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Fallout of the Rohingya Issue on Bangladesh`s Domestic Politics

Gautam Sen is a retired IDAS officer who has served in senior positions at the Centre and in a north-east State Government.
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  • October 03, 2017

    The influx of nearly one million Rohingya refugees from the northern portion of Myanmar’s Rakhine province due to severe persecution has affected the political environment in Bangladesh. The impact is particularly acute in the south-eastern district of Cox`s Bazaar as well as to a lesser extent in adjoining Bandarban district and the nearby estuary areas.

    The Awami League-led government of Sheikh Hasina has adopted a decisive posture in the matter. Its views have been articulated at the diplomatic level with neighbouring countries and forcefully highlighted by Prime Minister Hasina in her address at the 76th United Nations General Assembly session where she called for the execution of a five-point plan, inter alia, setting up `safe zones` under international supervision for the Rohingyas in the territory of Myanmar and the return of all the refugees in Bangladesh to Rakhine under secure conditions.

    Notwithstanding mutual recriminations, a consensus seems to be emerging among the political parties of Bangladesh that the Rohingya refugees have to be eventually repatriated to Myanmar and that Naypyitaw must be compelled to accept them back under assured security and livelihood sustaining conditions. With the magnitude of the problem becoming acute – more details are emerging of atrocities committed on the Rohingya by the Myanmar security forces and majority Burman elements – and the growing negative fallout from the enormous pressure exerted on local civic resources and amenities by the refugee influx in the affected districts, the matter is also becoming a major issue in the internal political domain and influencing political equations.

    With the Bangladesh general elections not far away in 2018, and the unlikely scenario of the Rohingya problem being fully resolved in the next few months despite the October 2, 2017 agreement between Bangladesh and Myanmar to set up a working group to devise modalities for refugee repatriation, the issue is likely to deeply influence the posture of the various political parties. Already, the main opposition 20-party combine led by Khaleda Zia`s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has criticized Hasina for her government’s “failure” to obtain a resolution by convincing the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to censure the Myanmar government. The opposition combine wants the UNSC to condemn the Myanmar government for failure to protect the Rohingyas, stop atrocities against them, accept responsibility for their eventual repatriation and, in the interim, share responsibility for providing succour to the refugees in Bangladesh.

    Bangladeshi Buddhist groups in Cox`s Bazaar and Bandarban as well as the Buddhist Nagarik Oikya (Buddhist Citizens` Alliance) have also joined the BNP and its political allies in condemning the Rohingya-related developments in Myanmar. This seems to be a significant development, indicative of attempts by the Buddhist community in Bangladesh to build a rapport with the BNP and keep their options open for an understanding or alignment with the BNP should a new ruling configuration emerge post the 2018 elections. However, an underlying fear for their own security if anti-Buddhist sentiments are again aroused by radical Muslim elements on the pattern of the anti-Buddhist frenzy instigated in May-June 2017 would have also induced Bangladesh’s Buddhists, their clergy and the United Forum of Buddhists to voice strong criticism of the Rakhine holocaust.

    As it is, the Awami League and its allied political parties will face strong competition-cum-opposition from the BNP and its allies who have been out of power for more than eight years. There is no dearth of issues, genuine and trumped-up, to be bandied about in the domestic political arena. With respect to India, the anti-India elements in Bangladesh have been able to capitalise on New Delhi’s initial non-committal posture in taking note of the anti-Rohingya pogrom in Myanmar and providing relief assistance to deal with the refugee influx. At the global level, the failure of the Bangladesh government to convince the UNSC to pass a resolution on the Rohingya situation has given the BNP-led opposition an opportunity to berate the government. All in all, the Rohingya issue may serve to promote a more contentious factor in Bangladesh`s domestic milieu.

    The presence of the huge Rohingya refugee population in Bangladesh is fraught with other consequences as well. There is disquiet within the government as well as among a substantial segment of civil society about the vulnerability of the destitute Rohingyas to the attractions offered by terrorist groups. There is concern about the risk of such groups merging with the local population and posing threats to local communities in the districts sheltering the refugees. The possibility of extremist communal elements, foreign terror groups and the some of the subverted Rohingyas aligning with the anti-Awami League political parties, to the detriment of peace and stability in the run-up to the 2018 general elections, also cannot be ruled out.

    The Bangladesh military has been tasked to organize some of the relief infrastructure for the Rohingya refugees in the affected districts. The objective is to erect more than 14,000 refugee shelters in Cox`s Bazaar, temporarily rehabilitate the refugees and separate them from the local population as well as harmful political and anti-social elements, and obviate local tension and repercussions. The military’s involvement is intended to supplement the efforts of the civil machinery on relief administration as well as monitor the refugees and the environment from the perspectives of internal security and counter-terrorism. This use of the military has not been criticized by any of the political parties till now.

    The Sheikh Hasina government has dealt with Bangladesh’s basic developmental issues, investment needs and matters pertaining to equitable growth and employment with a reasonable measure of success. In 2016, the country’s GDP grew by 6.8 per cent and the rate of inflation stood at less than seven per cent. However, over the past year, the Rohingya problem has resulted in the diversion of a substantial portion of current revenue (nearly US $ one million equivalent per day) on immediate refugee relief activities and rehabilitation such as the setting up of camps and investment towards capital expenditure on the development of a barren marshy island known as `Thengar Char` off the Noakhali coast in the Bay of Bengal estuarine area. The manner and quantum of rehabilitation assistance have generated contentious views among the political parties, on many occasions as a matter of expediency. There has been criticism from the political opposition, and even within the ruling Awami League and its allied parties, about the adequacy of relief provided to the Rohingya as well as on the extent to which the local communities in the vicinity of the relief camps are being adversely affected. Such criticism is only expected to increase in the near future and pre-election period for achieving political ends, depending on the gravity and outcome of the Rohingya crisis.

    The manner in which the international community supports the Hasina government`s efforts to reverse the refugee influx as well as its outcome and improvement in management of the refugees will determine the extent of the fallout on the country’s domestic political milieu. The actions taken by countries like India and China are of salience in this regard considering their capacity to contribute to the mitigation of the crisis to an extent.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.