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Report 121 / Asia

Bangladesh Today

Bangladesh faces twin threats to its democracy and stability: the risk that its political system will founder in a deadlock over elections and the growing challenge of militant Islamism, which has brought a spate of violence.

Executive Summary

Bangladesh faces twin threats to its democracy and stability: the risk that its political system will founder in a deadlock over elections and the growing challenge of militant Islamism, which has brought a spate of violence. The issues are linked; Islamic militancy has flourished in a time of dysfunctional politics, popular discontent and violence. The questions of whether Bangladesh’s traditional moderation and resilience will see it through or whether escalating violence and political confrontation could derail its democracy are vital ones. Serious instability in the world’s third most populous Muslim country could not fail to have wider implications. The situation does not justify great anxiety about the outbreak of major conflict domestically or the nurturing of significant extremism and terrorism internationally but there are elements of fragility in the system which need close watching and engagement. The international community can help to address the graver risks but only if it takes Bangladesh seriously as a strategic partner and moves towards more mature political engagement.

It tends to be bad news that brings Bangladesh to world attention since it won independence from Pakistan, with India’s assistance, in a brutal 1971 war. Apart from recurrent natural disasters, the list of worrying trends is lengthy: the non-functional parliament, entrenched corruption, a culture of violence, both political and non-political, weak judicial and law enforcement agencies, militant Islamic extremism and attacks on minorities, ethnic conflict, poor relations with neighbours, poverty, illiteracy and poor development indicators for women.

Most immediately, problems are multiplying in connection with the general elections, likely to take place in January 2007. Their conduct will rely on four institutions: the presidency, the head of the caretaker government charged with supervising the process, the election commission and the army. None of these is free of controversy; the president and chief justice (who will automatically lead the caretaker administration) are seen as partial to the governing Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), while the chief election commissioner has damaged his credibility with a misconceived, and apparently politically biased, revision of the electoral roll. The army alone has kept a low profile. But while it has done nothing to tarnish its image, its current reluctance to play politics could change if there is serious instability.

The leaders of the two main parties, the BNP and the Awami League (AL), are locked in mutual hatred that has paralysed parliament. The AL has good grounds for its complaints of victimisation: an August 2004 grenade attack on an AL rally in the capital nearly killed its president, Sheikh Hasina, and left other senior leaders dead or injured; other assaults include the murder of Shah A.M.S. Kibria, a respected former finance minister. There have been no serious investigations of these killings.

The AL, whose own record in government was marred by political violence and which has stalled parliament with a lengthy boycott, has adopted a confrontational strategy. Demanding reasonable benchmarks for free and fair elections, it has refused to negotiate with the BNP’s Islamist coalition partner, the Jamaat-e-Islami, and threatens to pull out of the polls altogether. Although it won the largest share of votes in 2001 and hopes to benefit from an anti-incumbent swing, the first-past-the-post system means that much rides on the selection of allies and distribution of winnable seats. The BNP has the support of the religious parties and has strengthened its hand by persuading the Jatiya party of former military ruler General Ershad to join its alliance.

The principal beneficiary of these messy political equations has been the increasingly influential Islamist fringe, led by legitimate governing parties like the Jamaat but extending to the violently militant Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB) and the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB). Circumstantial evidence, as well as cold political logic, suggests that underground terrorist groups have been cultivated and sheltered by those in power.

Although the government long denied there was a problem, a sharp escalation of violence in 2005 forced it to face up to a threat that was nearly out of hand. August 2005 saw more than 450 simultaneous bombings in every district of the country bar one; the explosions were small and casualties low but the scale of organisation rang alarm bells. The first apparent suicide bombings took place in December 2005. Amid mounting domestic and international pressure, the government arrested senior militant leaders and hundreds of foot soldiers in March 2006. Islamist violence has dried up since then, suggesting that the state’s action has brought results, but this may be only a temporary suspension, with sponsors of the militants worried that violence was becoming an electoral and diplomatic liability. The issues of foreign funding of extremism and the growing madrasa system outside of government regulation are concerns for the long term.

