The vague concept of Rohingya land in Rakhine


5 Sept. 2019

By Shamima Ahmed


The Rohingya Refugee Crisis is one of the most significant humanitarian crises in recent decades and is rooted in the forced displacement of the Rohingya ethnic group by the military-backed government of Myanmar. The Rohingyas are some of the most persecuted people in the world due to decades-long non-acknowledgement of their citizenship rights by the government of Myanmar (Canal,2017; UNHCR,2015). This non-acknowledgement turned the Rohingyas into the largest stateless ethnic community of the world, who have been driven out of their motherland through a genocide conducted by the military-led government of Myanmar, and have been forced to take refuge in neighboring Bangladesh and other countries (A. Tennery, 2015; Libresco, 2015; Yegar, 2002 & The Pyithu Hluttaw Law No. 4 of 1982; UNCHR, August 2019).


Different forms of politically institutionalized violence against the Rohingyas (including killings, rape, arbitrary arrest and detention, disappearances, forced labor, torture and ill-treatment, and persecution based on ethnic or religious grounds) continue to date. From 1978 to 2018 over one million Rohingyas driven out of Myanmar were mostly given refuge in Bangladesh (A.A Ullah, 2011; UNHCR, 2018). The UN Human Rights Commissioner, Zeid Ra'ad Al-Hussein, called the latest violence in the Rakhine state in 2017 'a textbook example of ethnic cleansing' (UN News, 2017). Meanwhile, the government of Bangladesh is facing severe challenges in tackling the presence of this 1.3 million ethnic community in Cox’s Bazar, the south-eastern district of Bangladesh on both security as well as humanitarian grounds (The Daily Star, 2017). After nearly two years of genocide in the Rakhine State of Myanmar (August 2017), different international agencies and countries including Bangladesh and Myanmar, are working towards a prospective settlement of the Rohingya refugees, so far without success. This article evaluates some recent proposals and potential ways forward.

US congressman Bradley Sherman, Chairman of Sub-committee on the Asia Pacific of the Congress, called upon the State Department to consider a proposal for bringing the Rakhine state of Myanmar under the control of Bangladesh. Similarly, Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad asserted that in his opinion the Rohingyas should be treated either as citizens of Myanmar or to be given a chance to form an independent Rohingya land in Rakhine (The Economic Times, July 2019; Dhaka Tribune, July 2019). However, the reality is different from both these statements: Both the Myanmar and Bangladesh heads of state expressed deep shock and surprises about these offers and have rejected them outright (Arab News, July 2019; The Daily Star, 2019). 

As a Third World country the government of Bangladesh is already struggling to manage various internal problems including overpopulation, a high degree of corruption in both the public and private sectors, extrajudicial killings, unstable political conditions, poverty etc. Thus, Sheikh Hasina, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh sharply criticized  Sherman’s comments and declined any possibility of merging the Rohingyas with mainstream population of Bangladesh (, July 2019). Moreover, Myanmar as a sovereign state has no reason to give up its most resourceful and geo-strategically valuable region. Even if Myanmar could be persuaded to do so, any move to create a new state is likely to instigate violence and an inflation of nationalistic sentiment among peoples who are deprived of their rights by respective governments.

In an alternative attempt to resolve the Rohingya crisis, Marzuki Darusman, chair of the UN fact-finding commission on Myanmar said the situation should be referred to the International Criminal Court or other international tribunals on genocides and an arms embargo should be imposed on Myanmar (UNCHR, August 2019). According to Marzuki Darusman and many international bodies, including the UN, the Rohingya genocide is a consequence of massive violations of human rights. However, the most significant obstacle to an international law solution has been Myanmar hardened refusal to acknowledge the UN’s detailed findings on the crisis. Similarly, China, which is Myanmar's neighbor and ally, and Russia vetoed in taking any meaningful action against Myanmar in the UN Security Council and other specialized agencies. Instead, Vassily Nebenzia, Russian Ambassador to UN, accused the supporter of a motion against Myanmar in the UN Security Council  as 'loudspeaker diplomacy' (AP, October 2018).

Ironically, land acquisition by Chinese, Indian and Russian companies in Rakhine state played a significant role in driving out the Rohingyas from Myanmar and contributed to making them stateless with a sub-human status in Bangladesh's refugee camps. Even the mass violence perpetrated against Rohingyas was instigated by the Buddhist civilian-cum-army-led government of Myanmar was partially motivated by the wealth of natural resources in Rakhine state and its important geo-strategic location. Most significantly, India and China have joined in Rakhine-focussed trading networks that included building mega projects like the Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in Rakhine. Even major business construction works have been started in Kyaukphyu and Sittwe (parts of Rakhine) by China and India respectively (UNCHR, August 2019; AP, October 2018; The Straits Times, September 2018). According to UNCHR (August 2019) report 45 companies and organizations in Myanmar donated over 10 million dollars to the military government of Myanmar in the weeks following the outset of the 2017 clearance operations in Rakhine State. These so-called “crony companies” were closely linked with the military government and furthered the military’s “objective of re-engineering the region in a way that erases evidence of Rohingya belonging to Myanmar.” Despite Rakhine’s natural-resources wealth, the region has long been politically fragile land due to decades-long Buddhist-Muslim national government-backed racial conflicts.

Moreover, Rakhine possesses a geo-strategic location at the western coastal belt of Myanmar, located between South and South-eastern Asia. This area is the entrance in both the Indian Ocean and the resource-rich Bay of Bengal which is considered a particularly significant military-cum-trading belt. China is one-step ahead of its rivals in showing its intentions of spreading their control over the Bay of Bengal and to shape business and military opportunities in the areas which can be accessed using the Rakhine coast and by increasing defense cooperation with Myanmar. The Rakhine coastal belt is also significant to India to get proper access to its 7-sisters, as this area is not well connected with India due to borders with China, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Bhutan. Thus, a level of control over the Rakhine state is strategically important for India in developing an acute surveillance system in the 7-sisters. As a result, the evictions of the Rohingyas from the Rakhine land can be viewed as part of multiple state-sponsored international crimes to access the geo-strategic and economic value of a particularly significant region. 

Thus, it is evident that the Rohingyas as victims of the consequences of both domestic and international power politics. The expectation of Rohingyas forming an independent state in Rakhine as is nothing but a dream. The feasibility of Rohingya independence  is complicated by the geo-strategic significance of the area and by the backing Myanmar receives by major powers like India, Russia and China. Bangladesh has no evident intention or capacity to merge the Rohingyas with its main population or for seeking the Rakhine state to be given to Bangladesh to accommodate the Rohingyas under the identity of Bangladeshi citizenship. Thus, the idea of creating a Rohingyaland in Rakhine is a vague concept for settling the crisis.

Above all, Myanmar and Bangladesh are not signatories of the Refugee convention of 1951 and Refugee protocol of 1967 (UNHCR, 2018). Nonetheless, they cannot decide on the Rohingyas' future independently as both countries are members of various international agencies and partnerships, including the UN. Thus, there are some pressures on both countries to follow international norms in designing the fortune or misfortune of the Rohingya refugees in future. However, unless Rohingyas are guarantees of citizenship of Myanmar, human rights, safety and security including fair and equal ways of livelihood by Myanmar, Bangladesh cannot force the Rohingya repatriation to Myanmar by international norms. Now the question is, who do the international laws serve; victims or beneficiaries?


Edited for M3 Dialogue by Julius M. Rogenhofer






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