Bangladesh-Myanmar Relations and the Stateless
By Imtiaz Ahmed
I have lately been disturbed by two developments. Firstly, at the very
moment when 'realism' has lost its post-Westphalian
glories and is suffering from disrepute, the stateless people continue to be at
the mercy of the state. In the case of the Rohingyas it is even more pathetic
for their refuge across the border brought no change to their sufferings. On
the contrary, as camped and non-camped refugees, they ended up becoming victims
of yet another state power, this time of Bangladesh.
Secondly, when the power of the state has been eroded considerably,
particularly in the wake of misgovernance and
globalization, the state is brought in to resolve the issue of statelessness.
Indeed, the Rohingyas were sent home, amidst criticism of 'involuntary'
repatriation, with the hope that the government of Myanmar (GOM) after over
half-a-century would change its position and make them all worthy citizens of Myanmar.
What we have is a representation of a dialectic in the constitution of the
state, that is, state as usurper and state as salvation, without of course
realizing that the former cancels the latter and vice versa.
It is against this background that I intend to discuss the
Bangladesh-Myanmar relations and that again, from the standpoint of the
stateless Rohingyas. Two questions, I believe, are pertinent. One, how do
stateless people view the states? And two, what impact does the stateless
people have on the state-to-state relationship? Few will dispute that the
discussion requires a sound understanding of the 'stateless,' which in our case
are the Rohingyas.
Who are the Rohingyas?
The term 'Rohingya' is not only a construction that is modern but is also a reality
arising from the organization and reproduction of the modern national state. I
have elsewhere dealt with the origin of the term, including its relationship
with other terms, like the Arakanese and Rakhine, and I have no intention to
repeat that issue here. Instead, I would like to come straight to the current
reproduction of statelessness of the Rohingyas, a factor that is defining their
status as well as their state of alienation from the rest of the society. The
plight of such people is not too difficult to comprehend.
With the possible exception of the pre-military days of early1960s, the GOM
at every stage of governance and national development has systematically denied
providing the Rohingyas some one or two million people in the northern state of
Arakan or Rakhine near the Myanmar-Bangladesh border - some kind of
recognition, including the right to acquire citizenship. It may be mentioned
that at one point of post-independence history the Rohingyas claim of separate
ethnic identity was recognized by the democratic government of Premier U Nu
(1948-1958). But subsequent governments denied this and the issue was
completely stalled following the military takeover of the country in 1962. The
currently practised Citizenship Law of Myanmar, which
incidentally was promulgated in1982, bears testimony to all this. A quick look
at some of the things arising from the provisions of the said Law will suffice
The entire population of Myanmar
is practically colour-coded! Actually, following the
launching of the 'Operation Nagamin' (Dragon King) in
1977, which continued for over a decade, almost the whole of Myanmar's
population was registered and provided with identity cards. These cards are all
colour-coded, mainly for the easy identification of
the citizenship status of the bearer. Those residing lawfully in Myanmar
can now be divided into four colours: Pink, those who
are full citizens; Blue, those who are associate citizens; Green, those who are
naturalized citizens; and lastly, White for the foreigners!
The Rohingyas were quickly told that they do not fall under any of these
four colours and that no such cards would be issued
to them. Instead, a year after the Operation Nagamin
began a huge number of Rohingyas, totaling around 250 ,000,
was forcibly pushed into Bangladesh.
But this was only the first major push in recent times. Save10,000or so 'residual refugees,' all returned to Myanmar
under international supervision by the end of 1979 . But then, some 12 years
later in 1991, another big push took place. Of course, minor pushes went on
intermittently, at times with little knowledge of the authorities in Yangon
and Dhaka. Indeed, with all such pushes, conflict in the
Arakan region and also beyond acquired a new dimension, helping in turn to
reproduce the dismal state of life and living of the stateless Rohingyas and a
level of tension between Bangladesh
This brings us to the question earlier raised, how do the stateless Rohingyas
view the state, particularly Myanmar
The State and the Stateless
No love relationship can exist between the stateless Rohingyas and the state
Domination, exploitation, persecution, deportation, forced labour and the like
are some of the terms that have come to mark the relationship. Put differently,
the relationship between the two represents coercion than consent, with the
state of Myanmar
defining and designing the level of coercion or inversely consent. I will
highlight three issues to make this clear.