Increased militancy cannot simply be attributed to poverty. Indeed, on paper Bangladesh’s economy is healthy, and the country is making impressive progress on development goals. There are other stabilising factors: a lively free media, vibrant civil society and NGO sector, a sophisticated electorate and a deep-rooted tradition of liberal secularism. Islam has always been an important strand of identity; that it has grown in significance since Bangladesh achieved independence in 1971 is neither surprising nor alarming. Offered a choice at the polls, Bangladeshis have consistently rejected religious extremism. Although the Islamists have gained in influence by manoeuvring themselves into government, they have not increased their share of the vote. The urgent challenge is for Bangladesh’s political leaders to ensure that it is the people at large who get to shape the country’s future, rather than a violent fringe filling the vacuum created by moderate parties’ short-term self-interest.

For the international community, the challenge will be finding ways to support the workings of democracy. To do this, it needs to move relationships away from a focus on aid to a more active political engagement, insisting that the government meet standards in terms of human rights, elections and the reform of the security sector. Short-term counter-terrorism issues should not overwhelm the long-term issues of improving oversight of security forces, respect for human rights and ending the culture of impunity, particularly surrounding political violence. Improving democracy is the best guarantee against the growth of extremism.

Islamabad/Brussels, 23 October 2006

Rohingya refugee women hold placards as they take part in a protest at the Kutupalong refugee camp to mark the one-year anniversary of their exodus in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, 25 August 2018. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain
Briefing 153 / Asia

Bangladesh-Myanmar: The Danger of Forced Rohingya Repatriation

Bangladesh and Myanmar have struck a deal for the involuntary repatriation of over 2,000 Rohingya refugees. But the agreement is rushed and threatens stability on both sides of the border. Myanmar and Bangladesh should halt the plan and instead work to create conditions conducive to a safe and dignified return. 

What’s new? Bangladesh’s government is preparing to return several thousand Rohingya refugees to Myanmar. Under pressure from China, the two countries have agreed to start implementing a repatriation agreement on 15 November 2018.

Why does it matter? The returns process is not voluntary and jeopardises refugees’ safety as conditions in Myanmar’s Rakhine state are not conducive to their return. The move renews the risk of violent unrest in Bangladesh where the refugees are housed as well in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.

What should be done? The UN, U.S., European Union (EU), Australia, Canada and other governments should press Bangladesh and Myanmar to postpone repatriation until conditions on the ground in Myanmar allow Rohingya refugees to return safely and voluntarily.

I. Overview

Bangladesh is poised to begin returning several thousand Rohingya refugees to Myanmar. This repatriation is unlikely to be voluntary and should not proceed. It would not only violate Bangladesh’s international legal obligations and jeopardise the safety of the refugees, but risks triggering violence and greater instability on both sides of the border. Bangladesh and Myanmar should immediately halt the plan. The UN, including the secretary-general’s special envoy and the UN refugee agency, should continue to firmly oppose it, both in public and in private, and establish a process whereby Rohingya refugees are consulted about their future. The U.S., European Union (EU), Australia, Canada and others also should press Bangladesh and Myanmar to halt the returns and instead work to create conditions conducive to voluntary repatriation; those countries’ participation at the 11-15 November ASEAN summits in Singapore is an opportunity to do so.

II. New Pressures for Repatriation

Almost 750,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh following Myanmar’s brutal military operation in Rakhine state in response to attacks on security posts by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) militant group in August 2017.[fn]See Crisis Group Asia Report N°292, Myanmar’s Rohingya Crisis Enters a Dangerous New Phase, 7 December 2017.Hide Footnote The refugees have been living in vast camps near the Bangladesh-Myanmar border ever since. A UN fact-finding mission concluded that the military’s actions constitute crimes against humanity, war crimes and possible genocide.[fn]“Myanmar: UN Fact-Finding Mission releases its full account of massive violations by military in Rakhine, Kachin and Shan States”, press release, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), 18 September 2018.Hide Footnote

Myanmar and Bangladesh agreed to a procedural framework for repatriation in November 2017, which was supposed to start on 23 January. But no Rohingya refugee has returned through official channels. In fact, more Rohingya have left Myanmar since then: some 16,000 have departed Rakhine state for Bangladesh so far in 2018.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, UN officials involved in the relief effort, Bangladesh, November 2018.Hide Footnote Refugees are unwilling to return without guarantees that their security and rights will be protected, accountability ensured and compensation provided for the destruction of their villages, homes and property.

