Rohingya Crisis: Should Rakhine Be Under Bangladesh’s Sovereignty?

US Congressman Brad Sherman sparked a row by suggesting that Rakhine state be placed under Bangladesh’s sovereignty.

4 min read
Rohingya children are seen as they walk near the Kutupalang Refugee Camp in Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh. Image used for representational purposes.

Five years ago, an op-ed in a Bangladeshi daily, Dhaka Tribune, ruffled the feathers of the powers that be in Myanmar’s capital, Nay Pyi Taw. Such was the offence taken that the Bangladeshi Ambassador was summoned for a dressing down by the Burmese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

In the opinion piece, now long removed from the web, journalist Zeeshan Khan had argued that the Rohingya “should have the option of forming an independent country between Bangladesh and Myanmar”.

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Now, a broadly similar proposition has resurfaced in an intervention by US Congressman Brad James Sherman, in the House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific.

Brad Sherman’s ‘Solution’ To Rakhine’s Rohingya Crisis

At the time, Ye Htut, the President's Office spokesperson, made the Burmese objection clear: “We will never allow such damage to the sovereignty and territory of our country”.

Rohingya activists were at one with this. Nay San Lwin, a prominent Rohingya advocate, found the whole notion to be “horrible”. He said at the time, ‘We are Burmese. We are Myanmar’s Rohingya. We are part of Myanmar and we will always be part of Myanmar”.

Five years since, social media chatter reveals significant differences in Rohingya thinking between then and now.

Congressman Brad Sherman, a Democratic Party member of the House of Representatives, made his explosive observation in the form of a question to a State Department official.

He asked that given the ethnic cleansing and genocide against the Rohingya, and the failure to issue citizenship by the Myanmar government, should the US government not “support the transfer of the Northern Rakhine state to Bangladeshi sovereignty?”

After Ambassador Alice Wells found the necessary composure to answer, the Congressman persisted in giving the example of South Sudan, and recommended that:

“If the Myanmar government doesn’t announce that it is dedicated to the protection of these (Rohingya) people, and the issuance of citizenship documents, then we will alter our position, and call for the transfer of the North Rakhine State to a country that will protect these people.”

What the Rohingya Themselves Feel About Brad Sherman’s Comments

Sherman's incendiary comments were made in the middle of June 2019, and have hitherto only surfaced in local Bangladeshi media and niche outlets. Nevertheless, his comments have generated strong responses from Rohingya themselves. I asked Nay San Lwin whether he still thinks the idea of separation is unpalatable. He said: “5 years ago, I responded according to the situation we were in. But this time I am not going to say the same things because the situation has changed.”

Lwin is troubled by the lack of progress in every aspect of the Rohingya crisis. He continued: “Thousands have been killed, slaughtered and burned alive. Many hundreds of women have been raped.”

He continues, “The violence against us has risen massively. None of the perpetrators have been brought to justice.”

Lwin finds the idea of separation from Myanmar and being part of Bangladesh very difficult. At the same time, he insists he is being realistic. “Myanmar has no intention to fulfill what we want. Myanmar hasn’t given any assurance or guarantee that we will not be persecuted again.”

And it is only after this preamble that Nay San Lwin breaks with his statement of the past and says: “Enough is enough. If America is willing to intervene in the situation and assure our human dignity, we will be persuaded. All we want is human dignity regardless of who governs us.”


Rohingya Dissent On Whether Rakhine Should Be Placed Under Bangladesh Sovereignty

This is a far cry from his previous solid belief in Myanmar. I questioned Lwin if this secession or separation idea does not feed into Burmese narratives, that this has always been the Rohingya plan? Lwin is indignant and insists that that is preposterous: “We have never wanted to secede. It is the Burmese government who have made us stateless in the land of our birth. They have stolen all our rights and have no intention of restoring them!”

I asked another prominent Rohingya activist, Tun Khin, what he thinks Rohingya refugees in the camps of Bangladesh might feel about the Congressman’s idea. Tun Khin reiterated that the Rohingya never wanted to be separated. 

He added: “However, currently the survivors think governments have failed them, the whole of the UN system has failed them, and they may see this as a way of extricating a solution.”

Not all Rohingya activists are enamoured withthe idea though. Razia Sultana, recent recipient of the US State Department's International Women of Courage Award, was disgusted by the suggestion. She said: “I believe it is a trick to grow tensions in the region.” Sultana was adamant and declared in a tweet that, “We (Rohingya) don't want to remove ourselves or join another country or threaten the sovereignty of Myanmar.”


The Idea Of Secession

It is worth noting that secession has only recently become an unclean concept in the Myanmar constitution. The 2008 constitution emphatically declares that: “No part of the territory constituted in the Union, such as Regions, States, Union Territories and Self-Administered Areas, shall ever secede from the Union.”

However, Burma’s 1947 constitution had an entirely different concept of what a democratic system ought to look like. That constitution enshrined, “the right to secede from the Union.” 

The buzz being generated by Congressman Sherman's suggestion is a reflection of the violent subjugation that the Rohingya face in Northern Rakhine State. In that context, the very notion of a federal union binding the country together is simply – as many Rohingya are now arguing – untenable.

(Shafiur Rahman is a documentary filmmaker, currently working on the Rohingya crisis. He can be reached at @shafiur. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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