Firstly, restrictions on movement. As stateless,
the Rohingyas are barred from moving from one place to another. In fact,
legally can never travel to Yangon or any other big
cities and join the labour market there. This is a classical case of
subjugation, bordering on slavery, where the state actively participates in
keeping the status of the underprivileged unchanged or static! Voluntary
mobility ensures empowerment but this is something the state of Myanmar
is reluctant to provide the Rohingyas, keeping them otherwise disempowered and
in a state of protracted disillusionment.
Secondly, restrictions on education. Again, as
stateless, the Rohingyas are barred from higher education, including medical
sciences and engineering. It is not surprising that the Rohingyas in large
number remain ill educated, with the abler lot taking up the profession of
small business and petty trading for reproducing their livelihoods. The
community, therefore, suffers from a systematic brain drain, with many
migrating to the neighbouring countries or even the Middle East.
A combination of the above two restrictions is bound to limit creative inputs
on the part of the Rohingyas to redress their plight.
Finally, forced labour. This is something that
makes the Rohingyas flee the Arakan whenever opportunity comes, and this is
particularly prevalent in the dry season when the Myanmar
military makes use of forced labour to build houses, parks, roads and highways,
even gas pipeline. In the wake of international pressure and supervision by the
UNHCR there has been some developments towards the
reduction of forced labour-hours, which used to be around 10-12 hours per day.
But interestingly, what the military has done is only reduce
the practice of forced labour vertically but expand it horizontally. That is,
whereas previously fewer Rohingyas were brought into the fold of forced labour
with longer hours, but now the hours have been reduced, albeit with more
Rohingyas working as forced labour. In terms of hours, therefore, nothing has
More issues could be brought in to describe the plight of the Rohingyas, but
the above should suffice to make us understand that the stateless Rohingyas
expect very little from the state of Myanmar.
Under these circumstances it is quite natural for them to look for
extra-territorial or international support to redress their plight. Crossing
the border and taking refuge in Bangladesh
was not something that was unexpected. But did such crossing into Bangladesh
change their views on the state? I doubt very much. Let me cite my reasons.
I have already referred to the issue of 'involuntary' repatriation of the
Rohingyas, although there were allegations of 'forcible' repatriation as well.
Even the UNHCR at one point of time had complained that such 'forcible'
repatriation were initiated and directed by the government of Bangladesh (GOB).
But crude and inhuman this may be the Rohingyas, and this time as refugees,
suffered no less from the Bangladesh
state even when it was providing them refuge. Although welcomed by the local
population in the beginning, the Rohingya refugees were quickly brought under
governmental control and policy measures, mainly with the intention of policing
them. For reasons of brevity, one could divide such policing into three. We
are, of course, concentrating on the remaining 21,117 refugees.
Firstly, the policy of encampment. Officially,
there is a total restriction on movement of the camp refugees. No refugee can
go out of the camp without the prior approval of camp officials, which is
seldom entertained in writing. Anyone caught red-handed out-visiting the camp
illegally or more particularly without the unspoken 'unofficial blessing' faces
harsh treatment, including beating from the police. As one
refugee stated: "I never go out of the camp without telling the officials
or the police. If the police find out that someone has done so, they
beat the person quite a lot. And I dread those beating by the police!"
Secondly, the policy of unburdening responsibility.
would be interested to see the continued presence of the UNHCR and the
refugees, not for any humanitarian reason but simply for the sake of making
profit from their presence. In this context, US Committee for Refugees noted:
"Despite Dhaka's claim that caring for the Rohingya
is an economic burden, Bangladesh
has borne little of the cost of caring for the refugees. With the exception of
$2.5million that Bangladesh
spent on relief prior to the UNHCR involvement, UNHCR, donor governments, and
NGOs have paid for almost all of the relief operation. If anything, the UNHCR
relief operation has led to a net financial gain for the Bangladesh
government and its citizens, as it has increased employment."
But then, corruption adds to the profit momentum, contributing thereby to
the birth of a series of power blocs (or interest lobbies), not necessarily at
the high policy level but more importantly at the middle and lower functionary
levels, well disposed to the continued presence of the UNHCR and the refugees.
And the middle and the lower functionaries of both governmental and non-governmental
organizations are powerful enough to create conditions for putting a halt to
unprofitable changes and reproducing the post-refugee status quo.