On 30 October, however, Bangladesh and Myanmar agreed on a repatriation deal at a joint working group meeting in Dhaka. Under the agreement, 485 Rohingya families (a total of 2,260 people) are to be returned to Myanmar starting on 15 November; Myanmar has said that it will process 150 returnees per day.[fn]“First batch of over 2,260 returnees to be accepted at rate of 150 per day”, Global New Light of Myanmar, 5 November 2018, p. 2.Hide Footnote  These people were not consulted in advance and how they were selected is unclear; they are terrified at the prospect of being returned to Myanmar.[fn]“Humanitarian Organizations call for Guarantees of Safety and Rights for Refugees before Return to Myanmar Commences”, press release, INGO Forum Myanmar, 8 December 2017.Hide Footnote  The Bangladesh authorities have said that they will not force people to go back, but no return under present circumstances can be voluntary. Crisis Group interviews indicate that some of the refugees on the list for return have gone into hiding out of fear of being repatriated; at least one has attempted suicide.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Rohingya refugees, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, November 2018. See also “Rohingya refugee attempts suicide as repatriation fears rise”, The Telegraph (London), 8 November 2018.Hide Footnote

Some of the refugees on the list for return have gone into hiding out of fear of being repatriated; at least one has attempted suicide.

While the two countries have held many previous discussions and made announcements on repatriation plans over the past year that have not been implemented, this time Bangladesh appears determined to push through a limited returns process. Its political calculations have shifted for two key reasons.

First, it has come under considerable diplomatic pressure from China to start returns. China has important economic and geostrategic interests in Myanmar, including a multi-billion dollar China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, the details of which are currently being finalised; it is also a major investor in Bangladesh, giving it significant leverage. China has been supporting Myanmar in the UN Human Rights Council and General Assembly and protecting it from stronger Security Council action. It has advocated support for Myanmar and Bangladesh to deal with the situation bilaterally instead of being addressed in multilateral forums, but this argument rings hollow if the bilateral process is not working.

Beijing has thus facilitated a series of meetings between Myanmar and Bangladesh and has made clear that it wants to see movement. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi hosted a side meeting among Myanmar, Bangladesh and UN Secretary-General António Guterres and his Special Envoy during the General Assembly in September, where the Bangladesh foreign minister committed to start repatriations “soon”.[fn]“China facilitates informal meeting at UN to expedite refugee repatriation process”, The Irrawaddy, 1 October 2018.Hide Footnote Shortly before the 30 October meeting between Myanmar and Bangladesh, Chinese Public Security Minister Zhao Kezhi also met with Bangladeshi leaders.

Secondly, Bangladesh is worried about what it sees as an emerging global consensus that most refugees are unlikely to return home for the foreseeable future and a shift in Western donor focus to their local integration. Many senior Bangladeshi officials privately acknowledge that the majority of refugees may never go home.[fn]But they are not ready to state this publicly or to allow donors to take for granted Bangladesh’s continued hosting of the Rohingya – especially given the low levels of funding for the humanitarian operation and the burden this places on Bangladesh. It also believes that international actors have not pressed Myanmar enough to address the security, rights and accountability issues to enable any large-scale return.[fn]By undertaking some forced returns, Bangladesh officials appear to be banking on the fact that they will alarm donors and prompt them to focus more on the situation and realise the status quo is unsustainable.

These factors have combined to tip Bangladesh’s policy in favour of a small-scale return. Political dynamics ahead of general elections in Bangladesh on 23 December may also play a part. Myanmar also sees a limited repatriation as serving its interests. Naypyitaw hopes that a small number of returns would demonstrate to a sceptical world that it is ready to welcome Rohingya back, shifting the focus away from the reasons why they originally left – and thereby weakening, it believes, the basis for claims of ethnic cleansing and genocide.

III. The Risks of Forced Returns

While Bangladesh and Myanmar may consider that the return of some refugees serves their respective interests, it would harm the Rohingya themselves, who would be returning to a situation from which people continue to flee. Bangladesh is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol, and while it has given the Rohingya safe haven, it does not formally recognise them as refugees. Nevertheless, Bangladesh has an obligation under customary international law to ensure that any return of refugees to Myanmar is voluntary and safe.

Bangladesh and Myanmar did not consult in advance with the UN or its refugee agency on the repatriation. The UN has stressed the move is premature and that it does not yet consider conditions on the ground in Rakhine state conducive to returns.[fn]The UN special rapporteur on the situation of Human Rights in Myanmar issued a statement on 6 November calling on Bangladesh to shelve the “rushed plans” for repatriation.[fn]

In addition to the human rights concerns, a forced repatriation carries serious risks for security and stability on both sides of the border. The refugee community in Bangladesh is strongly opposed to the move and will do whatever it can to resist it. This will increase tensions in the camps and could lead to confrontations between refugees and Bangladeshi security forces and greatly complicate humanitarian operations. A botched repatriation attempt could potentially set back peace and development efforts by years.

