The long-simmering refugee crisis between Bangladesh and Myanmar is threatening to boil over into a conflict. But it seems none of the regional powers are paying attention.
The Rohingya minority is facing a genocide launched by the Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw. It is causing one of the world’s largest refugee crises. Millions of Rohingya are now sheltered in refugee camps outside of Myanmar, but the largest number – over a million – are in Bangladesh. The largest exodus took place in 2017 when over 700,000 Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh, but that marked the continuation of the influx that started in 1977, when the Tatmadaw launched Operation Dragon King (Naga Min) in Rakhine state.
International organizations and a number of countries, especially the United States and Europe, have been providing robust humanitarian assistance to meet basic humanitarian needs. Even then, Bangladesh has to spend $8 billion per year to maintain law and order and fill the gaps of international assistance. The additional burden is something the country can ill-afford; Bangladesh is already among the world’s top 10 most densely populated countries, and 24 million Bangladeshis are living below the poverty line.
Growing Security Threats
As the million-plus Rohingya refugees are living in a concentrated and highly strategic location along the Bay of Bengal, the security environment in the vicinity of these camps is deteriorating rapidly, with broader implications for regional stability. There are a number of criminal activities mushrooming around the camps. The notorious drug trafficking “Golden Triangle’ is more active than at any time before, and clashes between Bangladeshis and Rohingya, and intra-faction killings among Rohingya themselves, are at an all-time high.
But the most alarming sign is the rise of various armed groups such as the Arakan Army and Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army along the Naaf River, with often competing and overlapping objectives. They are engaged in arms conflict with the Tatmadaw, and Myanarm’s military continues to launch strikes in the pursuit, which often spill over into Bangladesh. Such incidents have killed and injured Bangladeshis, resulting in cascading escalations between the two armed forces that could trigger a larger conflict – especially when seen through the historic prism of troubled borders between Myanmar and Bangladesh. The two armies have a history of periodic border clashes, as well as naval stand-offs over their disputed maritime boundary in the Bay of Bengal. Each views the other as an existential threat; thus Tatmadaw’s violation of Bangladesh’s territorial border is perceived by Dhaka as a coercive tactic to intimidate Bangladesh’s armed forces.
The latest escalation took place in September 2022, when Myanmar’s air force violated Bangladesh airspace and killed one and injured another six Bangladeshis. The subsequent escalation on the border suggests this could be an emerging faultline in the Indo-Pacific.
In addition to this tense strategic environment along the Bay of Bengal, the situation around the camps in Cox’s Bazar and the tension between local Bangladeshis and Rohingya communities are simmering. The life of Rohingya refugees is becoming more miserable day by day. While international efforts concentrate on providing basic humanitarian needs, there is, however, no sign of a solution to this decade-long impasse. Rather, as this crisis prolongs, it is raising the possibility of even a larger confrontation between the two states – one where great powers could be dragged in.
On Bangladesh’s part, as time goes by, Bangladeshis are starting to see the impacts of millions of refugees in their life, especially in the southern part of the country where over a million Rohingyas are sheltered in camps. The public sentiment toward Rohingyas is turning from sympathetic to antagonistic, raising the possibility of a spark. In domestic politics, Rohingyas also become a political football among Bangladeshi political parties.
The incumbent Awami League government’s initial policies – without fathoming the depth of the crisis – seem largely driven by the hope of winning international acclaim, even a Nobel Peace Prize. That illusion is fading away bit by bit, but the possibility remains of using the Rohingya as a bargaining chip to obtain international recognition for the upcoming national elections, as practiced in the last controversial election.
The main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, and other religious parties, view the crisis through the lens of electoral logic. They see the Rohingya as useful to shore up their religious support base.
By contrast to these electoral strategies, the national sentiment at large reflects the view of armed forces: that a prolonged stay by Rohingya refugees is causing a serious threat to national security, and repatriation is the ultimate solution.
Regional players, chiefly China, India, and Japan, still possess a certain degree of leverage over Myanmar, but they are prioritizing their geostrategic and economic interests. China and India both have strategic ports and infrastructure connectivity projects in Rakhine state, and they see their interests best served by aligning with the Tatmadaw rather than the hopeless Rohingya – or Bangladesh for that matter. In addition, both countries, regardless of their differences in the type of government and conflicting geopolitical interests, are arming the Tatmadaw further. India, in particular, provided a free submarine to Myanmar, and it is the Tatmadaw’s the third largest arms supplier, with 50 percent of India’s defense sales going to Myanmar. China is not only Myanmar’s economic lifeline but also provides a diplomatic shield from international pressure through its veto power on the U.N. Security Council. Japan is following China and India’s path by similarly prioritizing its own business and elite interests.
These circumstances have been hindering all actors involved from pursuing a realistic solution to end this crisis. To find a permanent solution and end the suffering of these marginalized people, we must explore the options. What are the realistic avenues to pursue?
It is no secret that the preference of international organizations is to merge Rohingyas into the Bangladeshi population. The core of their argument is that as time goes by, refugees will be assimilated into mainstream Bangladeshi society. It is understandable why this solution seems attractive to humanitarian organizations. Assimilation of Rohingyas into the Bangladeshi population would require them to invest fewer resources, and would take less work than creating the necessary conditions in Rakhine for their return. This would also open the potential for international organizations to take credit for easy success without investing significantly in the process.
But this proposition misses fundamental problems, which Bangladesh’s government and population are well aware of.
