Magazine Publications

Policy Conversations

“Intellectual input to our policy-making is entirely lacking”

Dr. Syed Anwar Husain is Professor of History at the University of Dhaka. He is a prominent academic and scholar of the country. He was a Director General of Bangla Academy. Later, he was the Editor of the Daily Sun. His areas of interest include—among other topics—international relations, history of war, history of the Indian Ocean, politics of South Asia and so on. FAIR’s Kazi Niaz Ahmed and A.B.M. Shamsud Doza Sajen talked with him. The conversation has been transcribed and edited for length and clarity by Kazi Niaz Ahmed.   

FAIR: How do you evaluate the foreign policy of Bangladesh of the last 42 years since 1971? And does our diplomatic history give us any concise idea about the directions of our foreign policy?

SAH: I do not think that Bangladesh has any foreign policy. Policy means planning and planning mean thinking ahead. When foreign policy is to be understood in the context of a specific county, one has to look for materials in the form of working paper, and the directions they give. But in the case of Bangladesh, I do not any such exercise worth mentioning giving any direction to our foreign policy. There are, however, some ambiguous, perceptual directions in our constitution. But these are perceptually ambiguous, because, for instance, there is a provision in the constitution saying “Friendship to all, malice to none”. But how could that principle be implemented in a world system where we live in today?  There must be some enemies on grounds of principle and also of circumstances. Should we be friendly to those enemies as well? Certainly not. So this is a kind of ideological utopia which does not carry any meaning in reality. So this has to be amended and the right words should be put in there defining the goals and objectives of Bangladesh foreign policy. Unfortunately, there have no such attempts been taken so far. On the whole, we observe that both major political parties of our country do have a consensus on certain foreign policy issues except India. When it comes to the US or any other big world power, there is a convergence of opinion among the political parties. However, they always differ on India. Although, in the recent past we have seen indications that the difference might be narrowing, how much of that is real or rhetorical on the part of the BNP is something we have to wait and see. Because in the past also, there was some sort of understanding and undertaking between India and BNP, but in reality when they were in power they were found to be deviating from their undertaking which they had given to India.

So, now the question I address to myself is, “If we do not have any foreign policy, then what do we have?” We have only foreign relations, that too on ad hoc basis. Whenever any specific issue comes up, we try to cope with that on the basis of whatever information or material we could gather impromptu. This is absolutely not the way of handling foreign policy. Besides that, we are very painfully aware of the fact that there is absolutely no intellectual input into the making of the foreign policy of Bangladesh. We see that in the world, which includes both the developed and the developing countries, there are examples of think tanks making contributions in the making of both domestic and foreign policy. In Bangladesh, we do not come across any such example. Here, policies are made solely on the basis of what the political leaders desire, and that is supported by or facilitated by the bureaucracy. This politics-bureaucracy nexus is the major limitation which I identify. And this explains most of the mishaps that we have had to go through so far. Of course, there are some exceptions. One very bright example is the case of the maritime boundary with Myanmar. In this case, the government made the right move by including the right expert into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA). And this good spadework resulted in success. So this success story of diplomacy clearly demonstrates what is actually needed in the policy-making at the MOFA level. Merely bureaucratic facilitation working under political directions has never delivered the goods for any country of the world.

On the whole, our foreign policy since independence has had a sort of mixed track record over the years. Initially, from 1972 to 1975, it was an absolutely personality centred foreign policy. There is no dispute about this. And that personality was no less than Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. But, the towering personality that he was, was enough to deliver the goods. I have had first-hand personal experience of this when I was doing my Ph.D. in the United Kingdome. During those years, the name Sheikh Mujib was synonymous with Bangladesh. His personality and influence worldwide were enough to do things for us. During his tenure, we did achieve a good number of diplomatic successes. For example, despite steep opposition from the US and the People’s Republic of China, we were able to become a member of the UN and so on. But after his death, with due respect to others, we never had anyone like him. No one else could match the height, the breadth and the extent of influence that Bangabandhu carried with him.