The ARSA militant group continues to have a prominent presence in the camps and could launch cross-border raids on Myanmar’s security forces, as it did in January 2018, in an effort to stop repatriation. Other militant factions have also been organising in the camps, though their capacity for violent action is unclear.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Rohingya refugees, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, January-November 2018.Hide Footnote Any attack or other security incident in Rakhine state would heighten tensions there and could worsen conditions for the several hundred thousand Rohingya who remain. Myanmar has also said that some of the people proposed by Bangladesh for repatriation were ARSA members.[fn]“Dozens of ‘terrorists’ among Rohingya slated for repatriation, Myanmar official says”, Radio Free Asia, 8 November 2018.Hide Footnote  It is not known if they are among those selected for return but this raises the worrying possibility that some of those sent back could be arrested.

In addition to the human rights concerns, a forced repatriation carries serious risks for security and stability on both sides of the border.

A rushed repatriation is also likely to increase tensions in Rakhine state. Already, ethnic Rakhine opposed to returns have held demonstrations to stop them. Rakhine nationalists are also calling for strict security vetting of returnees and resettling them to certain secure areas instead of their home villages. In particular, nationalists are staunchly opposed to any returns to southern Maungdaw, which they want to maintain as a “Muslim-free zone”.[fn]“With Rohingya gone, Myanmar’s ethnic Rakhine seek Muslim-free 'buffer zone’”, The Daily Star, 16 March 2018.Hide Footnote  Crisis Group has seen a partial list of the returnees, a number of whom came from villages in this area, and under the terms of the repatriation agreement should be allowed to return there. A secretive repatriation process without the consultations and preparations needed in Rakhine state could easily inflame hostilities and provoke violence against returnees or the remaining Rohingya population.

If refugees fear that they will be forced back to Myanmar, they may become more desperate to leave the camps and to attempt dangerous sea journeys across the Bay of Bengal to Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia or other countries. This could have wider regional implications, as it did during the maritime migration crisis of 2015.

IV. Recommendations

The following actions should urgently be taken:

  • Bangladesh and Myanmar should immediately halt plans to return refugees to Rakhine state until they can ensure a process of voluntary, safe and dignified return. The onus is squarely on Myanmar to create those conditions.
     
  • In the meantime, Myanmar should grant unfettered access for the UN and its international NGO partners, as well as the media, to northern Rakhine for the delivery of essential humanitarian support and in order to allow independent assessment of the situation on the ground.
     
  • The Bangladesh government and its international partners should deepen their political engagement with the Rohingya refugees and consult them about their future. So far, there is almost no consultation or even processes in place to do so.
     
  • China should stop pressing for an early repatriation and lend its weight to efforts by other governments and organisations to create conditions in Rakhine state that are conducive to voluntary and sustainable return.
     
  • The UN and its refugee agency should continue to firmly oppose the repatriation in public and in private and use its influence in both countries to halt the process. In particular, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener, should take a clear public stand and press both Dhaka and Naypyitaw to shelve their current plans. The UN, already facing serious questions about its approach in the years leading up to the crisis, cannot fail the Rohingya again.[fn]The Fact-Finding Mission recommended that “As a matter of urgency, a comprehensive, independent inquiry should be conducted into the involvement of the United Nations in Myanmar since 2011, with a view to establishing whether everything possible to prevent or mitigate the unfolding crises was done, identifying lessons learned and good practices, making recommendations as appropriate, including on accountability, and enabling more effective work in future.” This call has been echoed by the Special Rapporteur, Yanghee Lee. See “Report of the International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar”, A/HRC/39/64, 18 September 2018, para. 111.Hide Footnote If a precedent of forced repatriation is set, larger-scale forced returns in the future become much more likely.

As dialogue partners with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the U.S., EU, Australia, Canada and others should use the upcoming ASEAN summit meetings from 11 to 15 November in Singapore to press Myanmar to halt its current plans and instead work to create conditions for voluntary repatriation. ASEAN countries have a direct stake, since forced returns will likely lead to a surge in Rohingya seeking to flee by boat to Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Brussels, 12 November 2018

 

Appendix A: Map of Rakhine State