Myanmar needs to recognise and accept 'Rohingya identity'; integration with Bangladesh is wishful thinking

Indeed, if anyone is serious about the plight of the Rohingyas and is looking for sustainable solutions to the crisis, then the person ought to put her gaze not on Bangladesh but on Myanmar, writes Imtiaz Ahmed for South Asia Monitor

Imtiaz Ahmed Apr 17, 2020

The plight of the Rohingyas getting greater attention in recent times cannot be denied, indeed, not only in Bangladesh but also around the world. But the question that merits attention is what has changed in recent times? The hearing on the Rohingya genocide at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, Netherlands, on 10-12 December 2019 would certainly be one. This is a unique case. An African country The Gambia, bringing charges against an Asian country, Myanmar, for committing genocide against the Rohingyas, a community of people residing in the Arakan, Myanmar. This is something that no one expected. Indeed, if it had surprised the world, it had surprised Myanmar the most.

Now that the ICJ has given credence to the 'Rohingya identity', there has to be a serious international effort to pressurize Myanmar to either amend or bring in new laws and accept the 'Rohingya identity.'

There is no denying the fact that the recognition of the 'Rohingya identity' remains critical. If anything, it is the greatest stumbling block and conversely a way out in resolving the crisis. The disruptive policy of Myanmar, which has gradually disenfranchised and dehumanized the Rohingyas, comes from an 'unspoken racial feeling' of the military and civilian elite of the country.

The integration of the Rohingya refugees inside Bangladesh is out of the question, and this is something that needs to be flagged clearly. Anyone advocating their integration inside Bangladesh in post-2017 would make the person complicit in the 'genocidal intent' of the Myanmar military. Integration within Bangladesh would also mean the loss of the 'Rohingya identity' in the Arakan while allowing the Myanmar military to go scot-free after committing mass atrocities and genocide. It may be pointed out that having the Rohingyas integrated within Bangladesh is precisely the policy of the Myanmar military!

Third-country settlement can also be ruled out. Those advocating such a policy are either not familiar with the plight of the Rohingyas or advocating it just for the sake of advocacy, without probably having knowledge on the previous efforts of settling the Rohingyas in a third country. It is worth pointing out here that more than 300,000 Rohingya refugees have been residing in Bangladesh since the 1990s, but to date only 300 or so got residency status in a third country, mainly Canada. Put differently, third-country settlement for 1.1 million Rohingya refugees is only wishful thinking! But then, more critically, it is no different from those who call for the integration of the Rohingyas within Bangladesh. This is because any third-country settlement, apart from contributing to the destruction of the 'Rohingya identity', will only help in fulfilling the genocidal policy of the Myanmar military.

The current state of the Rohingya refugee crisis, indeed, with no repatriation, no integration, no third-country settlement, and no justice, at least not yet, has prompted the alarmists to raise the spectre of a conflict between refugees and the host community. This spectre needs to be debunked and the conflict de-mythicized. The Rohingyas, as many as 300,000, have been residing in Bangladesh in the Cox's Bazar district since the 1990s as 'undocumented refugees' but not a single riot has taken place between the two communities. Since 2017, the total number of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh has increased to 1.1 million, but we are yet to witness any serious conflict between the two communities.

Apart from the issue of religion, which no doubt is a bonding factor, Bangladesh has remained sensitive to human sufferings even in the past, almost as part of its civilizational quest.

Indeed, if anyone is serious about the plight of the Rohingyas and is looking for sustainable solutions to the crisis, then the person ought to put her gaze not on Bangladesh but on Myanmar. Sustainable solutions can come about only by putting pressure on Myanmar, and that again, from all sides - political, economic, social, cultural, and intellectual. Let me break this down a little.

In this context, an international conference can be convened either inside or outside the UN with all the stakeholders, including the Rohingyas from across the world, with the avowed task of preparing a roadmap for Myanmar's recognition of the 'Rohingya identity' and the resolution of the crisis. Both political and civil societies, particularly of countries that are closer to Myanmar, like China, India, Japan and Vietnam, ought to be more engaged in this effort.

Economic pressure on Myanmar, particularly in the form of sanctions, too is required. Although it is true that sanctions often harm the disempowered economically more than the empowered, yet the West has utilized the power of sanctions not always from the standpoint of economic merit but on moral grounds, which certainly brings pressure on the sanctioned regime to reform and rectify within. In fact, many would argue that the Myanmar military created a semblance of democracy and allowed Suu Kyi to come to power precisely because sanctions made it difficult for them to govern the population and cleverly assessed that the West would fall for the bait and withdraw the sanctions if space was provided to Suu Kyi, even if it was in their own terms!

A beginning on this could be made by exposing and shaming the companies who have invested or are in the process of investing in Myanmar, in fact, by telling them that "You are trying to profit from a country which has forcibly displaced 1.1 million of its population and is now under investigation for committing genocide and crimes against humanity. If you continue with your activities, you too will be held responsible for the crime!"

Intellectual intervention is required to contain the prejudices against the Rohingyas as well as against the people residing beyond the borders of Myanmar. More specifically, there ought to be creative structures where Myanmarese and Bangladeshis, for instance, can work together in fields ranging from harnessing oceanic resources to conducting joint courses in universities in Dhaka and Yangon. Academic and research collaboration would certainly provide opportunities for the Myanmarese to know Bangladeshis and vice versa. The Rohingyas are bound to benefit from such confidence-building measures between the people of these two countries.

A comprehensive, a multilayered approach is required to put pressure on Myanmar so that its people can rise to the occasion and compel the regime, not only to cease attacking and displacing the Rohingyas, but also to provide the latter with the 'rights to have rights' so that they can live a life with dignity in Myanmar. The earlier this is done, the quicker the Rohingya crisis would be resolved, with Myanmar benefiting the most as it would provide the country with an opportunity to regain its moral authority, both within and beyond its borders.

(The writer is Professor of International Relations & Director, Centre for Genocide Studies, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh. The article is excerpted from a larger paper titled 'The Rohingya Crisis: Post-ICJ Provisional Measures' that is attached. He can be contacted at 


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