International attention has, for the past few months, been drawn to the possibility of elections in Myanmar under the watchful eye of the military junta that staged a coup in 2021 to deny an elected government the chance to function. In the process the focus has been shifted from the hapless 1.2 million Rohingya Moslems languishing in squalid, shabby camps in Bangladesh. They, along with about 600,000 others belonging to the ethnic group residing in the Rakhine state of Myanmar, are facing a humanitarian crisis with no solution in sight in the near future. They have virtually become stateless with the Burmese military regime not recognising their citizenship.
On the other hand, neighbouring Bangladesh which has received a bulk of the displaced Rohingya, is unwilling to term them as refugees. The miseries of over a million Rohingya who have gone over to Bangladesh have been compounded by the slashing of their rations in the world’s largest refugee camp – Cox’s Bazar. Another drastic cut of rations is in the offing. The UN has warned this is a question of life and death. The Rohingya have been staying in Bangladesh since 2017, when the Myanmar military, supported by militias, set fire to their homes and launched a murderous attack to force them to flee Rakhine state.
Conditions in Bangladesh have become so bad that the Rohingya refugees have started crossing the sea to Malaysia or Indonesia. Unofficial figures put the death toll in those risky sea voyages at 350 so far. On top of it, the camps at Cox’s Bazar have for some time been witnessing fires, the latest of which early this month rendered over 12,000 people shelterless. The meagre possessions that the refugees still had were also destroyed. Added to this is the menace of armed gangs who are operating freely in the area, attacking the refugees, robbing them, sexually abusing women in the camps and running a drug racket that is part of the notorious golden triangle. The Rohingya complain that Bangladeshi police have failed to tackle the problems created by both some locals and rival insurgency groups including the Arakan Army and Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army that are fighting against the military junta.
Bangladesh can hardly be blamed outright for the deteriorating situation. While the country itself needs international funding for sustaining its economy, it has now started seeing the impact of millions of refugees, particularly in the southern part of the country where Rohingya are sheltered in camps. The public sentiment toward the Rohingya is turning from sympathetic to antagonistic.
The Rohingya Moslems are being used by Bangladeshi political parties to serve their respective agenda. The incumbent Awami League government’s policies in the initial phase seemed to have been prompted by the prospect of winning international laurels for dealing with one of the worst humanitarian crises. It is now finding the issue a hot potato.
The main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, and other religious parties, are keen on using the Rohingya Moslems’ plight in Bangladesh camps to shore up their religious support base. Public opinion is increasingly veering towards repatriation as the ultimate solution.
For this to happen, the military junta in Myanmar has to be forced to create a congenial atmosphere for the return of the Rohingya. This can happen only through international pressure. But, there is little hope that countries such as China, India, Japan or for that matter the US would annoy the junta which serves the interests of these countries in varying degrees. Both China and India have strategic ports and infrastructure connectivity projects in Rakhine state and they can ill afford to alienate the Tatmadaw – the military regime. India provided a free submarine to Myanmar, being the Tatmadaw’s third largest arms supplier. About 50 per cent of India’s defence sales go to Myanmar.
China constitutes Myanmar’s economic lifeline and provides a diplomatic shield from international pressure through its veto power on the UN Security Council. Japan likewise pursues its own business interests.
The Rohingya now find themselves trapped, deserted by the international community and forced to live in hunger, disease, malnutrition and different forms of exploitation.
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