First, in the five decades of Rohingya seeking safety in Bangladesh, there is no precedent of adopting a single Rohingya into Bangladeshi society. Bangladesh’s government doesn’t even recognize Rohingya as refugees but refers to them as displaced Myanmar people. Bangladesh is composed of a homogenous Bengali nation with less than 2 percent of the population belonging to ethnic minority groups. Assimilating millions of foreigners into this homogenous society is simply unthinkable; it would create a massive social unrest if done against public will. Plus, given the rise of chauvinist nationalism in India and Indian politicians’ threat to exile India’s own Muslim minorities to Bangladesh, Dhaka fears resettling Rohingya internally would set a precedent for India to follow Myanmar’s lead.
Besides these concerns, the proposition is not viable logistically. Bangladesh, the world’s eighth largest county by population, is facing serious challenges in meeting the basic needs of its own 170 million people. Even if the government wished to take this path, it is simply not doable due to resource and land constraints; already 3,300 Bangladeshis live per square mile.
Bangladesh is surrounded by land on three sides, so the coastal area of the Bay of Bengal poses irreplaceable economic and strategic value for the nation. Resettling Rohingya may cause instability in the coastal region, which would contradict Dhaka’s policy of maintaining stability in the south at any cost.
Therefore, the aspiration of assimilating Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh is not an option on Dhaka’s table. Rather, the fear of resettlement could turn Bangladeshi public sentiment into hatred toward Rohingyas.
The second option is resettling Rohingyas in third countries. The United States, Canada, and other countries have shown some good gestures in taking some refugees as a burden-sharing effort. But this initiative risks amplifying the problem rather than resolving it. When the total number of refugees is over a million, taking a few hundred for resettlement in a third country wouldn’t solve anything. However, it could demotivate Rohingya to return to their homeland because of the temptation of a better life in a developed country. If this news circulates in Rakhine state, even though it impacts only a few hundred in a million refugees, more Rohingyas will cross the border – hoping that if they can reach a Bangladeshi camp, they might have a chance to go to the United States or Canada and live a far better life than in Rakhine.
The bottom line here is that no country has been willing to take a few thousand refugees, let alone millions. So, this approach may look appealing on its face, but in the longer term it will further complicate the problem rather than resolving it.
That brings us to the last option, which is to create conditions in Rakhine so that the Rohingya can return and live in their homeland safely. This is what Rohingya themselves also desire, given their affinity toward and ties to the country of their birth. But this is a herculean task to achieve, especially under the Tatmadaw. Myanmar’s unwillingness to repatriate the Rohingya is intertwined with their ability to get away with genocide and the international community’s inability to incurs a cost on the Tatmadaw for their brutality. Unless the Tatmadaw can be convinced that the cost of committing genocide is too high to bear, it is unrealistic to hope for their good faith participation in the repatriation process.
The history of 1978, the only time when Myanmar took back Rohingya refugees en masse – over 200,000 at the time – teaches us what exactly works to sway the Tatmadaw. Back then, the Bangladeshi government, in response to the military operation against Rohingya, made an explicit threat to Myanmar (then known as Burma) and mobilized its armed forces against the Tatmadaw. Naypyitaw agreed to repatriation within a few months. But since 1988, that power balance has shifted in Myanmar’s favor, meaning Bangladesh has lost the strategic edge needed to create leverage over Myanmar. Since then, the exodus of Rohingya has continued, with no repatriation.
Having lost its leverage, Bangladesh has to resort only to diplomatic means to create some kind of pressure on Myanmar, but the substantial assistance offered to the Tatmadaw from other regional actors undercuts the efficacy of diplomatic pressure, essentially creating a shield for Naypyitaw, protecting the regime from total collapse. There is no sign that the continuation of this diplomatic effort would produce a different outcome. Rather, given the emerging geopolitical polarization between the United States-India and the China-Russia axis as a response, continuing to engage in a fruitless diplomatic effort would give Naypyitaw the wrong message: that they could undertake genocide and get away with it without any significant consequences.
Such a precedent may incentivize the Tatmadaw to launch another, even larger-scale military operation to expel the remaining Rohingya from Myanmar altogether. Especially as the clashes between the Arakan Army (and other Rakhine-based armed groups) with the Tatmadaw intensify, Naypyitaw could use the excuse of uprooting militants to launch a fresh purge against Rohingya, as they did in 2017. Therefore, the continuous pursuit of futile diplomacy could be counterproductive in the longer term.
In the current environment, repatriating Rohingya to their homeland would require Bangladesh to create sustained leverage over Myanmar, which remains unlikely in the near future. In theory, a robust international effort in concert with Bangladesh could be a real possibility, but the fundamental problem is regional powers such as China, Japan, and India see their geoeconomic and geostrategic interests as better served by Tatmadaw. The regional powers are unwilling to alienate Myanmar’s military to take the Rohingya’s side. The Biden administration, which has made a point of championing human rights and democracy in its foreign policy, could well play a role but considering other existential geopolitical crises, notably Ukraine, Washington believes the stakes are higher elsewhere. The United States is reluctant to drain its strategic resources in Rakhine in the current geopolitical reality.
Although the horrifying suffering of millions of Rohingya is only deepening, in the cold calculus of national interest, the major powers’ stake in the current geopolitical realities outweigh the Rohingya’s cause. At the subnational level, actors are prioritizing their personal, organizational, and political interests, focusing on maximizing their benefits out of this crisis rather than resolving it. In Bangladesh’s domestic politics, that means the hopeless Rohingya have become a tool for political horse-trading.
With no viable solution in the near future, the suffering of the Rohingya continues and the risk of a major conflict is mounting.
(c) 2023, The Diplomat