Interviews

M. Humayun Kabir, Former Ambassador

Behind the backdrop of radical Buddhist nationalism, the recent Rohingya genocide in Myanmar, witnessed by the world, demeaned all aspects of humanity. The fundamental orthodox belief that led to such an atrocity dismantled every bit of sanity amongst the homeless who are now residing at the very heart of Bangladesh. While various opinions about this crisis are spewed into the air, the world eagerly waits to see, what’s next?
Deeply saddened by the situation, the former Ambassador of Bangladesh to the United States (2007-2009), M. Humayun Kabir shares his viewpoints about such inhuman treatment of Rohingya community by the Myanmar government and military in an interview with ICE Business Times.
Humayun, a career diplomat, had previously served as Bangladesh’s High Commissioner to Australia, New Zealand, and Fiji (2006-07) and as an Ambassador to Nepal (2003-06). Retired with the rank of Permanent Secretary to the Government in 2010, Mr. Kabir sums up his basic judgment of the circumstances to us in this interview.  

Redirecting the resources for meeting the immediate needs of the Rohingyas is diverting us away from meeting the economic goals that we have set for ourselves.

Substantial evidence exists regarding the Rohingya presence in Myanmar over centuries. But the military junta and government are set on ignoring them. What possible reasons, can exist behind this?
Well, a couple of things come to mind when talking about the recent atrocities unleashed against the Rohingya community by the Myanmar authorities. As a matter of fact, the Rohingyas have been living in Myanmar from as early as the Mughal times for almost five to six centuries now. This, in itself, turns the Myanmar government’s claim of them being recent arrivals from Bangladesh, untrue. Besides, the Rohingyas have previously laid the foundation for many historic achievements in that part of the world, of which the Arakan kingdom is a shining example. Strong evidence of Muslim contribution in the Arakan kings’ court as recorded by journals and publications of famous poets also validates their existence. The problem lies in the relentless efforts of the Myanmar government to redefine the region’s nationality matrix over the past 50 years. Although Myanmar initially emerged as an independent country with a strong commitment to civic nationalism, the nation started restating everything in the light of radical Buddhist nationalistic frame since 1962. The justification for such actions was articulated through the deliberate attempts to redefine the national identity, citizenship, and social processes for ethnic groups in Myanmar, of which Rohingyas are an essential component. The culmination of this process in recent years resulted in the manufacturing of the entire Muslim-Bengali immigrant agenda for the Rohingya community in Myanmar.
The authorities have also taken several exclusionary measures in the past 30-40 years to deprive the legitimate rights of the Rohingya community, among others. In the year 1982, the Rohingyas were legally disenfranchised for the very first time, and certain rules and regulations were set up in an attempt to delegitimize their rights to citizenship. Moreover, since 2011 these radical Buddhist nationalists took full advantage of the open political system to promote their toxic and divisive agenda which weighed heavily against the Rohingya community. The consequence was the outbreak of series of communal violence against the community beginning in 2012.
Recently, the Myanmar’s Army Chief of staff mentioned that ‘this is the time to finish the unfinished task of 1948.’ His comments clearly demonstrated the inner thoughts of the Myanmar military and elites towards the Rohingya community as a whole. Apparently ignored by the State Counsellor, the complete denial of genocide perpetrated by the military and Rakhaine militia gave these barbarous actions an artificial cover. Luckily, the international community did not miss the plot and saw this tragedy unfolding in the recent weeks. Besides, other underlying forces, such as the tension between the military and the civilian administration also influenced the current crisis. What makes us worried is that radical Buddhist narratives have not only framed the Myanmar nationalism in the recent years but have also coloured the perception of the Myanmar society against the same Rohingya community, who had previously fought for the independence of Myanmar and contributed vastly to its societal progress since then. In the name of clearance operations, the entire Rohingya community has now been subjected to inhuman atrocities and ethnic cleansing perpetrated by the Myanmar military and their local allies. This has also resulted in the influx of half a million plus Rohingyas into Bangladesh within the short span of six weeks. This is a problem created by the myopic policies of Myanmar government, but unfortunately, the consequences of their thoughtless and cruel actions have fallen over Bangladesh.

“Radical Buddhist narratives have not only framed the Myanmar nationalism in the recent years but have also coloured the perception of the Myanmar society against the same Rohingya community”

Myanmar is attracting a lot of foreign attention and is set to become a business center with its booming economy soon. If the Rohingya crisis threatens to destabilize the country, what in your opinion can be the reason behind the government still allowing such atrocities?
Yes, Myanmar has been attracting a lot of attention in recent years, particularly after 2011. There has been an increase in the inflow of FDI in Myanmar and government needs to ensure stability to keep the foreign investors happy. It is possible that Myanmar authorities considered the Rohingyas as a threat and hence wanted to get rid of them through an extremist approach. A road map was already in place long before the current crisis unfolded. Muslims in general and Rohingyas, in particular, were excluded from participating in the political process, and the elections in 2015 did not have a single Muslim candidate nominated by any major political party. In parallel, legal initiatives added more to the humiliation process for the Rohingyas; in 2015 alone four discriminatory laws were passed against the Rohingya Muslims regarding their family size, the intermarriage between Buddhists and Muslims, separation or divorce in the Muslim family, etc. This might also be an attempt by the Myanmar government and military, made to create space for advancing their political ambitions of endearing themselves to majority Barman community, who looks down upon all minority communities, including the Rohingyas.