Finally, the policy of repatriation. Despite the
unwillingness on the part of the majority of the refugees to return home for
reasons of insecurity or lack of improvement in the situation in Myanmar,
the UNHCR, with the direct consent of the GOB, repatriated all but
21,117refugees by April 1997. Since then, however, repatriation has been put on
hold following the failure of the GOM to clear the reentry of 13,582 refugees
out of the remaining total of 21,117.
Only 7,535 got permission but those refused reentry blocked their
repatriation. GOB quickly declared that no refugees would be allowed to settle in
permanently and this position has been renewed time and again, and is still the
current policy of the government. Put differently, 21,117 camp refugees are
reproducing a life and a future of neither here nor there! Statelessness has
otherwise come to define the Bangladesh-Myanmar relations, indeed, in ways that
is ominous for both. Let me explain.
The Stateless and the State-to-State Relationship
With little love for Myanmar
and alienated from Bangladesh,
the stateless Rohingyas are bound to become more desperate and militant to
safeguard their interests. The militancy of the Rohingya Solidarity
Organization and/or the Arakan Rohingya Islamic Front is well known. Previously
their activities were restricted to Myanmar
but with series of pushes and no respite by way of seeking refuge in Bangladesh,
it is quite likely that they would expand their operations well beyond the
Arakan region and into Bangladesh.
In fact, much of the militancy in refugee camps has been blamed on them. But
that is not all.
It is alleged that within Bangladesh
forces sympathetic to the Rohingya cause would not oppose the militancy of the
latter, on the contrary could come forward with arms and materials to help them
fight against the security forces of both Myanmar
The list of prospective (militant) supporters mainly includes the so-called
Islamic political groups, namely the Rabita Al Alam Islami, the Jaamat-e-Islam, supporters of the Afghan-based Hizbe-Islami of Gulbuddin Hekmatyer, and the like. In the wake of such support for
militancy, it is not difficult to see that the state-to-state relationship has
entered into a new dimension, not all of which is restricted to the state
itself. Two outcomes are particularly worrisome in this connection.
One is the proliferation of small arms and added to this, the possible use
of the so-called exotic weapons, namely chemical and biological weapons. Just
to provide one example, when the Mong Tai Army of Golden Triangle drug lord Khun
Sa surrendered to the Yangon
authorities it handed over assault rifles, machine guns, rocket launchers, and
even SA- 7surface-to-air missiles. More worrisome is the fact that despite
repeated denials by the GOM, accusations of chemical and biological weapon use
by the Myanmar
military against 'ethnic' insurgents have surfaced from time to time. There is
no guarantee that such weapons, small or exotic, would not be used to promote
or contain militancy in the Bangladesh-Myanmar border. And how will the entrapped
'ethnic' groups and in the case of Myanmar
an entrapped state fund such weapons? In large measure the second outcome is
already earned a reputation of being a 'narco-state.'
In this connection, the former US
Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright once commented: "Burma
is also the only member of ASEAN where the Government protects and profits from
the drug trade. Burma's
top traffickers have become leading investors in its economy and the leading
lights in its new political order." If this is the scenario, there is
bound to be a sharp increase in illicit drug trafficking, particularly to
neighbouring countries and beyond, with frustrated groups acting as
'intermediaries' or traffickers in this super profitable business. There are
already reports that the drug addiction has increased sharply in the
Myanmar-Bangladesh border region, predictably in collusion with the Rohingyas.
Indeed, nothing can be more ominous than the growth of a nexus between arms,
drugs and frustrated groups. What is there to look for in the
Bangladesh-Myanmar relations then?
Let me limit myself to three areas:
One, there is an urgent need to reinvent nationality laws, indeed, to the
point of providing work permits and even dual citizenship to those in the
border region. This will effectively take care of the stateless Rohingyas.
Two, reinventing or reusing the border region and that again, to the point
of welcoming bi-national or joint border development scheme, preferably in the
hands of private entrepreneurs and non-governmental agencies.
And finally, initiating dialogues between the civil
groups, indeed, with the intention of establishing common educational
facilities with two or more languages, particularly in the border region.
Any concrete step in anyone of the above would go a long way in
restructuring Bangladesh-Myanmar relations and this surely will be a cause for
celebration on the part of the stateless Rohingyas.
The author is Professor and Chair, Department of International Relations, University