Everyone agrees that the ongoing exodus of hundreds of thousands of starving, suffering Rohingyas from Myanmar’s Rakhine state into neighboring Bangladesh is heartbreaking. But what to label the drama unfolding in South Asia remains a matter of debate. Some say it’s ethnic cleansing, some claim it’s genocide, still others insist it’s neither — and that Myanmar has a right to defend itself against “terrorists.”
Mohammad Ziauddin has no problem calling it like it is.
“This Rohingya refugee crisis is possibly the most catastrophic human crisis ever faced in the recent history of mankind,” he declared. “And they’re coming in every day.”
Ziauddin, Bangladesh’s ambassador to the United States, said no less than 10,000 refugees are streaming into his already overpopulated country on a daily basis. More than 615,000 Rohingyas have crossed from Myanmar to Bangladesh since the current crisis began on Aug. 25, when Rohingya insurgents attacked dozens of Myanmar police posts and an army base, sparking a ferocious military counteroffensive that has continued to this day.
An estimated 80 percent of these refugees in Bangladesh are women and children. Along with the 400,000 already there — having arrived in previous waves of desperation in 1978, 1982, 1992, 2012, 2015 and 2016 — this means more than 1 million Rohingyas are now crammed into one of the most crowded nations on Earth.
In a lengthy interview with The Washington Diplomat, Ziauddin voiced frustration with neighboring Myanmar (also known as Burma) and its leadership.
“On Aug. 25, the Myanmar government said some of their police forces were attacked, so they took this necessary measure of countering the attackers. But the fact remains it has gone beyond that,” he said. “If attacks are taking place, then it’s the government’s duty to catch the culprits — not vent their anger on ordinary, common people. This is what they have been doing.”
The dramatic photos and videos coming out of Bangladesh reveal a scorched-earth assault that has horrified people all over the world: women and young girls raped, villages destroyed, children burned alive. But so has the apparent indifference of Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto leader — who won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize for standing up to the country’s military dictatorship but now faces global condemnation for letting the Rohingya crisis continue.
Human rights groups have documented widespread atrocities in the border area. Matthew Smith, chief executive of Fortify Rights — a Southeast Asian-based nonprofit group — said state security forces are intentionally killing men, women and children, and that Buddhist villagers in Rakhine state have slaughtered at least thousands of Rohingyas since the crisis began.
“They have been slitting throats. There have been beheadings. Soldiers have opened fire on groups of people and then set the bodies on fire,” Smith told The Telegraph’s Nicola Smith in September. “Children have been thrown into rushing rivers, thrown on the ground and stomped. We’ve documented children being burned to death.”
History of Persecution
Often called “the world’s most persecuted minority,” the Rohingya have been the target of anger and apathy for decades. Most of them are Muslims, though some Rohingyas profess Hinduism or Christianity. All of them face discrimination in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar.
For students of Asian history, this crisis is a rather old story with roots in the centuries-old hatred of the Rohingyas, which speak a distinct dialect. The ethnic group has been living in Myanmar’s Rakhine state since the 8th century — many of them having migrated from the Indian subcontinent. During the 19th and early 20th century, when the British administered Myanmar as a province of India, Rohingya laborers from Bangladesh and India also migrated to the country, fueling resentment among the local Burmese population.
“After independence, the government viewed the migration that took place during British rule as ‘illegal, and it is on this basis that they refuse citizenship to the majority of Rohingya,’” said a Sept. 28 Al-Jazeera feature on the Rohingya, citing a 2000 report by Human Rights Watch. “This has led many Buddhists to consider the Rohingya to be Bengali, rejecting the term Rohingya as a recent invention, created for political reasons.”
Myanmar is home to 135 distinct tribes, yet under Burmese law, the Rohingyas are not recognized as one of those ethnic groups, nor are they considered one of Myanmar’s eight “national races.” A 1982 citizenship law effectively rendered the Rohingyas stateless, restricting their freedom of movement, education and employment.
Prior to the current exodus, about 1.1 million Rohingyas lived in poverty-stricken Rakhine state, where they could not leave without government permission. Even so, various crackdowns in the 1970s forced hundreds of thousands to flee, mainly for Bangladesh as well as Malaysia, Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries.
“In 1978, we got the first thrust of refugees from Myanmar. The next one was in 1982, after the Myanmar government had disenfranchised the Rohingyas,” Ziauddin told us. “However, we managed to talk to them, and a significant number of them went back.”
