Tuesday, June 18, 2024
HomeOpinionThe double betrayal of the Rohingya

The double betrayal of the Rohingya

Guest contributor

Shafiur Rahman 

The narrative surrounding Bangladesh’s role in the Rohingya crisis is often one-sided, casting the country as a humanitarian saviour. When the Rohingya crisis escalated in 2017, Bangladesh was globally praised for opening its borders and providing refuge to hundreds of thousands fleeing ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. This humanitarian gesture won Bangladesh significant international support and commendation. 

Bangladesh capitalised on this positive image, presenting itself as a compassionate and responsible member of the international community that stepped in to save a persecuted minority from certain death. But this is as far as the story is told. Bangladesh’s dark history of refugee treatment and forced repatriation is rarely scrutinised.

Current policies and actions by the Bangladeshi government paint a much darker picture. These policies have created extremely harsh living conditions for the Rohingya refugees. Overcrowded camps, restrictions on movement, denial of work rights, and inadequate access to education and healthcare have all contributed to a dire situation for the refugees. 

Reports of exploitation and corruption involving Bangladeshi officials, including border guards and the Armed Police Battalion (APBn), further undermine the humanitarian image. The involvement of these officials in illicit trade and their complicity in abuses within the camps betray the initial promise of safety and protection.

The use of violent groups like the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) and the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO) to maintain control and suppress dissent within the camps amounts to a strategy of manipulation and coercion rather than protection and support. 

Forced relocation of Rohingya refugees to Bhasan Char, an isolated and flood-prone island, has been widely criticised by human rights organisations as another tactic to pressure the Rohingya into repatriation, despite the continued risks they face in Myanmar. 

Additionally, Bhasan Char serves Bangladesh’s interests in terms of rent-seeking for its armed forces, further highlighting the exploitative nature of the relocation policy.

Bangladeshi defence officials and think tanks have posited that the desperate conditions in the refugee camps could make some Rohingya vulnerable to recruitment by militant or extremist groups. This has been repeated over and over since 2017. 

Think tanks in Bangladesh and Myanmar have speculated about the potential influence of regional Islamist militant groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba based in Pakistan, despite a lack of evidence. What is absolutely certain is that the only co-option that can be easily seen is that of the states of Myanmar and Bangladesh putting ARSA and RSO to use for their own interests.

This “islamist militant” narrative serves to shift the blame onto the Rohingya and away from the complicity and benefit derived by Bangladeshi actors from the refugees’ plight. It makes them a burden and a threat to Bangladesh and the region. This, in turn, helps to create a perverse securitised response to a humanitarian crisis – the purpose of the narrative. By framing the issue as a security threat, states can justify harsh measures and maintain control over the refugee population. 

Bangladeshi businessmen, politicians, border guards, and members of the APBn have  benefited from illicit trade with Myanmar. Significant illicit trade across the Bangladesh-Myanmar border, including narcotics, arms, and human trafficking, is often facilitated by corrupt officials and law enforcement personnel on both sides of the border. 

The APBn, responsible for security in the Rohingya camps, has been implicated in various corrupt practices, including extortion, arbitrary arrests, and collaboration with criminal groups involved in the drug trade and other illicit activities. These activities provide substantial economic incentives for participation and protection from political and law enforcement figures.

The narcotics trade, particularly involving methamphetamine tablets, known as yaba, is a significant part of the illicit economy between Myanmar and Bangladesh. This trade is lucrative and often involves high-level corruption and complicity from law enforcement and border security officials on both sides. 

Human trafficking is another major illicit activity benefiting various stakeholders, including the armed entities operating in Arakan State. Corrupt officials and traffickers exploit the desperate situation of the Rohingya refugees in both countries, leading to substantial profits from smuggling and exploiting vulnerable individuals. Smuggling and arms trade across the border contribute to the wealth and power of those involved, with benefits accruing to those in positions of authority and influence.

Overall, the evidence suggests a network of illicit trade benefiting various Bangladesh and Myanmar actors, including armed groups, businessmen, politicians, border guards, and members of the APBn. This network not only undermines the rule of law but also perpetuates the cycle of exploitation and violence affecting the Rohingya refugees. 

Refugee camp realities

The harsh conditions in the refugee camps have been exacerbated by a series of unexplained fires, displacing thousands and destroying what little shelter the refugees had. Pitched battles between various gangs have taken place without intervention by law enforcement, further contributing to the atmosphere of fear and instability.