Another success story that I identify, which is also an example of a proactive foreign policy to bring about the desired outcome, is the creation of Saarc. Bangladesh authored Saarc. A regional institution in South Asia was once unthinkable. But this unbelievable was transformed into reality, thanks to the untiring efforts of Bangladesh. I will also have some words of praise and commendation for the Foreign Ministry we had at that time: Professor Shamsul Haque. His personal initiatives and intellectual inputs were also very important for convincing other stakeholders in this plan of regionalism in South Asia. So, a mixture of personality and diligent, professional spadework is needed to identify and realize the foreign policy goals and objectives.

But, on the whole, these sort of features are conspicuously absent in the management of foreign relations of Bangladesh. I must also mention that in the recent past, there has been a downward slide in the quality and performance of our diplomats at the foreign office. This I say from my personal experience as I am associated with the teaching and training of our budding diplomats who successfully pass the civil service examination every year. So, I am worried about our future, when all the senior diplomats will have retired, considering the declining trend in the new recruitments. One or two of them are very good indeed, but what about the rest of the stock? Therefore, the Public Service Commission should be more careful and efficient in selecting the brightest people for the right sectors.

FAIR: In Bangladesh, we see that foreign policy seems to get the least importance. What is the reason behind this in your view?

SAH: Generally and academically it is accepted that foreign policy of a country is the extension of its domestic policy. That sort of paradigm, I am afraid, does not apply to Bangladesh. Politics in Bangladesh is highly volatile and confrontational. Politicians, in and out of power, have to devote most of their time and energy to maintain their status in the realm of politics. In that process, very little time is left for thinking about foreign policy matters. As a result, the foreign policy is entirely left to the bureaucracy at the MOFA. There is however a minister at the top, who happens to be a political personality. But he or she might not always be aware or enlightened enough about the facts and matters of how to conduct diplomacy or know the insight-outs of formulating foreign policy. Even sometimes in the past, I was shocked to notice how some of our foreign ministers had behaved undiplomatically while meeting foreign dignitaries or talking with them. So, that clearly shows how the wrong persons have been put at the wrong place over and over again. But, for a third world country like Bangladesh, which is certainly very vulnerable—economically, politically, and otherwise—foreign policy is, I believe, is a major instrument in advancing its objectives and goals.

FAIR: There is a very interesting debate between various experts in different disciplines. Some say that economic cooperation and integration must come first in diplomacy before we solve political questions and differences. They believe that economic reciprocity will automatically solve politically unsolved matters. But others say one must resolve matters of political relations before economic diplomacy and transnational trade can really flourish unhindered. What is your position on that question?

SAH: It is quite unreasonable and illogical in ranking politics and economics. To me, both are intertwined in so far as taking care of the interests of a particular country. For a country like ours, which started its journey as a totally war-devastated country, Bangladesh at that time did need a huge pumping of aid, assistance, and money from abroad in order to stand on its own feet. So, economic diplomacy in the case of Bangladesh is as old as its birth. But, what is generally perceived as economic diplomacy is controversial and I defer with it as well. This general perception is that economic diplomacy is all about how much a government is successful in getting aid and assistance from abroad for the development of the country. But have we ever computed the total burden that comes on the people of Bangladesh because of receiving generous aid and assistance. I would humbly request the economists to calculate this burden of foreign assistance on each and every person living in Bangladesh. I am afraid that we are the nation with the highest per capita debt emanating from foreign assistance. So, aid-dependent development is something I do not agree with. Rather, slow but steady development with our own resources is more preferable. Unfortunately, expensive and high-profile development and infrastructure projects with the infusion of foreign money are seen as instances of successful economic diplomacy in our country. This is true, I think, for the much-hyped Padma bridge project as well.

Our economists point out that our dependency on external aid is gradually decreasing. I accept that is statistically correct. But the reality is otherwise. We depend mostly on imported luxury items. How could we justify that? Indians use their own home-grown products and goods most the time. But are they behind us in economic development? I think not. So, there is a philosophy of development clearly lacking in the perception of those who are at the helm of affairs for controlling and deciding our destiny. I would certainly humbly suggest a revisit of the whole philosophy and strategy of the development of Bangladesh.

FAIR: We feel that there is a dearth in the number of good and well-researched books on our foreign policy and diplomatic history. We find some of your books and literature by our teachers from Dhaka University; but overall, these are still not sufficient in terms of the nature and scope of our foreign policy. Why do you think there is this paucity in our foreign policy narrative?

