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Myanmar Keeps Quiet, But Bangladesh Must Speak Out

Rohingya refugees wait for sacks of rice to be distributed on September 10, 2017 in Whaikhyang, Bangladesh. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Since renewed tensions broke out in Myanmar’s Rakhine state on August 25, some 313,000 Rohingya have sought refuge in neighboring Bangladesh -- that's over one-third of this stateless and persecuted Muslim population in the span of two weeks.

Last year, an estimated 87,000 Rohingyasfled to Bangladesh amid violence. Taken together, more than 40% of the Rohingya population has been uprooted from their homes in less than a year.

The focal point for this humanitarian crisis and the appalling suffering experienced by many hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children is now Bangladesh as much as it is Myanmar.

Bangladesh indecisive

It is true that despite calls from the international community, Bangladesh did not willingly open its borders to the Rohingya influx. But it would be unfair to say that Dhaka remained a spectator as Myanmar’s armed forces, known as the Tatmadaw, continued to force the Rohingya to flee.

After all, if it was not for Bangladesh -- a reluctant player that has taken in an estimated 400,000 registered and unregistered refugees in the past decades -- many more Rohingya people would have died, having nowhere to flee from the ongoing violence.

Yet Bangladesh could -- and still can -- do more to help the Rohingya. The government recently allocated 2,000 acres of land for the Rohingya refugees. But when it comes to how best to use it, Dhaka seems clueless.

Bangladesh fears that if it appears soft on the Rohingya, a greater number of them will attempt to cross the border -- something it is ill-equipped to cope with. Therefore, the Bangladeshi authorities have not been particularly invested in the Rohingya issue.

Rohingya refugees next to makeshift shelters at Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh on September 9, 2017. (Munir Uz Zaman/AFP/Getty Images)

Dhaka faces several difficult questions: How best then to support an increasingly desperate Rohingya population without pushing its limited resources to a breaking point? What if a prolonged and increasing Rohingya presence stirs unrest among the local population on the border? And what threat do Rohingya militants, known as Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army or ARSA, pose to it?

The answers are elusive. Worse, these questions haven't properly been raised because Bangladesh thinks the growing global outcry will compel Myanmar to change its course of action. But that doesn't seem likely anytime soon.

No pressure on Myanmar's military

Buddhist nationalists with the aid of Myanmar’s army are systematically driving the Rohingya out of the country. A combination of eased sanctions on Myanmar and the inability of the international community to rein in what humanitarian groups have described as the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya that started around 2012, means the Tatmadaw feels no real pressure to change.

A member of the security forces walks past burned Rohingya houses in northern Rakhine state in western Myanmar on September 6, 2017. (AP Photo)

Therefore, Bangladesh must ramp up its political efforts to tackle the Rohingya crisis for its own sake. One viable option is to take a leading role in moving global opinion against Myanmar’s brutality against the Rohingya. Bangladesh has sent out letters to foreign missions and organizations, but this is not enough. Dhaka must act proactively, not reactively.

Perhaps, the country can take a page out of its own history book.

During the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971, celebrities including Beatles star George Harrison and legendary sitar player Ravi Shankar organized the "Concert for Bangladesh" in New York to help raise funds and global awareness about its fight for independence against the Pakistani army. Similarly, Bangladesh could dispatch envoys and luminaries to important capitals to bring more attention to the Rohingya issue. This would be a major step given that the crisis has received a lackadaisical response from major world powers.

Accurate picture of crisis

It's also essential for Dhaka to have a clearer picture of exactly what it's dealing with on its border -- the daily numbers, their origin, and the number of especially vulnerable people -- children, women and elderly -- who need protection. Based on this, Bangladesh can better determine the level of aid needed and where to prioritize it, while seeking financial and material support from the international community. It can then set in motion the establishment of a multinational committee to oversee how the fund is expended.

An exhausted Rohingya helps an elderly family member and a child as they arrive at the Kutupalong refugee camp after fleeing from Myanmar on September 5, 2017. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

That said, we must not forget that the Rohingya crisis is a humanitarian disaster. Bangladesh can not be expected to have all the answers; the global community must step up immediately and take unequivocal, firm and concerted action to save the Rohingya.

There are solid policy recommendations put forward by the Kofi Annan-led U.N. advisory commission on the issue. The commission is on point saying that “apartheid-like restrictions drive communities apart rather than together.” However, there is still no indication that the Myanmar government took the recommendations to heart, as evidenced by its continuous deflection of international concern. Therefore, the international community’s primary task would be to leave no room for dithering for Myanmar such that they should not keep sanctions out of the equation.

The United Nations General Assembly convenes this month, giving major world powers an opportunity to work closely on the Rohingya issue. While the United States is often expected to lead in such moments of crisis, it would not be wise to count on a Trump administration that has not yet issued a strongly worded statement. The United Nations must take charge instead. The U.N. Secretary General António Guterres has already written a public letter to the Security Council, which has remained conspicuously silent on the Rohingya issue, urging for collective efforts to safeguard the Rohingyas.

When it comes to the Rohingya crisis, the end goal should be "stop it now."


(c) 2017 Forbes

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