To Solve Rohingya Crisis, the UN Must Look Critically at Bangladesh
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's regime has no credibility on human rights. That Rohingya refugees now seek haven in a country where criticism, dissent, or simply different political views can lead to imprisonment or death is a cruel irony.
On Sept. 27, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina once again addressed the United Nations General Assembly. Her ostensible intention was to offer proposals to solve the ongoing crisis afflicting the Rohingya minority in her region. Hasina spoke at length not about what she and Bangladesh could do to alleviate the crisis, but rather what actions were incumbent upon Myanmar. She showed a stunning lack of leadership. The government of Myanmar has repeatedly shown that it is both unwilling and incapable of easing the suffering of the Rohingya. Hasina’s proposals were therefore little more than lip service.
Even had Prime Minister Hasina proposed thoughtful, applicable solutions, she and the ruling Awami League-led government in Bangladesh have shown little indication that they are equipped to handle the world’s most pressing humanitarian crisis. Far from offering meaningful refuge and acceptance into broader Bangladeshi culture, Hasina’s regime has failed to ease the difficulties faced by the Rohingya fleeing Myanmar. The government even threatened refugees with relocation to a remote island before international outcry forced a reconsideration. The Awami League has little credibility on the matter in any case: Its leaders perpetuate a growing list of human rights violations against the citizens of their own country.
Hasina’s government has overseen a long list of transgressions ranging from the suppression of free speech on social media to extrajudicial killings. Due process is nonexistent; members of the press and outspoken political opponents find themselves imprisoned indefinitely or disappeared. The judicial system has lost all semblance of independence and is rife with corruption and politicized threats from those in power. Under Hasina’s watch, Bangladesh has trended away from triumphant democracy and towards authoritarianism.
This is hardly a suitable administration to spearhead the response to a humanitarian crisis, and to the Rohingya crisis in particular. The Rohingya population in Bangladesh now exceeds 1 million. Each refugee risked a harrowing journey to escape the atrocities Myanmar’s government carries out. That these refugees now seek haven in a country where criticism, dissent, or simply different political views can lead to imprisonment or death is a cruel irony.
If it is serious about finding a lasting solution for the Rohingya, the international community must first turn its eyes to the political reality in Bangladesh. A meaningful resolution of the crisis is going to take more than just the cooperation and aid of the international community. Any solution is fundamentally intertwined with the need for the restoration of freedom and true democracy in Bangladesh, as the current regime’s singular focus on remaining in power means that it will never devote adequate resources or attention to the needs of the people within its borders, be they Bangladeshi or Rohingya. Bangladesh ought to serve as more than a destination of necessity for victims of the crisis. It should serve as a paragon in the region for diversity, tolerance, and respect for the rule of law.
Critically, the United Nations and its member countries must demand that this year’s elections in Bangladesh amount to more than an elaborate farce. In an illustrative example of intolerance, Hasina’s regime has held the prime minister’s chief political rival in jail on questionable charges with clear political motives. Under these circumstances, former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia and her supporters in the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) have had little ability to communicate with the people of Bangladesh, let alone to properly campaign.
Absent a radical shift, the BNP will have to evaluate whether there is indeed a free and fair process in which to participate. To engage under the current circumstances would do little more than legitimize the political status quo and signal that Hasina’s government is fairly elected and representative of the will of the Bangladeshi people.
The international community must demand a truly free election in Bangladesh, which requires, at a minimum, the immediate release of former Prime Minister Zia and independent poll and election support. Only under these circumstances can the BNP justify participation, and only under these circumstances can the people of Bangladesh make a meaningful choice about the future direction of their country.
The General Assembly should bear this in mind as it considers Prime Minister Hasina’s proposals. The potential success of solutions to the Rohingya crisis and the fate of freedom in Bangladesh are inextricably linked. The stakes could not be any higher for the Rohingya refugees, the Bangladeshi people, and the international community.
Humaiun Kobir is an advisor to the acting chairman and secretary of international affairs of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. The views expressed are the author's own.