SAH: This is a kind of very pathetic lapse on the part of the relevant academics. We have a small number of academics who specialize in the various issues of international relations. Their writings and research works are not insignificant. Unfortunately, as you suggest, we do not yet have a sufficient number of text readings for the students of Political Science, International Relations, History etc. departments. However, there are a large number of articles scattered over various journals and even on the internet. But, these are not easily accessible for the general students. There is a felt need to produce, as quickly as possible, some reading texts focusing on specific issues, and that is a job to be done by the academics and not by the government. Although, this should have been a goal of the government as well. Just look at India. Even in West Bengal, their government curriculum and textbooks board (Pashchimbongo Patthopustok Porshod) produces books, both in Bangla and English, on major texts of the various subjects included in the syllabi covering up to the university level. These are good books, I must say. But, in Bangladesh, there have been no such attempts taken by any government.

FAIR: In the Ministry of External Affairs in India, there is a separate specialized department for history for dealing with diplomatic history and describing narratives of that county. Is there any such department in our MOFA?

SAH: Well, at the Foreign Service Academy, I personally teach the young diplomats a course on the history of Bangladesh and another course on the evaluation of world diplomacy. That is fine as far as it goes;  but what is needed, following many developed and developing countries, is a full-fledged research cell attached to the foreign ministry with experts from each and every discipline, because when you make foreign policy you need people from multifarious disciplines. Unilateral or uni-dimensional approach to policymaking does not do the job properly. It has to be multidisciplinary and holistic. In fact, all the ministries should have such a wing. But, intellectual input to our policy-making is entirely lacking. And the MOFA should be given the highest priority for giving intellectual inputs for better policy outputs.

FAIR: How would you evaluate the performance of the Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies (BIISS) in this regard?

SAH: I have a mixed opinion about BIISS. When BIISS started back in 1979, there were a lot of good things said about it as a backup for the MOFA. I myself was attracted by those statements by the government about BIISS. Therefore, I joined BIISS as the Deputy Director-1 in 1979 besides serving as an Assistant Professor at the University of Dhaka. I had just come back from the UK with my Ph.D., brimming with new ideas and research enthusiasm. But, unfortunately, I could work for BIISS for just 45 minutes. After joining, I had a tea-meeting with the then Director General of BIISS. He briefed me on the terms and conditions of working at BIISS. After hearing him for some time, I instantly decided to resign as I thought that was not the place for me to work. The reason being everything had to be classified and approved by the authorities. Nevertheless, in comparison to any other institution in Bangladesh of the similar type, BIISS has been doing a good job in terms of arranging workshops, seminars and coming up with specific sets of recommendations covering many ideas, issues, problems. But, very little of that has any impact on our policymaking. This is something I criticize very strongly. The government does not give even a damn to what is coming out of the BIISS discussions which are of very high standards.

FAIR: On a different note, what is your take on Francis Fukuyama’s theory of the End of History? He says, as you know, that Liberalism has prevailed in the world; that it has successfully defeated Fascism in WW2 and Communism in the Cold War through the collapse of the USSR; and Political Islam does not have the wider appeal in all over the world. Hence, Liberalism is the idea that has prevailed. And if we see history as the confrontation between ideas then that is the end of history, as Liberalism has triumphed. So, what is your thought on this matter?

SAH: History bears the testimony to the fact that all the types of confrontations and conflicts between human groups across frontiers have been, mostly, not because of ideas and ideologies; but, mostly, because of geopolitics and geo-economics. For example, the western invasion of Iraq, codenamed Operation Iraqi Freedom—very high-sounding phraseology—but what do we see as ground reality? Was not the invasion for taking control of Iraqi oil? The Afghanistan invasion also had similar implications. So I am driven to the unavoidable conclusion the history never witnessed any clash of civilizations, contrary to what Samuel Huntington would have us believe. He is a very good Political Scientist but, I think, he is not a very good student of history. As far as Liberalism is concerned, it is an ideology. It was when it began to rise in Europe, mostly the ideology of the rising middle-class. They wanted to do their business unencumbered by any sort of control exerted or exercised institutionally or governmentally. So, free enterprise was the main motive of Liberalism. Conceived in that context, Liberalism has always been active. Even today, every person wants freedom, either individually or in a group. But this freedom should not be without any responsibility. This is where we have a problem. Sometimes, Liberalism is conceived in absolute terms, which is wrong. But, as a philosophy linked with Humanism, Liberalism is still operative, and as of today, Capitalism is seen as an ideology with a good deal of Liberalism in it. But that, however, does not mean the end of history. That is a wrong perception and thesis. History will only come to an end when the world comes to an end. History always proceeds through an evolutionary process. History is about all the things that human beings do in this world. So, as long as human beings would go on doing things, history will be there. The main job of history is to record the events of human beings. So, only the end of the Soviet-brand of Communism cannot be the end of history.

