In the Rohingya Crisis, Bangladesh Can Only Learn From Its Own History

Written by: Zaheer Abbas
Today I recall the words of Karl Marx, when he said (recalling the words of Hegel himself) that “all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice.”. More crucially, he added onto Hegel’s words: these occurrences pose themselves “the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”.
His remarks came as a reflection of Louis Bonaparte’s assumption of power in France, not dissimilar from the rise of a much more famous Bonaparte merely half a century prior. The first Bonaparte eschewed democracy in the aftermath of an unstable post-revolutionary France – a tragedy, no doubt – and so when another Bonaparte would very well do the same following the 1848 French Revolution, Marx saw it as nothing but a farce – a failure of the world to prevent this second occurrence of history.

But today, I recall his words not from ruminations of the Bonapartes and their tryst with France’s numerous experiments with democracy. Instead, I am led to think far closer to home, where we have ushered Bangladesh through its fiftieth year of independence, a proud South Asian tiger, although we are not without our own policy challenges.

It is in Bangladesh that Marx’s words on history resonate deepest to me. Fifty years ago, we were faced with a brutal genocide of our people. The oppressive Pakistani military forces rained hell on Bangladesh, leveling settlements and prompting an exodus of millions. To borrow from Marx, this was nothing short of a tragedy. Almost half a century later, like prophecy, a second occurrence would stir the subcontinent: the Myanmar military forces rained hell on the Rohingya, leveling settlements and prompting an exodus of millions. This, too, was nothing but a farce – a failure of the world to prevent this second occurrence of history. Four – nearly five – years on, the international community stands as silent as ever, lacking consensus on what to do, and more importantly, failing to hold the military state responsible for its actions.

There are great parallels between the plight of the Bangladeshi and the plight of the Rohingya. The former was denied their right to self-determination, and the latter was denied their right to nation. The former was discriminated against by a military state by virtue of being Bengali, and the latter was discriminated against by a military state by virtue of being – they refuse to say Rohingya – “Bengalis”.

I am of the opinion that what goes on in Myanmar today is a crude mimicry of what went on in Bangladesh fifty years ago. But there is an obvious break in the parallels: today, Bangladesh is an independent state, following a nine month long struggle for liberation. But today, four – nearly five – years on, the Rohingya remain stateless, unrecognized, almost invisible. Why is this so? How have we moved past the first tragedy, but how have we let this second farce slide?

This is a crucial policy question for Bangladesh. After all, the Rohingya have been refugees in Bangladesh for all these years, and we have tried – without success – to find answers for this crisis. But perhaps we had known the answers all along; perhaps all one needed to do was to look back in history, back to the first tragedy: 1971.

In the shoes of a familiar friend
Fifty years ago, the bloodletting in Bangladesh led to one of the world’s greatest refugee flows – dwarfed only by the Partition and the Second World War. Approximately ten million refugees fled to India, seeking refuge in the bordering northeastern states. India, merely twenty four years young, was struggling with its own economic challenges, but ultimately realized it would be unable to turn away the sheer refugee wave for practical and moral reasons. Fifty years later, Bangladesh answered the eerily familiar shrill call of refugees pouring in from the East, and soon we found ourselves in the same shoes as India had decades ago.

The economic impacts were grave in India, crushed by the weight of refugees in sensitive states with threadbare resources. The economic impacts are grave today in Bangladesh as well. While both states acted with principle to take in the persecuted, downtrodden masses, there was an underlying sense of urgency: this was an untenable position to take. India chafed under the pressure, and it would take a series of decisions that would change the course of our history, housing our exiled government, preparing the Mukti Bahini for a grueling war, and ultimately intervening militarily against its most hated foe.
Circumstances have been different for Bangladesh. Our resolve for self-determination meant that we had a wartime government – we had a central leadership – but the Rohingya have not had the opportunity to exercise the same. They do not have an agenda of self-determination (and therefore no need of a central government) – all they did was flee from the systematic, brutal persecution inflicted on them. The Rohingya irregulars known to us – the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, for instance – are not as favourably seen in Dhaka as the Mukti Bahini were in Delhi, what with their alleged criminal enterprises and Islamist ideology. And finally, there is no question of a military intervention into Myanmar. There are simply no grounds for it. As our foreign policy mantra goes: friendship to all, malice to none.