One of the most egregious instances of betrayal has been the destruction of No Man’s Land by the RSO, with Bangladeshi forces observing and facilitating the operation, which was jointly planned by the Myanmar and Bangladesh forces. This action displaced around 4,500 refugees who had been living there, adding to the already dire conditions in the camps.

The most grievous betrayal is the forced recruitment of Rohingya refugees by members of the RSO, with law enforcement standing idly by. For weeks, starting in April, the camps have been terrorised as RSO apprehends people and trafficks them to Myanmar to serve alongside the military (and also the Arakan Army to a lesser extent). This practice has not only disrupted the lives of countless families but has also contributed to the cycle of violence and exploitation that the Rohingya have been subjected to.

Despite the RSO being listed as a criminal organisation as recently as February 2023 by the parliamentary standing committee on defence of the Ministry of Defence, its leaders openly mix with Bangladeshi politicians and authorities in the camps. This blatant complicity highlights the deep-seated corruption and manipulation at play. 

Co-option

From as early as 1978, the Rohingya organisations have been infiltrated and co-opted by the state of Bangladesh. This political capture has taken many forms, whether through direct manipulation of armed groups or through the infiltration of advocacy organisations operating in civilian and international settings.

In the late 1970s, during the first major exodus of Rohingya fleeing military operations in Myanmar, Bangladesh allowed and even facilitated the formation of Rohingya “militant” groups. These groups were initially supported as a buffer against potential aggression from Myanmar. 

However, as regional and internal politics shifted, so did the alliances. By the 1990s, groups like the RSO were being manipulated to serve the interests of Bangladeshi border security and political elites. This manipulation often included using them to exert pressure on Myanmar while controlling the Rohingya population within Bangladesh. 

Various Rohingya groups and splinter groups emerged. Initially formed to advocate for Rohingya rights and self-determination, they were infiltrated by Bangladeshi intelligence operatives and used to further its strategic interests rather than genuinely advocating for the Rohingya.

Even civilian organisations and international advocacy groups have not been immune. The Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights (ARSPH), often thought to be an organic development from the camps, was nurtured by the government of Bangladesh and developed by Humanitarian Dialogue, a shadowy so-called “conflict resolution” organisation.

As time passed and it had served its purpose, it came under pressure, accused of fomenting unrest. Their office was locked up and the organisation effectively shut down. Recently, the Bangladeshi authorities created The Forcibly Displaced Myanmar Nationals Representative Committee as a replacement and to cheerlead its repatriation campaigns.

Diaspora organisations like the Arakan Rohingya National Alliance (ARNA) have been shadowed and mentored by ex-Bangladeshi military generals, while the Arakan Rohingya Union employs an ex-general as its adviser. 

Consequently, these organisations are unable to utter a single word of direct criticism. Instead, they preface all remarks about Bangladesh with an expression of gratitude for allowing the Rohingya to take refuge there. Recently, when a trio of diaspora spokespersons tried to engage with the Arakan Army (AA), Bangladesh was the midwife. While there is no inherent problem in a frontline state playing such a role, the entire initiative was poorly thought out and ended in frustration in Thailand. This exemplifies the broader issues of Bangladesh’s influence over Rohingya leadership and the ineffective, often counterproductive, strategies employed in managing the crisis. 

Internal failure

Compounding this external manipulation are the internal failures within the Rohingya leadership itself. Chronic disunity, leadership failures, lack of vision, and ego wars have plagued Rohingya organisations. Leaders are often more focused on personal gains or settling old scores rather than uniting for the common good. This disunity has left the community vulnerable to external manipulation and unable to present a cohesive front in the struggle for their rights and survival.

Reconciliation efforts among Rohingya leaders have repeatedly failed, with many elders setting a poor example for the younger generations. There is no national policy or action plan guiding the community, and their main role is commentary in the press and advocacy in international legal mechanisms. 

Education for Rohingya youth is in crisis, with limited access to primary education and virtually no opportunities for higher education. Women, who bear the brunt of societal pressures and patriarchal norms, are not adequately supported or empowered, despite their critical role in the community’s survival and resilience.

The story of the Rohingya is not just one of external persecution but also of internal betrayal. The political capture by Bangladesh and Myanmar, combined with the internal failures of Rohingya leadership, has created a perfect storm of exploitation and suffering. 


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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