A recent news report suggested that Bangladesh will require additional development funds to provide better care for the refugees. What are your views on that?
Firstly, this is a problem triggered my Myanmar which needs to be solved by them. Unfortunately, Myanmar has diverted the responsibility upon us. So far, more than 500,000 Rohingyas have entered Bangladesh, and as you know, since 2012, 400,000-500,000 Rohingyas have already been residing inside Bangladesh which brings the total to roughly about 900,000 to 1 million. Now, on a moral point of view, the question remains that, why should Bangladesh bear such responsibility of feeding them and giving them a place to stay? However, it has still been doing it for so many years: since 1992 (when almost 30,000 plus Rohingyas were living in Kutupalong and Nowapara camp). We are not only taking that burden for the registered people but also of the unregistered ones. Thus, practically keeping the budget constraints in mind it wouldn’t be the right option to give shelter to more than 1 million displaced Rohingyas for an indefinite period.
Again, from a humanitarian perspective, our country has given shelter to these people and taken the measures of providing them with the necessities like food and shelter to survive. However, I think it is also the responsibility of the international community to come forward and support Bangladesh in this noble cause since it is practically quite difficult for Bangladesh to keep doing it alone for too long. International support is much needed to help feed and send these displaced Rohingyas back to where they belong. The international community’s responsibility firstly should be to ensure the Rohingyas residing in Bangladesh get some provisions which the country is currently trying to gather on its own. Secondly, they must influence Myanmar government, both the civilian and military leadership, to create an environment for the displaced Rohingyas to return to their homes and homeland with a sense of dignity and rights. The implementation of recommendations of Annan Commission could be a good starting point for finding a sustainable solution for the Rohingya issue in Myanmar. The international community has also given similar advice to Myanmar government on several occasions.

As despicable as it may sound, can Bangladesh benefit from this situation in any way?
The humanitarian crisis that already exists from beforehand doesn’t allow Bangladesh to benefit from such a situation. Rather, one can anticipate that a million people in distress, homeless and expelled from their home state, could be piled up in anger and eventually create security problems for both Myanmar and Bangladesh. This has now also become an environmental burden on our country as the forests here are being destroyed. Besides, the local economy is also suffering from a number of negative consequences in this regard. A couple of recent reports speak of the labor wage depression in the areas that are constantly affecting the local economy. The Rohingyas, for instance, are taking up jobs at a lower rate making the local labor force unemployed. This can have a direct impact on our local economy. Furthermore, being a developing country, we also have our share of problems. Also, redirecting the resources for meeting the immediate needs of the Rohingyas is diverting us away from meeting the economic goals that we have set for ourselves. Therefore, supporting this cause is overburdening our situation, where there are very few incentives for us to continue with it. Sending them back to Myanmar to live as dignified citizens and giving them their rights of living in an environment of peace and harmony back, will help both Bangladesh and Myanmar to forget such anarchy and look forward to a friendship.

“One can anticipate that a million people in distress, homeless and expelled from their home state, could be piled up in anger and eventually create security problems for both Myanmar and Bangladesh.””

Some fear, a rise in militant activities with the rush of refugees in the country. Is this fear legitimate?
Well, as I have mentioned earlier, this situation has led to the rise of a tide of aggression inside the Rohingyas. They are frustrated and full of revenge. So, a rise in militant activity is possible. However, we haven’t come across any such information yet. But this cannot be denied that there are chances that these angry people can create difficult situations. Hence, from the national security viewpoint, we have made our teams alert about this from beforehand. When Muslims as a community are being persecuted, a kind of reaction is expected; although, we are glad that with the combined efforts of the government and the society, people are still very calm here. Besides, some motivated quarters may still exist and exploit the situation for narrow purposes. However, almost after six-seven weeks of this genocide, I am glad to say that Bangladesh has maintained its composure and communal harmony.

What would you say the international community should do to stop these atrocities in line?
They could pair up to do many things. For example, one of the agendas that came up in the discussion is that many countries have demanded that the Myanmar government should allow the media people to visit the affected areas – this is a point that would bring out the facts and figures. Moreover, the UN Human Rights Council had already set up a fact-finding mission last year, and the Myanmar government has not allowed it into the regional boundaries yet. Thus, a push can be given to ensure that the UNHRC fact-finding mission can operate in the Rakhine state and visit affected places to conduct an independent investigation to ascertain the nature of human rights violations and atrocities committed in that state. Besides, the General Assembly is also in session, and member states could adopt a resolution condemning the atrocities and demanding Myanmar government to take back the Rohingyas as soon as possible for assuring a peaceful settlement of this issue. We also expect the UN Security Council to adopt a resolution of enforcing the safe zone within Myanmar so that the Rohingyas who were sent to Bangladesh can return and the international community can ensure their safety and security within Myanmar itself. The international community may think of other measures as well. For instance, a number of countries investing in Myanmar should now review their investment portfolios, against the backdrop of systematic violations of human rights, unleashing violence against civilians, killing, arson, rape and such other crimes against humanity. Time has now come for the international communities to rethink their links with Myanmar.

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