Nehruvian neutrality to Bangabandhu’s mantra
But that is not to say that India was without such pleasant principles in its own policies. Where we had “friendship to all, malice to none”, India had Nehruvian neutrality: its belief in existing above the squabbles of the Cold War powers, in line with the Non Aligned Movement it had helped create. Ultimately, its own Nehruvian neutrality was not a deterrent in its participation in the 1971 war. Despite the protestations of both the US and China, India thrust itself into the war (and ultimately did lean on the Soviets for support). Some would argue this to be a coup against many of India’s principles, in particular neutrality and a respect for national sovereignty.
But in its own way, India’s actions were reflective of its robust approach to “Nehruvian neutrality” and even national sovereignty. It made the Bangladesh crisis a case of universal human rights, and the need to protect it – in effect, classifying the conflict as a humanitarian intervention that is apolitical and above the score settling of the Cold War. More brilliantly, its case for national sovereignty was more profound: Pakistan’s internal affairs (within its own competences and sovereignty) were now affecting India’s own internal affairs (and thus its own sovereignty). Moreover, the Yahya administration had flouted the human rights of its own citizens and had disrespected the mandate set by its own people democratically – voiding any claim to national sovereignty in East Pakistan.
The robust approach to “Nehruvian neutrality” and national sovereignty – that is, the preservation of a foundational foreign policy principle and its clever usage – were pivotal in enabling India’s significant role in the Liberation War. Perhaps the greatest lesson we can learn here is to adopt this robustness in the Rohingya Crisis. Bangladesh follows Bangabandhu’s principle of “friendship to all, malice to none” to a T. In many ways, this is laudable – our neutrality has won us many friends in a polarized region – but it unnecessarily constrains us in the tough issues. Despite the Myanmar government’s crackdown on protesting civilians (and not to mention their lack of cooperation with the Rohingya crisis), Bangladesh has continued to maintain amicable relations with its neighbor. Even under the principle of “friendship to all, malice to none”, one must wonder – who do we extend our friendship to? The hollow state, devoid of popular support? Or the people (and thus the nation) who embody its sovereignty? What do we do when there is implicit malice towards us, as evidenced by neighbouring Myanmar?
There is no need to forget our belief in “friendship to all, malice to none” – but we must be more creative in exploring its meaning to support the interests of Bangladesh around the world. Our principles are supposed to empower us, not constrain us. It is time to show friendship to all those who deserve it; and malice to none of those who do not deserve it. Bangladesh must be protected against those in between. We must assert our interests with strength and determination.

Constructing political unity
Returning to 1971, one of our greatest successes was this: at least in free Bangladesh, there existed a political unity. The Awami League had won a landslide, and they helped construct a wartime government of consensus with other pro-independence parties. This united central authority was one of the greatest boons for the independence movement. This authority was pivotal in organizing the struggle – raising and managing finances, rounding up freedom fighters for the war, and engaging in advocacy around the world.
Such political authority is unnatural in irregular, non-state entities. In the case of the Rohingya, it is non-existent – there exists no central political voice for the Rohingya, because their fight is innately different – they simply wish to return home. Be that as it may, it does leave space for Bangladesh to take up a potent responsibility: it may help in formulating a political unity among the Rohingya. In this way, it could steer the Rohingya away from entities that were not formed out of their consensus – such as the militant groups that throng the border – and enable them to actively participate in a movement that is truly theirs.
This is an opportune time to do so as well – the National Unity Government (NUG) in Myanmar, a government-in-exile, is attempting to represent an anti-military political unity in the country. The Rohingya hold an understandable distrust of the NUG, as they do for the military – both entities, after all, were either complacent or wholly responsible for their persecution. But a unified Rohingya authority would be able to negotiate directly with the NUG and represent the Rohingya in this exiled government, bringing a strong voice, long repressed by the regime, to the table. In Bangladesh, this authority could serve as a bridge between the government and refugees – representing one another’s interests to create a more cohesive living situation. Most importantly, the unified Rohingya authority would be a far stronger body for global advocacy and fundraising, intensifying the pressure on the Myanmar government.
I should note here with a caveat: perhaps such organization has already been attempted by the government and may not have succeeded – but in case it has not, history certainly points us to at least attempt this project. The Indian government had nursed the wartime Bangladesh government, empowering it to reach far beyond its own capacities. Bangladesh could do the same today for any Rohingya authority it chooses to empower.