FAIR: When we read anything on foreign policy precedence or on diplomatic maneuver, we find it to be very much Euro-centric. But, there is a need for a local or regional narrative, especially for the South Asian region. So, what should be done to create a narrative of International Relations for South Asia?

SAH: I agree with the underline tenor of your question and welcome it. Right now, I am in the process of finalizing a new syllabus for history department to be read by Masters students in the next semester. The title of the syllabus is War and Peace in history. I shall be picking up major wars, right from the ancient times down to the present, covering all the areas of the world. And I shall also include in that list of wars, the Vietnam War and the Liberation War of Bangladesh. There are two sections in this syllabus: the war section and the peace section. In the peace section, I have included major peace treaties of the Eastern World like the Vietnam Peace Accord. So, the third world will not be excluded in any way. In fact, history is a fine guide for human thinking. History is always universal and global in outlook. It does not divide humanity into races and communities. That is what I believe in and that is how I have developed all my courses here in the Department of History.

FAIR: How can we preach that idea that you have already taken up in the History Department? One thinks this idea should be followed by all the departments.

SAH: Of course. You cannot teach partially and communally in a university, and the students who graduate from it must have a global outlook. The very term ‘University’ means ‘Globalism’. The Latin origin of the English word ‘University’ is ‘Universitus’, which means ‘an institution where global knowledge is imparted’. If any university fails to do that, it forfeits the claim to be a university.   

FAIR: You have written a book called “The Indian Ocean: Zone of Peace”. That was one of the first books by a Bangladeshi on the Indian Ocean. Now, after President Obama has declared the Asia-Pacific region as the pivot of US foreign policy, the Indian Ocean has also become important, making your book more relevant than ever. Can you tell us more about this book?

SAH: It came out in 1993. I completed the manuscript in 1989 on three consecutive trips to the US because I had to pick up materials, mostly, from the US services. During that period, I was working as a visiting faculty at the University of California, Berkeley’s Department of South and Southeast Asian Studies. I have also received the UGC Award for outstanding research work covering humanities and the social sciences for that book.      

I was drawn to the topic of the Indian Ocean and the conflicts arising out of the stakes of outside powers back in 1984. I presented a very small paper—mostly out of my perceptions as there were very little reference materials available here—at the Jahangir Nagar University’s Dept. of Government and Politics. Since then I started developing my ideas and the Asia Foundation was generous enough to fund my short trips to the US for data collection. But short 3-4 month stay in the US was not enough for producing the whole book. Then in 1987, the Fulbright Commission awarded me the visiting faculty fellowship at Berkeley and I was able to complete it. The main thing I found out was that about a dozen Indian experts had already written books on Indian Ocean strategy. Only one Pakistani Professor Rasul Baksh Rais wrote a book (The Indian Ocean and the superpowers: economic, political, and strategic perspectives, 1987). But nobody from Bangladesh and I said to myself, “why should we be left out?” We are also a country with a sea-frontage, and we had the bitter experience of having witnessed the awesome presence of the 7th fleet of the US in the Bay of Bengal at the fag end of our liberation war. So I thought I should do something and that’s how this book grew out of my perception of a felt need. In fact, there are two core points in that book: first, I emphasize the importance of the Indian Ocean in global strategy, which links the whole Asia-Pacific region; second, in the context of the rivalries that were coming up, I proposed a peace paradigm in the whole of Indian Ocean zone and how it could it be kept a zone of peace. As you know the ‘zone of peace’ was a hot topic for quite some in the UN, so that was also one of the ideas that ticked in my head. Not only a small zone of peace but let the whole of the Indian Ocean be an ocean of peace. But I do not think that many people have taken note of that. Nevertheless, this book has come to limelight again very recently.

