University of Memphis

Rohingya Refugee Crisis and the Impact on Bangladeshi Democracy by Cayna Sharp @ University of Memphis

On August 25th it is reported that a small militant group called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (Arsa) attacked police and government soldiers. Since this attack, the Myanmar military has launched a full scale attack in the Rakhine state against the Rohingya minority driving at least 600,000 people from their homes into neighboring Bangladesh. For already poor and unstable Bangladesh, this influx of refugees will likely cause increased tensions between the government and opposition groups as well as worsening economic conditions.

Thus far, it seems as if the Myanmar government is unwilling to force the military to stop the attack on the Rakhine state, driving hundreds more refugees into Bangladesh every day.2 The international community has condemned the attacks, even going as far as calling it “ethnic cleansing” and “genocide” yet little has been done to aid the refugees or stop the violence.2

Bangladesh, already struggling to maintain stability politically and economically, is ill-equipped to provide for these refugees. Talks began in November between Myanmar and Bangladesh to repatriate the refugees, however intervention from the UN may drive Myanmar away from the negotiating table. The UN security council has officially urged Myanmar to stop military action in the Rakhine state while also expressing concern over the humans rights abuses that have reportedly taken place.3 Aung Sang Suu Ki, president of Myanmar, has warned the UN to stay out of negotiations while the office of the Bangladeshi Foreign Minister has expressed a wish for the UN to be directly involved with the negotiations.3 The Foreign Minister stated negotiations, scheduled to take place between November 20-21, will have little hope for coming to a lasting solution without UN involvement.3

Failure to come to an agreement over the repatriation of Rohingyan refugees or continued conflict in the Rakhine state both are serious threats to the stability of Bangladesh. The opposition party (BNP) may rise up to threaten the current ruling party by taking advantage of the current regime’s failure to adequately handle the crisis. Another more extremist political party may also be able to gain popular support to challenge the ruling party, further destabilizing the political environment.4 As opposition groups gain support or power, the ruling party, AL, will have increasing incentive to take action against opposition groups by facilitating disappearances or arresting political opponents as it has done in the past.4

Bangladeshi elections will occur within the next year.4 The refugee crisis will likely lead to either an opposition party takeover or suppression of the opposition by the ruling party both of which are likely to be violent situations. In the most recent parliamentary elections, held in 2014, the AL party maintained control through violence and vote suppression. The main opposition party, BNP, and their political allies boycotted the elections due to accusations of corruption in ruling party leaders.5 Over the weekend elections were held, at least eighteen people were killed in clashes with state military forces, at least one-hundred and fifty voting centers were burned, and only about half of the districts held competitive elections.5 With growing polarization and strength of opposition parties, next year’s elections will likely only be less democratic and more violent.

This outbreak of violence in Myanmar and the subsequent refugee crisis could have a lasting impact on the already diminishing democratic development in Bangladesh. The negotiations to repatriate the refugees will likely have an impact on the strength of the current ruling party, either solidifying it or weakening their power over the state, depending on the outcome of negotiations. Either way, elections next year promise to be a violent affair with BNP still actively opposing AL. The crisis could allow for BNP to turn public opinion away from AL, but with almost complete control over the state, AL will still be in a strong position to suppress opposition and protesters violently. In the coming weeks, it will be important to see how negotiations play out. If Myanmar remains unwilling to allow UN intervention, Bangladesh will likely have difficulty insuring the repatriation of the refugees and a more permanent solution for preventing ethnic violence within Myanmar.

1. “What is happening in Myanmar? – CBBC Newsround.” BBC News, BBC, 4 Oct. 2017.

2. “Myanmar’s Rohingya policy damaging Bangladesh.” The Daily Star, 13 Nov. 2017.

3. Cameron-Moore, Simon. “Myanmar warns U.N. scolding could harm talks with Bangladesh on Rohingya crisis.” Reuters, 8 Nov. 2017.

4. Joehnk, Tom Felix. “How the Rohingya Crisis Is Changing Bangladesh.” The New York Times, 6 Oct. 2017.

5. Ahmed, Farid. “Bangladesh ruling party wins elections marred by boycott, violence.” CNN, 6 Jan. 2014.

2 Comments

  1. Erin Brennan-Burke

    November 28, 2017 at 4:10 am

    I appreciated your description of recent events and analysis of how the refugee crisis may undermine Bangladeshi democracy. It reminds me of the ways in which the Syrian Civil War has destabilized neighboring countries. As the Lebanese Ambassador Antoine Chedid said in an interview with Brookings, “The impact to the country is deep and dangerous and threatens to unravel the country economically, politically and socially.” More than 1 million Syrian citizens have fled to Lebanon, and the conflict has cost the country over $18.15 billion. Large refugee populations can evidently strain public service provision and increase internal tensions, but I do not think that is necessarily a justification for repatriation of the Rohingya. Myanmar has historically disregarded the basic human rights of the Rohingya and systematically persecuted them, and I believe returning victims of genocide to a country that has never wanted them without specific guarantees of their safety is an unjustifiable option.

    In addition to UN-mediated negotiations, other countries will ultimately need to share the burden of this crisis. The global community should increase diplomatic pressure on Myanmar to stop the bloodshed and further integrate Rohingya communities into the country. The negative economic impact of the refugee crisis should also be mitigated by increased international aid.

  2. Dakota Fenn

    December 7, 2017 at 6:22 pm

    The impact of the Rohingya refugee crisis on Bangladesh’s democracy reveals a larger relationship between regional stability and democratic potential, as you show in your post. The genuine disagreement over the response to the crisis in Bangladesh creates the conditions for democratic backsliding, especially as elections approach. The disagreement furthers extant polarization and detrimentally affects democratic machinery and governance, as you point out. I feel as though this raises a fair question about the preconditions necessary for democracy and the viability of democratic governance. Much of the discourse surrounding democratic consolidation seems to focus on intrinsic endowments for a given state, but, as you show, extrinsic forces may be more determinant of democratic success.
    We should also ask ourselves what role the international community should play, especially in a situation where institutions like the UN are involved. Fragmented though they are, global governance structures do exist and have certain mandates, like the IMF or the WTO. Where do these institutions insert themselves in sovereign states, and how is their intrusion beneficial or detrimental to democratic consolidation? If there are competing motivations, like in the situation that you describe, how should the international community conduct itself so as to promote democracy while also respecting sovereignty? I feel that these questions have yet to be answered, and that your post exposes the difficulty in engaging with them.

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