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HomeOpinionHumanitarian Dialogue - Discreet or Cowboy Diplomacy? - Part 2/3

Humanitarian Dialogue – Discreet or Cowboy Diplomacy? – Part 2/3

Guest contributor

Shafiur Rahman

The Center for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD) presents a self-curated narrative of its involvement in Myanmar’s complex conflicts, particularly in relation to the Rohingya crisis, as per its annual reports. 

However, it’s important to view the claims of HD critically due to its known policy of secrecy and limited engagement with the press. This makes external verification of HD activities challenging.

Since 2013, – when it established an office in Myanmar – the HD involvement in Myanmar, as outlined in reports, includes efforts to assist in the transition from bilateral ceasefire talks to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA). 

HD describes its role as providing technical support and engaging in various initiatives related to the peace process. This includes participation in addressing the challenges in Rakhine (Arakan) State, where they report organising regional dialogues and providing advice on managing the crisis. 

Specifically regarding the Rohingya issue, HD asserts a significant role in regional dialogues and strategies to address the crisis, including its involvement in the Kofi Annan-led Advisory Commission on Arakan State. 

HD claims to have provided substantial advice to the commission, which, again they claim,  was largely incorporated into the commission’s reports. Moreover, HD contends that their unique access and perspective helped shape ‘the international approach to the Rakhine crisis’ through this contribution.

Again given its closed-door approach, external validation is a significant challenge. In a direct enquiry with Laetitia van den Assum, a member of Kofi Annan’s Advisory Commission, a revealing response was obtained: 

“I am not quite sure what is meant by ‘the international approach’. The Annan commission was established by the government of Myanmar and reported back to it. Where is this statement reflected?” asked van den Assum. 

The HD claim of shaping the ‘international approach to the Rakhine crisis’ in its contribution to the Rakhine advisory commission appears to be more about crafting an influential image more than anything else. 

Laetitia van den Assum’s lack of an ‘active memory’ of HD involvement, coupled with her uncertainty about its claimed influence, contrasts with its grandiose claims.  

HD and ARSPH: A Controversial Alliance

Alongside its lofty claims of influence, there exists a stark contrast in HD silence on significant involvements, particularly concerning Rohingya repatriation initiatives. 

Therefore, its role in repatriation efforts, especially in Bangladesh, deserves a closer look. In 2018 and 2019, HD was notably active, working very closely and secretly with the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Health (ARSPH). 

ARSPH, led by Mohib Ullah, had emerged as a vocal and pivotal organisation in the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh, particularly in the context of the resistance to smart card issuance by Bangladeshi authorities in 2018. 

Under Mohib Ullah’s leadership, ARSPH became increasingly influential, marking him as a significant figure within the Rohingya community and a key actor in the dialogue surrounding their repatriation.

While ARSPH gained prominence and a voice in the broader dialogue about Rohingya rights and repatriation, this affiliation with HD also attracted criticism and suspicion within the community.

The association with an external organization like HD, perceived by some as aligning with certain political agendas, fueled divisions among the Rohingya.

This period of HD activity became a turning point, particularly due to its behind-the-scenes role in the critical August 25, 2019 Genocide Day event, organized by ARSPH. 

Over 100,000 Rohingya gathered to commemorate the victims of the 2017 Myanmar military operations that led to the expulsion of over 750,000 of them. Mohib Ullah’s leadership during this event marked him as a prominent voice for Rohingya rights and repatriation. 

However, this event also led to increased scrutiny and a xenophobic backlash against Rohingya in general and the ARSPH in particular, contributing to the subsequent crackdown by the Bangladeshi government, which culminated in the tragic assassination of Mohib Ullah in 2021.

The aftermath of HD withdrawal from the camps, following the event, raises critical questions about its role and the potential consequences of its involvement in these sensitive political contexts. 

The absence of any kind of report or mediation reflection pieces from HD, particularly regarding the severe repercussions faced by ARSPH is striking given their prior active engagement. 

The HD silence in the aftermath, including the difficult and tragic fate that befell a group they had worked closely with, brings into question its understanding of the complex political landscape, the effectiveness of its “peacebuilding strategies”, and the appropriateness of methods in situations marked by stark power imbalances and political volatility.

The HD exit from the camps is explained away indirectly by its overall procedures. Martin Griffiths, the founding Executive Director of Humanitarian Dialogue (HD), articulated the principle of the HD modus operandi: the capacity for rapid and flexible response. 

Griffiths emphasised the HD ability to engage in high-level mediation and to exit projects when objectives are achieved or when the context shifts significantly. This approach, though presented as pragmatic and adaptable, casts doubt on HD’s sense of responsibility. 

