Four years ago, I was there when the persecuted Rohingya men, women and children started to enter Bangladesh. My presence in Cox's Bazar was serendipitous but for the Rohingya the displacement was by design and very deliberate.
It was the culmination of decades of persecution and violence based on ethnicity and religion. In this piece, I wish to recount some of my anecdotal experience of the last four years since the exodus of the Rohingya from Myanmar in August 2017.
I recall the deep concern of the local population when the Rohingya arrived in August 2017. The first responders were the inhabitants of Teknaf and Ukhiya as they opened their doors to the hungry and tortured men, women and children. They provided them with food and shelter, opened up their schools and colleges and mosques for emergency shelter.
Spontaneity was the main driving force – nobody waited for directions from outside but necessity brought the locals together from a deep sense of humanitarian purpose. Then others stepped in – NGOs, UN and international agencies, but most importantly, the full might of the Government of Bangladesh came into play.
This created the most effective humanitarian partnership to deal with the acute need of sustenance, accommodation, and medical facilities. The chaotic situation was transformed into order and hope for a better future.
In the following months, international attention fell on the issue of justice and accountability. The paramount conviction which drove this was that the barbaric acts of Myanmar can't be forgotten and swept under the carpet by Myanmar and its allies.
International civil society galvanised evidence and with the support of a diverse group of individuals and institutions (on the face of serious push back) the legal process started: the International Criminal Court and International Court of Justice took the brave decisions to initiate legal proceedings under the Rome Statute and the Genocide Convention, respectively. However, such legal procedures are slow and cumbersome.
As with any regional and international crises, history and geopolitics become inseparable. Needless to say, Myanmar has made very good use of these factors. Despite sympathetic statements, many governments have maintained their diplomatic and business relationship with Myanmar. The double standard is manifest and sickening. This is a major source of frustration for Bangladesh and its well-wishers, and needless to say, to the first responders (also known as the host community) and the Rohingya worldwide.
Meanwhile, the world has experienced a tectonic shift due to the Covid pandemic. The world's attention has shifted to other more pressing issues. The resources flowing into the humanitarian effort in Bangladesh have fallen dramatically. As the Rohingya crisis becomes a protracted one, the nature of the humanitarian intervention in Cox's Bazar will shift and transform.
What to do?
The crisis was created by Myanmar's leaders and only they can resolve it. At the heart of the crisis is the issue of nationality for the Rohingya and other groups. I feel that the present or any future Myanmar regime will have to amend the 1962 nationality law.
Not only the Rohingya but also many other ethnic groups are victims of this retrograde and reactionary piece of legislation. The recent coup in Myanmar has made this very obvious, and the Rohingya population is not the only group demanding this reform.
This has to be the starting point for Myanmar when it comes to their own nation-building exercise. But this will also be a very difficult goal to achieve given the present situation in Myanmar. We also know from history, recent and past, that these changes can only happen if there is a concerted effort.
However, what can we do in Bangladesh? Our well experienced policy-makers have put in place a framework under the capable Office of the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner. The objective is to reduce the hardship of both the Host and Rohingya communities, and this must be the right way forward.
Keeping in mind the ultimate goal of the Rohingya returning to their birthplace and country of origin, Myanmar, the other policy decisions should be to create a congenial and peaceful environment for the population at large in Bangladesh.
Bangladesh's birth pangs remind us of the sufferings and loss, which resulted in 10 million Bangladeshis becoming refugees in India. The Rohingya in Bangladesh wish to return to their homeland when it is safe and secure for them to return to Myanmar.
Over the last four years the international community has failed to show resolve and leadership on this issue. The onus, therefore, is again on Bangladesh and its well-wishers to show a way forward.
Bangladesh has already shown the world how to welcome nearly a million Rohingya and provide them with the basic necessities over the last four years. The time has come for Bangladesh to again reveal to the world a plan of action which will create a conducive environment for both the Host and Rohingya communities in Cox's Bazar.
Rather than creating a marginalised community, susceptible to the influences of the fringes, the Rohingya, particularly the youth, can equip themselves in a meaningful manner for their eventual return to Myanmar. I am confident that Bangladesh will be able to rise up to such a challenge!
Manzoor Hasan is the Executive Director of the Centre for Peace and Justice, Brac University. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Brac University or The Business Standard.