Then in 1992, another wave of Rohingyas — about 250,000 or so — streamed into Bangladesh. “Very conveniently, we were able to talk to the Myanmar government, and they agreed to take them back,” said the ambassador. “Then they came again, in 2012, then in 2015 and 2016 and now in 2017. We have a really long, porous border with Myanmar, and it’s very easy for people to come and go. This thing has been going on for a long time, and it’s always led to the burning of villages and killings. All these atrocities frighten the people, so any excuse they get, they come to Bangladesh.”
Unwanted and Unwelcome
Yet Bangladesh doesn’t necessarily want them either. While generally praised for its humanitarian response to the current exodus, Bangladesh has been criticized for refusing Rohingya refugees citizenship and other rights, instead insisting that they return to Myanmar.
Earlier this year, Dhaka also tried to resurrect a widely ridiculed plan to move tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees to a remote, flood-prone island that rights groups said was uninhabitable.
Meanwhile, Bangladeshi authorities have tried to prevent more refugees from entering the country, while keeping those already there from leaving overcrowded border areas.
These dark-skinned refugees, many of them camped out in makeshift, monsoon-drenched tent cities in and around Cox’s Bazar, have nowhere to go and refuse to return to Myanmar, fearing for their lives.
To be fair, Bangladesh is one of the most ill-equipped nations in the world to handle a refugee influx, because it simply does not have room for them.
No bigger than Iowa, this tropical low-lying country has 163 million people, half the population of the United States. With 1,115 people per square kilometer, Bangladesh in 2016 was ranked among the 10 most densely populated nations in the world, according to the World Population Review — and that was before the current surge of Rohingya refugees.
“With the influx of a million people, our economy has taken a hit. There’s never been 700,000 people landing in the space of two months in one particular country. This is sudden, and it’s putting tremendous pressure on our economy,” Ziauddin said. “Even so, the people of Bangladesh themselves have come to the rescue, sharing their food and whatever they have.”
The government has allocated 2,000 acres of land for building tent cities. It has also provided on-site medical facilities and has sent seriously injured people needing surgery to Chittagong Medical College Hospital.
Despite its poverty, Bangladesh has been doing pretty well lately. Thanks to the country’s booming export-based economy, annual per-capita income now stands at $1,614, up from $600 in 2009 — putting it ahead of most other countries in the region, including Afghanistan, Bhutan, Nepal and Pakistan. GDP growth was supposed to reach 7.5 percent this year, though that clearly won’t happen now.
“In a sense, Myanmar has declared war by sending the Rohingya to Bangladesh,” the country’s finance minister, A.M.A. Muhith, warned in late September. “They are trying to jeopardize our economy by sending people from their country.”
Bangladesh’s foreign minister went even further, saying that the violence against the Rohingya in Myanmar constituted “genocide.”
Politics of Labeling Tragedy
Many officials have shied away from using that loaded term, although most experts agree that what’s happening in Myanmar is a case of ethnic cleansing.
“The evidence is irrefutable. The Myanmar security forces are setting northern Rakhine state ablaze in a targeted campaign to push the Rohingya people out of Myanmar,” said Tirana Hassan, crisis response director of New York-based Amnesty International. “Make no mistake: this is ethnic cleansing.”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson initially refused to use that label during a Nov. 15 press conference in the Burmese capital of Naypyidaw. But on Nov. 22, the State Department backtracked, saying that after analyzing the facts, it determined that the situation did indeed constitute ethnic cleansing. The State Department said it is focused at the moment on ending the violence; ensuring a path for repatriation for those displaced; expanding access for humanitarian assistance; seeking accountability for reported atrocities; and supporting longer-term solutions for the root causes of tensions and conflict in Rakhine state.
Meanwhile, at the press conference with Tillerson, Suu Kyi defended her country’s policies, telling reporters: “I don’t know why people say I’ve been silent” about the Rohingyas, countering that she has avoided making “incendiary statements” while thanking the secretary of state for having “an open mind.” In the past, she’s also blamed overseas aid groups and complained that “terrorists” have leveled a “huge iceberg of misinformation” against Myanmar’s leaders.
For his part, Ziauddin isn’t buying any of it.
