Bangladesh may be forced to recognize Myanmar’s national unity government
As Bangladesh continues to struggle to provide adequately for the Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar, near the border with Myanmar, the best possible solution for everyone involved — from the Rohingya themselves to their hosts — would be if the refugees could safely return home to their ancestral lands. But, whereas the previous government of Myanmar under Aung San Suu Kyi at least pretended it was interested in allowing the Rohingya to return, the new military junta has already indicated it will stop pretending altogether.
This puts the government of Bangladesh in a bind. On the one hand, it will be wary of the fact it needs to deal with Myanmar as its neighbor and so will need to have some kind of relationship with whichever government is in power in Naypyidaw. On the other hand, the incumbent military junta in Myanmar has just slammed the door in its face on the most important issue between the two countries at this moment in time.
Given the politics of the matter, both internationally and domestically, it is unlikely that Dhaka can take this sitting down. It simply must push back. Other than on the issue of the Rohingya, Myanmar has no leverage over Dhaka, so there is nothing to excuse passivity. Moreover, the domestic politics of Bangladesh will not allow the government to appear to be conceding that the Rohingya will become a permanent population in the country.
But how to push back? The answer should already be obvious: The international community has already widely condemned the military junta; a national unity government (NUG) representing an alliance of the ousted democratic government of Aung San Suu Kyi and of the ethnic minorities of Myanmar has already been established; and there is increasing momentum internationally toward the recognition of the NUG as the legitimate government of Myanmar.
If Bangladesh has nothing to gain in bilateral relations with the current military government, there is nothing to stop it from openly endorsing the NUG as the legitimate government of Myanmar, and the only authority it will deal with.
Bangladesh is not quite there yet. And it will probably want to approach this carefully and exhaust (or at least be seen to have exhausted) all other avenues of engaging with the junta in Naypyidaw. Moreover, it will probably be reluctant to be the first country to issue a full recognition of the NUG. Lastly, the NUG also currently has an ambivalent attitude toward the Rohingya, not least because some of its members in the National League for Democracy have been active participants in the Rohingya genocide over the past few years.
If Bangladesh has nothing to gain in bilateral relations with the current military government, there is nothing to stop it from openly endorsing the national unity government as the legitimate government of Myanmar.
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
But the international community, led by the US, is already impressing on the NUG the importance of integrating representatives of the Rohingya within its structures and its movement more broadly. And this also represents an opportunity for Bangladesh: Its Rohingya policy — that of enabling the refugees to return home when it is safe for them to do so — can be fulfilled in its entirety if the Rohingya are finally integrated as a normal part of the state of Myanmar in the structures of the NUG. So Bangladesh can communicate this directly to the NUG: We will recognize you as the rightful government of the country, if you accept the Rohingya as a natural part of your country and pave the way for their return to their homeland.
For now, Dhaka may continue to publicly try and broach some kind of dialogue with the junta on the issue of the Rohingya. But it must know that these efforts will lead nowhere. So, behind the scenes, it must already be negotiating with the NUG for recognition in exchange for granting full rights to the Rohingya. At this moment in time, such an agreement with the NUG seems more likely than not.
- Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a director at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington and research professor at the Strategic Studies Institute US Army War College. Twitter: @AzeemIbrahim