By characterising these abrupt departures as routine responses to evolving situations, Griffiths crafted a narrative that absolves HD of the responsibility for any potential fallout or negative outcomes. 

In effect, HD has created a sophisticated word salad to explain away its sidestepping of responsibility towards the communities and individuals impacted by interventions and exits. 

What is the HD mandate? 

HD activities in Myanmar and Bangladesh, particularly regarding Rohingya repatriation, suggest a mandate closely aligned with the immediate goals of state authorities. 

The mandate diverges from its own proclaimed values of impartiality and inclusivity. The strategy is primarily centred on expediting repatriation at the expense of the rights and long-term welfare of the Rohingya. 

This approach provides a platform that, in effect, marginalises the community it purports to assist. 

Furthermore, the mandate from the Myanmar military junta, which underpins HD activities, shows a lack of genuine commitment to resolving the Rohingya issue in a meaningful way. 

The junta’s engagement in the repatriation process is undoubtedly a superficial exercise aimed at international appeasement rather than a sincere effort to address the deep-rooted problems faced by the Rohingya, such as the return to their original homelands, citizenship rights, and overall safety. 

The HD alignment with this approach indicates a willingness to facilitate a process that might achieve token repatriation but falls short of ensuring long-term justice and accountability for the Rohingya. 

This syncs perfectly with the objectives of both the Bangladeshi and Myanmar authorities, where the urgency of repatriation overshadows the critical need for a just and sustainable resolution to the plight of the Rohingya.

A meeting in Singapore was hosted by HD last September. It included representatives from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). 

Notably, UNHCR Senior Policy Officer Kate Pochapsky delivered remarks on the prospects for possible early repatriation. The presence of these U.N. agencies in secretive discussions alongside the Myanmar junta is not wholly unexpected, yet it raises pertinent concerns. 

Given both the UNHCR and the UNDP complex and highly controversial history in the region, particularly regarding their roles in the opaque 2018 tripartite Memorandum of Understanding with Myanmar on repatriation, their participation in such a meeting casts doubt on their commitment to transparent and inclusive processes. 

Echoing these concerns, the ‘Time to Break Old Habits’ report delivers a severe indictment of UNHCR and UNDP conduct during the Rohingya crisis up to 2018. 

The report sharply criticised UNHCR for not disclosing vital information about protection incidents in Rakhine State, a move seen as contributing to the concealment of the severity of the crisis. 

Both UNHCR and UNDP face censure for their inclination towards quiet diplomacy over active public advocacy, a stance that has raised questions about their complicity in the ongoing mistreatment of the Rohingya. 

The report underlined the ineffective leadership and strategy  particularly in the aftermath of the 2016 violence in Rakhine State.  

Their failure to effectively challenge the Burmese government on human rights standards reflected a significant deviation from their mandates and principles.

I reached out to both organisations and they informed me they would not make any kind of comment about their participation in Singapore. 

This pattern of discreet operations and reluctance to engage in open dialogue becomes even more questionable in light of recent developments. 

Last year, UNHCR was involved in facilitating the transfer of a junta pilot repatriation team from Myanmar to Bangladesh, complete with weapons. 

This operation involved the use of U.N. boats, with their identifying markings removed, raising serious concerns about the transparency and ethics of such actions. 

Moreover, the junta’s booklet for pilot repatriation candidates explicitly mentioned that UNHCR and UNDP would be present at the reception centres, a claim both agencies denied when I approached them for comment.

The involvement of UNHCR and UNDP in the Singapore meeting, therefore, seems to fit a pattern observed in the region’s handling of the Rohingya crisis. 

It suggests a collective approach among these key players, characterised by a preference for behind-the-scenes manoeuvring and other covert dealings.  

Critically, this approach often neglects the essential aspect of incorporating Rohingya voices in these dialogues. By sidelining direct input from the affected community, such meetings risk undermining the principles of inclusivity, justice, and accountability. 

Moreover, they overlook the fundamental need for the sustainable resettlement and long-term welfare of the Rohingya – thereby compromising the acceptability, effectiveness and integrity of any proposed solutions.

In Part 3, I will examine the HD engagement with Rohingya and Bangladeshi groups, analysing how its approach and procedure echo the shortcomings of previous efforts in other conflicts it has participated in.

Shafiur Rahman is a documentary filmmaker working on Rohingya issues. 

DVB publishes a diversity of opinions that does not reflect DVB editorial policy. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our stories: [email protected]

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