Bangladesh has been mired in political scandals and ever-escalating tensions for the past few years now, and it’s also at risk of turning into Daesh’s South Asian terrorist hub. These pre-existing structural vulnerabilities weigh heavily on national stability, and the last thing that the country needs right now is “Weapons of Mass Migration” flooding across its border from Myanmar.
To be clear, the aforementioned concept is in reference to Ivy League researcher Kelly M. Greenhill’s publication of the same name which talks about the instrumentalization of migrant flows for political and strategic purposes, sometimes without the knowledge of the said group itself if it’s being exploited by larger forces. Such is the case with the Rohingya, as has been argued by the author in a series of analyses published on this topic over the past two years:
“The American Plan For A South Asian “Kosovo” In Rohingyaland” (Part I and Part II)
To be succinct, it’s objectively recognized that there are Rohingya militant groups active in Myanmar’s Rakhine State and that they’re classified as “terrorists” by the country’s Tatmadaw military but seen as “rebels/insurgents” by their supporters both inside the country and especially abroad. The fighting between the “Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army” (ARSA) and the Tatmadaw is responsible for the deteriorating humanitarian and military situation along the Bangladeshi border, which has thus far pushed between 100,000-300,000 Rohingyas into the neighboring state. Dhaka wants to send the Rohingyas back and is against allowing them to shelter in the country, which while arguably being in violation of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and carrying with it a certain moral repulsion, technically isn’t “illegal” in terms of international law because Bangladesh isn’t party to this agreement.
Sheikh Hasina, however, is destroying her international soft power credibility through her refusal to humanely welcome the refugees, and right now it’s pretty much only her Indian protector, Prime Minister Modi, who supports her. Whatever their original background may be, whether indigenous to northern Rakhine State or just Bangladesh-originating migrants and their descendants, the fact remains that people fleeing from a war zone are universally classified as refugees. They become migrants only when they leave their safe zones and venture elsewhere, like how some Syrian refugees decided to leave the impoverished sanctuary state of Greece for the rich welfare utopia of Germany. There are of course very real security considerations associated with hosting refugees, just like how President Assad warned earlier this year when he said that terrorists might try to infiltrate into countries under the guise of this cover, but that’s not why Sheikh Hasina doesn’t want to accept them.
The Rohingyas And Chittagonians
Most international observers believe that the Rohingya are Bengalis, and truth be told, the author himself also thought this for some time too, but the reality is that while they might have their origins in what is nowadays modern-day Bangladesh, they aren’t necessarily ethnic Bengalis. Rather, they’re more closely related to the minority Chittagonian population, which itself is considered to be an offshoot of, or related to, the Bengalis. The Rohingya, for example, speak a dialect of Chittagonian, which itself isn’t mutually intelligible with the Bengali language. Therefore, it’s more accurate to speak of the Rohingya as possibly being Bangladeshis instead of Bengalis, but this still doesn’t explain why Sheikh Hasina won’t welcome them, bearing in mind that they’re a related people who follow the same religion as the vast majority of her country’s population. In order to get to the answer, one needs to take a closer look at the corner of Bangladesh that the Rohingya are streaming into.
The Chittagong Division of southeastern Bangladesh contains a special area of territory along the border with India’s Northeastern Mizoram State and part of Myanmar called the Chittagong Hill Tract. Only around one million people live in this part of the country, which is home to many ethno-religious minorities, and it has a history of insurgency against the central government. The off-and-on conflict ended in 1997 with a peace accord that granted the region a form of limited autonomy, but that could be endangered if an uncontrollable influx of Rohingya “Weapons of Mass Migration” offsets the sensitive ethno-religious balance there. After all, despite speaking Chittagonian and being related to its broader population, the Rohingya are still ethno-religiously separate from the people of the Chittagong Hill Tract, many of whom are Buddhist just like the majority of Myanmar.