“It is very clear that the military is playing a major role in this. And probably they’re keeping Suu Kyi in the front because she’s well liked in the Western world,” he said. “Maybe they’re carrying out their nefarious designs with respect to ridding the country of the Rohingyas. It is definitely ethnic cleansing — and definitely a genocide, too.”
Suu Kyi has no authority over Myanmar’s military junta, which still officially rules the country and retains control of all matters related to defense, security and border issues. She has also tread carefully in voicing support for the Rohingya in a country that is largely hostile to them.
Nevertheless, in a stinging editorial, Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times calls Suu Kyi the “chief apologist” for this modern-day tragedy. He notes that when discussing the issue, she refuses even to use the word “Rohingya.” Instead, this one-time heroine repeatedly calls them “Bengalis” — even though most have lived in Myanmar for generations and have no links with Bangladesh.
Suu Kyi, who has called for an investigation into the atrocities, won her Nobel Peace Prize for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights. But that was 26 years ago. At last count, more than 432,000 people have signed an online petition calling for the committee to rescind her prize.
Asked if he agrees that her prize should be taken away, Ziauddin replied: “It is not for us to decide.”
Before coming to Washington, the Dhaka-born ambassador — who took up his post in August 2014 — was ambassador-at-large with the rank of state minister in the prime minister’s office. He’s also served as ambassador to Italy and has held diplomatic posts in London, Nairobi and New York.
“My role over here is to make the American people and lawmakers aware of this great human crisis taking place in our part of the world,” he said. “Our main focus is the State Department. We also have contacts in the White House and on Capitol Hill. I’m meeting people over there and apprising them of this grave situation.”
In that regard, Ziauddin already has the ear of Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
“Burma’s violence against the Rohingya is horrific, and one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises,” Royce said Sept. 28 as he convened a hearing on the issue. “Burma can’t be allowed to continue cruelly mistreating the Rohingya and other minority groups. And the United States should use the tools at its disposal to help stop this violence.”
In late October, the State Department moved to do just that, announcing it would end U.S. assistance to certain Myanmar military units involved in the forced displacement of the Rohingyas. It is also said to be considering sanctions against specific officials linked to such abuses.
U.S. military ties with Myanmar are already limited, however. That’s why some activists say Washington should hit Myanmar where it hurts: trade.
The U.S. lifted economic sanctions on Myanmar in 2016 in response to political reforms led by the military junta, which has ruled the country since the early 1960s. After the government released Suu Kyi and her party won a landmark election in 2015 that put a nominally civilian administration in charge, Myanmar emerged from decades of international isolation.
Some experts warn that trying to isolate the country again could backfire. Not only would it push Myanmar closer to China, it would reduce what little leverage Washington has over the military regime that still wields ultimate clout — and that successfully survived decades of crippling Western sanctions.
“The only way you can really have leverage on the military is to do something with them, and the only way to really change or hope to change their ways is to engage them and show them different ways and show them different tactics,” Derek Mitchell, the former U.S. ambassador to Myanmar, told Foreign Policy’s Martin de Bourmont for an Oct. 24 article.
“You don’t get solutions by sanctions. You get their attention, but the question is how you are going to get both justice for what’s happened as well as justice for the Rohingya,” he added.
Tillerson agrees. “We want Myanmar to succeed, we want its democracy to succeed,” he said during his visit. “I have a hard time seeing how [broad-based sanctions] help this crisis.”
Ziauddin plans to visit the region some time this month or next, depending how accessible it is. He’s also pushing for more U.S. assistance to Bangladesh to help his country cope with the influx; so far, that aid has come to $104 million.
“The United States has been the strongest, most reliable friend of Bangladesh,” he said. “The Trump administration is aware of this huge crisis, and they have been very sympathetic and supportive.”
We asked the Bangladeshi ambassador if he’s discussed the Rohingya crisis with his Burmese counterpart, Aung Lynn, who’s represented Myanmar as ambassador to the United States since mid-2016.
“We are good friends. He’s been here, and I’ve been to their embassy,” Ziauddin replied. “He’s come to my house and we’ve had dinner together. But all that happened before this crisis. Since then, both of us have been pretty busy doing our own work.”
Aung Lynn couldn’t be reached for comment, though a vague press statement on the Burmese Embassy’s website dated Nov. 7 denounced a Capitol Hill rally the day before protesting the deteriorating situation back home.