Realpolitik has never gone out of style
Bangladesh is a country of paradoxes, and one paradox I have realized as of recently is that Bangladesh is simultaneously the thesis and antithesis of realpolitik. It emerged as an independent nation at least partly from great concern for the rights of Bengalis, and hence demonstrated that states can very well be ushered from concerns beyond power. But at the same time, it was born during an intense period of the Cold War, with the Americans and Soviets sparring in its own waters. Consequently, Bangladesh’s connection with realpolitik has always been murky, but one thing has always stood apparent: realpolitik has never gone out of style.
Realpolitik greatly defined the approach of the superpowers to the independence of Bangladesh in 1971. Pakistan was a US ally, it was facilitating a connection with China at the time, and hence the US opted to side with West Pakistan (although admittedly, the causes are far more nuanced than this). China, also allies with Pakistan – and greatly distrustful of the Indians – also sided with West Pakistan. India, almost isolated in this war, hurried to the Soviet Union, naturally supporting them against the US and China (albeit hesitantly). The sides were highly irregular – the Soviets in favor of a humanitarian intervention against Communist China and Capitalist USA – but it was based almost entirely on primitive, practical considerations – and led to an almost mathematical balancing of sides. I would argue this balancing had prevented wider intervention into the war.
In fact, this is a balance that is prevalent today as well. The US and China, now at odds with each other, are playing the same balancing act across the world. In South Asia, we have observed the Quad alliance serving as a balancing counter to the Chinese. Both sides have now been in a race to gather influence in the region – Bangladesh has been a prominent battleground. In Myanmar, the Chinese have an upper hand, supporting the military junta as it faces criticism worldwide (including a hesitant West). The principle behind these ties rest little on ideology or other support, but purely practical reasons. After all, the relationship between China and the military leaves much to be desired. There exists an uneasy balance in the region, one that could certainly be tipped to Bangladesh’s favor.
If the West can balance against China (to prevent the latter from acting) and vice versa, would it be possible for Bangladesh to be far more assertive towards Myanmar with regards to the Rohingya? And in the event that China does not approve of this, how willing would China be to lose Bangladeshi favor to its Western rivals; in the reverse evident, how willing would the West be to lose Bangladeshi favour to its Chinese rivals? Perhaps this is a balance not dissimilar to 1971 – wherein the participation of powerful states has culminated in their non-intervention by virtue of a significant balancing act. Could we create the same atmosphere today, exploiting the realist decision making of states?

To conclude
I will admit, a lot of what I write feels like rambling (now that I am nearly 2500 words in). In many ways, perhaps I sound like a madman clamoring for war. I will concede that it is a very hawkish perspective – it is a perspective that believes that the government must prepare to view its friendliness principle far more robustly, a perspective that believes in the government playing an active role in establishing a unified Rohingya voice, and a perspective that believes the government could take advantage of the balancing act in the region to act more strongly towards Myanmar – a state that has shown nothing but contempt for its own people and a total disregard for the wellbeing of its neighbors.
Truly, these are extremities that even I shudder to think of. But I cannot help but wonder – was it then extreme for India to strongly rebuke Pakistan for its persecution of the Bangladeshi people? Was it extreme for India to host the exiled government of Bangladesh? Was it extreme for India to juggle Cold War geopolitics in intervening against Pakistan?
I will answer your question: yes, it certainly was. But the outcome of these extremities was the self-determination of our nation, something we take great pride in. It shifted a negative feedback loop of persecution and discrimination to a new steady state altogether. Perhaps it is time for us to shift the same negative feedback loop of persecution and discrimination the Rohingya face today in the same way, particularly at a time when Myanmar is in such a state of great flux – and making very few friends both within and beyond its borders.
Frankly, I cannot even believe that I am considering such a perspective. I would not do so a month ago, and in many ways I still do not. My analysis is flawed in many ways – some would object to the 1971 equivalence, I am sure (the world has changed very much), and others would take difference to my own analysis of international relations. I am merely an enthusiast and I have much to learn, and I hope to learn from you all. But still, the main exercise of this article was to ask a key question: is there a precedent for us to act in an unprecedented way, based on our own experiences?
After all, the world has done nothing for the Rohingya. What is to say they will do anything against our own actions in support of the Rohingya?
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