a resolution of the crisis.
The Prime Minister will need to undertake a whirlwind tour of these three countries as also the United States and emphasise before their leaders the firmness with which Dhaka expects the issue to be handled. These visits, to be carefully and swiftly arranged by the PMO in conjunction with the Foreign Office and our diplomatic missions in the countries concerned, do not call for any delay. They should follow the Prime Minister’s address at the United Nations General Assembly. There are certain significant points Sheikh Hasina can stress during her meetings with President Putin, President Xi Jinping, Prime Minister Modi and President Trump.
First, the Rohingya crisis is not just a humanitarian issue but a political one as well. On the humanitarian aspects, Bangladesh is in need of international assistance in ensuring proper refuge and other necessary facilities for the Rohingyas. On the political aspects of the crisis, the Prime Minister cannot but acquaint these leaders, plus others she may choose to confer with, with the reality that the Rohingyas have historically been Myanmar citizens and therefore the Myanmar leadership not only has a responsibility to acknowledge them as their own people but also ensure that they be given the security and safety they need through guarantees of autonomy in Rakhine.
Second, given the fickle nature of memory and the limits of human imagination, it is quite likely that during her talks with her counterparts, Sheikh Hasina will find parallels being drawn between the Bengali refugees of 1971 and the Rohingya refugees of 2017. Her response must be straightforward and blunt. In 1971, the Bengalis knew a war was going on, knew that they would return to their country sooner or later. In 2017, the Rohingyas have been told by the Myanmar leaders, in so many words, that they have no country, that they do not belong in Myanmar. In other words, in 1971 Indira Gandhi knew that the Bengali refugees would not stay in India indefinitely. In 2017, Sheikh Hasina has little clue, given the intransigence of Myanmar’s rulers, to whether, if at all, the Rohingyas will go back home. That they will and can go back home, that Myanmar’s military, which continues to administer the country in de facto form, will agree to have them back should be the cornerstone of the Prime Minister’s discussions abroad.
To that end, good homework will need to be done in Dhaka before such a prime ministerial trip takes place. Historians, scholars and former Bangladesh diplomats well versed in Myanmar politics should prepare a cogent, unassailable brief for the Prime Minister. For her part, Sheikh Hasina can call these individuals to meaningful meetings with her and inform them of what she needs from them before she undertakes her mission. And, of course, it will be to Bangladesh’s benefit if these scholars, historians and diplomats — at least some of them — are included in the official team of the Prime Minister and are present during her talks with the leaders of the countries she travels to. In diplomacy, experts are what a nation needs in times of crisis. Bureaucrats and run-of-the-mill Foreign Office elements can stay on the sidelines, especially when the going gets tough.
For Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the priorities are obvious. These visits abroad are an imperative. The paperwork on them should begin now, before she flies to New York for the UNGA.
Syed Badrul Ahsan: Associate Editor, The Asian Age. Contributing Columnist, Shottobani