Claiming the demonstrators “neither reflect the true situation nor represent the genuine desire” of those who support democracy in Myanmar, it urged “all ethnic brethren and supporters of democracy residing in the United States [to] stand united against any action aimed at harming and threatening the unity of the citizens of Myanmar, and join hands to support the nation-building and development process.”
Despite the tensions, the two neighbors signed an agreement to boost border security and coordinate on the repatriation of Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar. The two sides agreed to “halt the outflow of Myanmar residents to Bangladesh” and to “form a joint working group” on the issue, though details remain scarce.
Not Going Anywhere
But the reality, some say, is that the Rohingyas are in Bangladesh to stay.
On Oct. 6, Bill Hayton, an associate fellow at London-based Chatham House, wrote that “at least half a million people have been brutally expelled from their homes and are now living in miserable conditions in muddy refugee camps and storm-drenched shantytowns. As the international community debates how to respond, it needs to take a clear-eyed view of the situation and recognize a brutal truth: the refugees are almost certainly not going home.”
Hayton added: “Consequently, policymakers must not hide behind the fiction that Bangladesh is only temporarily hosting the refugees in preparation for their rapid return home. Over-optimistic assumptions now will lead to worse misery in the long term. Instead, the world needs to plan on the basis that Bangladesh will be hosting a very large and permanent refugee population.”
That concerns Ziauddin, who worries that the presence of thousands of unemployed young Rohingya men will attract the attention of radical Islamic terrorist groups. Bangladesh already has eight such groups on its watch list — offshoots of the Jamaat-e-Islami movement that constitutes the largest Islamist political party in Bangladesh. The ambassador claims Jamaat-e-Islami takes in a combined $450 million a year in revenues from their various legal businesses throughout the country.
“They use that money to recruit or entice these young Rohingyas to join them,” he said, warning of possible cross-border reprisal attacks against Myanmar. “Many of them have lost their homes and seen their families destroyed, and among them there could be a significant number who have pure vengeance in their heart. This is what we are afraid of. These kinds of activities could lead to bad blood between the two countries.”
Tom Felix Joehnk of The New York Times reported Oct. 6 that the Rohingya crisis could exacerbate tensions between the “nominally secular Awami League, now the ruling party, and the gently pro-Islamic Bangladesh Nationalist Party.”
He also warned that the increasing Rohingya presence could boost the influence of Hefazat-e-Islam, a popular Bangladeshi Islamist movement that already runs about 25,000 madrasas, or religious schools, throughout the country. The group, which is based in the port city of Chittagong — not far Myanmar’s Rakhine state — recently threatened to wage jihad on Myanmar “if the army and its associates do not stop torturing the Rohingya Muslims.”
Joehnk said the crisis could indeed play into the hands of extremists and hasten Bangladesh’s “continued slide toward authoritarianism.” He warned that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of the ruling Awami League “faces a near-impossible trilemma: appeasing radical Islamists in Bangladesh while remaining friendly with India [which backs Myanmar] even as she tries to satisfy the Bangladeshi Army’s demand for a more aggressive posture toward both Myanmar and India. So far, her attempts to strike that balance seem to have undercut the role of secularism and other liberal values in Bangladeshi politics.”
Nonetheless, Ziauddin says his country has succeeded in keeping a lid on violent Islamic extremism in the aftermath of a July 2016 terrorist attack at an upscale café popular with foreigners that left over two dozen people dead, including 20 hostages.
“Through intelligence sharing, we have been able to weed out many of the sleeper cells of local homegrown terrorist organizations,” he told The Diplomat, noting that since the Dhaka attack, “There have been no further incidents. We stopped them with the cooperation and support of our friends, like the United States.”
Ultimately, Ziauddin said, the three worst problems Bangladesh faces are poverty, terrorism and climate change. That last one, perhaps, represents the ultimate challenge: Only a 1-degree Celsius rise in average world temperatures would melt enough Antarctic ice to submerge one-fifth of Bangladesh. That means 25 million to 30 million Bangladeshis would have to leave their homes and migrate to cities, which are already bursting at the seams. That could fuel the country’s two other problems, poverty and terrorism.
“To solve all three, we need the cooperation of our neighbors,” said the ambassador, who prefers to take an optimistic view of things. “Despite the crises we are facing, if we can maintain good relations, I believe we will be able to resolve these problems amicably. We can do that. I still have that hope.”
About the Author
Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.