Chain Reaction Of Conflict
The same cycle of identity conflict between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine State which is responsible for the minority Rohingyas’ exodus could be repeated in the majority-Muslim state of Bangladesh against the minority Buddhist and Hindu people of the Chittagong Hill Tract. This is the main reason why Sheikh Hasina is reluctant to provide refuge to the Rohingyas despite her ethical and religious obligation to do so, as she’s afraid of the escalating conflict scenarios that could unfold if the situation spirals out of control. The international media attention which is largely favorable to the plight of Rohingya refugees (and more controversially, towards ARSA as well) could quickly be redirected towards the ethno-religious minorities of the Chittagong Hill Tracts and their now-demilitarized political party of the Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti (PCJSS).
The geopolitical reason why this is so troublesome is it could endanger Bangladesh’s de-facto alliance with India because New Delhi’s Hindutva ruling party might be forced to respond with harsh rhetoric, at the very least of its many options available, if the global media began focusing on the plight of Hindus at the hands of newcomer Rohingya Muslims in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. India is against the Rohingya because of its leadership’s Hindu supremacist ideology but also due to the security threat that it believes Bangladeshi Muslim migrants in its already restive Northeastern States pose to its national unity. That’s why India supports Bangladesh’s move to refuse refuge to the Rohingyas, since it doesn’t want them moving into the Northeast or catalyzing a continuation conflict in the Chittagong Hill Tracts that forces New Delhi to respond in ways which could instantly undermine its relationship with Bangladesh, which it’s already begun to regard as a protectorate state anyhow.
The Ummah’s Umbrage
More locally on the Bangladeshi home front, the simmering political crisis between Sheikh Hasina and the conservative/religious opposition might finally explode if the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) decides to call the ruling Awami League out for its self-interested politicization of Rohingya refugees in contradiction to Islam’s sacred tenet to help fellow believers who are fleeing persecution. The fact that the government is partially doing this in order to please India and assuage New Delhi’s security concerns about the future of Bangladeshi and Muslim migrants in its the Northeastern States might inflame the public and provide fuel for a Color Revolution that could eventually topple her premiership. One shouldn’t underestimate the solidarity in the international Muslim community (Ummah), and it’s possible that a wide array of leading Islamic countries such as Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia might each have an interest in supporting this movement in their own way and for their own reasons.
It shouldn’t, of course, be assumed that they’d multilaterally coordinate their efforts in this respect, as it’s unrealistic to believe that Saudi Arabia and Iran would ever clandestinely join forces on anything, but just that the cumulative pressure that could be brought to bear on Sheikh Hasina through some Muslim countries’ unilateral or semi-coordinated support of the pro-Rohingya BNP opposition might end up being too much for her government to handle. All of this is important to consider because a regime change in Bangladesh would radically alter the balance of power between China and India in the New Cold War by flipping Dhaka from New Delhi’s second-class protectorate to Beijing’s equal and respected partner. The tangible implication of this could be that India’s “Act East” policy of ASEAN engagement via the Trilateral Highway and the cross-Bangladeshi transport corridors that will connect the Northeastern States to the Indian “mainland” could be disrupted and have their expected freedom of access hindered to New Delhi’s strategic detriment.
The Right Response
Understanding the intense emotional reaction that the Rohingya Crisis elicits across the world, especially among Muslims and the political opposition in Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League would do well to consider accepting these refugees and possibly even relocating them elsewhere in the country in order with UN support to avoid the presumed securitization risks that their settlement near or even inside of the Chittagong Hill Tracts could entail. It would also help to alleviate the heavy international pressure on the government to do more at the behest of the wider Ummah, and this could also deter the international media and particularly the Iranian-based and government-funded Press TV from waging information warfare against the country over this issue. That said, Bangladesh’s existing response to this crisis has been negatively perceived among many people across the world and even its own people, and the soft power damage – whether rightly deserved or wrongly inflicted – has already been done.
DISCLAIMER: The author writes for Regional Rapport in a private capacity which is unrepresentative of anyone or any organization except for his own personal views. Nothing written by the author should ever be conflated with the editorial views or official positions of any other media outlet or institution.