The global community, led by the U.S., should empower Bangladesh to negotiate a sustainable future for the Rohingya in Myanmar.
Myanmar’s February coup is a tragic setback for human rights in the region. Yet it also creates an opportunity. With a new administration in Washington, there is finally a chance to resolve the refugee crisis that has displaced the Rohingya population for over three years.
When hundreds of thousands of Rohingya started to pour into Bangladesh in August 2017, its Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, faced three options: Push these distraught people back into Myanmar, engage in a military confrontation with Myanmar, or provide the fleeing people temporary safety while the international community sought a lasting settlement. Prime Minister Hasina chose the third option, which was the most humanitarian avenue, though it came at great cost. This choice helped to avert a large-scale catastrophe and paved the way to pursue a settlement. This year’s coup in Myanmar is an opportunity to finally reach a political agreement.
Bangladesh, despite limited space and resources, now hosts more than a million Rohingya refugees in camps that provide protection, shelter, food, health services, and education. This situation can at best be considered “survival in a holding pattern.” It is unsustainable for the Rohingya and for Bangladesh in the long term. Bangladesh has done its best for nearly four years to take care of this sprawling refugee camp, but it’s time for more forceful international help in resolving the crisis.
The Rohingya face obstacles to settling permanently in Bangladesh. One of the world’s most densely populated countries — 14 times more densely populated than Myanmar — Bangladesh has been struggling to find land to accommodate the refugees, who are very different linguistically and culturally from the Bangladeshis. Although Myanmar claims that the Rohingya are interlopers from Bangladesh, they have lived in Myanmar’s Rakhine province for hundreds of years, long before modern Bangladesh or Myanmar were created. A minority in a generally undemocratic country, the Rohingya had been treated terribly for decades. Since 1982, the Rohingya have been denied citizenship in Myanmar, reflecting a deeply entrenched prejudice against them. They have been living in Myanmar but effectively stateless, deprived of basic rights and protections.
It is hard in the United States to visualize the Rohingya crisis, more than 10,000 miles away. One way to do so is to note that Bangladesh measures less than 58,000 square miles — about 1.5% of the area of the United States — and the land is subject to flooding every year. Another way to look at it is to ask what 1 million helpless people rushing into one corner of the United States would mean, and then think about the additional limitations of space and resources in Bangladesh. More ominous still is that Myanmar’s new military government is unchecked and unaccountable to any domestic institution — it could push more Rohingya into Bangladesh. A countervailing global community, led by the United States, is needed to arrange a permanent repatriation, and not just for managing refugee camps.
A new player in the Myanmar game is an old one: Kurt Campbell, U.S. President Joe Biden’s Indo-Pacific expert on the National Security Council. Campbell worked under former President Barack Obama starting in 2009 to orchestrate America’s reconciliation with Myanmar. He argued then, as he could now, that the Myanmar Army’s worries of Chinese support for insurgencies along its border could be assuaged by a return to engagement with the outside world, particularly the U.S., as well as another try at a democratic election. The Rohingya could be a powerful part of a package of constructive American engagement in the region.
The global community, led by Washington and in partnership with Bangladesh, can team up to seek a negotiated settlement with Myanmar. There are several reasons why this collaboration is urgent and can be effective.
First, the government of Bangladesh, having provided temporary relief to make such negotiation feasible, can obviously play a critical role in any negotiation. Bangladesh holds a big stake in the eventual solution. Second, Bangladesh alone cannot bring enough pressure on Myanmar, and without assurance of their safety and basic rights, the Rohingya’ return to Myanmar is impossible. In desperation, some Rohingya have even taken precarious boats into the high seas, hoping to get to Malaysia or Indonesia. Without specific protected areas inside Myanmar, the Rohingya do not feel safe returning to their homeland. Further, the 700,000 Rohingya still living in Myanmar need protection and thus political negotiations and a definitive agreement. They face the possibility of a new round of atrocities, especially with the military now holding direct power. Finally, the February 2021 coup in Myanmar creates an opportunity for a greater direct engagement by America and the global community to solve the Rohingya crisis as well.
There is an urgent need for an international effort to create a permanent political arrangement for the Rohingya’ rights and safety, protecting those now in Myanmar and attracting back those who were driven out. With appropriate empowerment and support from the international community, particularly the U.S, Bangladesh can play a critical role in creating a lasting peace and a future for the Rohingya. These innocent victims of violence cannot just be pushed back and nor could they be overlooked; they need a safe home to return.
Iqbal Quadir is a Senior Fellow at the Ash Center in the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He is the founder of Grameenphone in Bangladesh. The views expressed are the author's own.