FAIR: How would you evaluate the present condition of the South Asian region? There are ethnic conflicts, communalism, war, terrorism, and mutual mistrust. So, how do you see the future of South Asia?

SAH: We do have a future; but, what sort of a future, that is a question. The current scenario is certainly better than before SAARC had been put into place in 1985. At least, we have a mechanism whereby leaders of South Asia can meet occasionally and talk over many of the disagreements and contentious problems etc. by way of defusing mutual or collective tension. This is one positive sight because I think the cost of SAARC not in place would have been enormously dangerous to us. At least, that is one positive development in South Asia. That SAARC has existed so far, is a major achievement for this region. Ours is a region with a host of problems. I am afraid that most of the problems do arise out of leadership mishandling of management. For example, look at the Chittagong Hill Tracts. In 1997 the Awami League government signed a peace deal. But after that, nothing has happened by way of implementing that treaty. The problem remains there in limbo. The stakeholders of CHT are very unhappy over the fact that the government does not give serious attention to the region that it deserves. I think that the Indian leadership is better in this respect that they take notice of most of the ethnic problems. Nevertheless, they too have not solved all their problems. But, I think their process is more democratic. For example, whenever there is an occasion for negotiating with any ethnic group, the government would form a committee. This would include strategic experts and think tanks like IDSA, IPCS etc., relevant academics, and government officials, who would go to the representatives of the ethnic communities in question and talk. But, in the case of Bangladesh have we ever seen any instance like this? Even the CHT treaty was negotiated by the government functionaries and the representatives of PCJSS. But, we did have and still do have some people working on this theme who at least know something, certainly better than government officials. But none of them was included. Therefore, I think that despite having many problems, some countries of South Asia are working out solutions to their problems. Nonetheless, Pakistan is not a very encouraging scenario due to too much of military preponderance in a sort of feudal society. Recently the judiciary of Pakistan has warned the military not to poke its nose into politics, which is a good development. Pakistan and Afghanistan are the two countries of South Asia that worry us. Both are unstable and both are countries with failing governments, not failing state.

FAIR: Our last question is how you became a student and an academician of History? Was it a conscious choice taken on your part?

SAH: That is a very good question. Whatever I have done in my life was done on purpose, and with careful thinking and planning. I took up history as my field of study very consciously. I did my HSC from Bogra Azizul Haque College, the Principal of which was a renowned historian Professor Eshak. He himself suggested that I studied Economics, as by taking up that discipline I would have my economic future secured. I said, “Sir, it has all along been my wish to read history. History is my first love and would remain so for the rest of my life.” And that is the case even today. I personally think that despite many ifs and buts, my decision was correct. The benefit that has accrued to me by reading and teaching history certainly outweighs whatever pitfalls that had fallen by my way through the whole of my professional career. I am a self-satisfied man.

FAIR: Sir, thank you very much for your time.

SAH: You are most welcome.


Report for Foreign Affairs Insights and Reviews magazine

— Prepared by Kazi Niaz Ahmed (circa 2012)

In the midst of the euphoria accompanying Burma’s seeming democratic transition, one of the key human rights issues that international leaders and Burmese pro-democracy activists have failed to address is the continuing statelessness and marginalization of the Rohingyas, a Muslim ethnic minority concentrated in the northern Rakhine State in western Burma, bordering Bangladesh.  Even as the Burmese Government basks at the stunning success of being able to hold a free and fair by-election on 01 April 2012, experts and Rohingya community leaders are divided over what the ongoing reforms may hold for them.

Burma’s ‘Lady of Democracy’, Aung San Suu Kyi, has highlighted ethnic conflicts as the country’s most urgent problem. However, even she is keeping a lull thus far on the Rohingya issue. In January, the army-backed civilian government signed a ceasefire with ethnic Karen rebels in southern Burma to halt one of the world’s longest-running civil wars. Other such peace-deals are soon to follow. However, reports and governmental signs coming out of Burma signals that there is little change of attitude of the government of Thein Sein towards the Rohingyas. There is no evidence of change in the human rights situation, and persecuting them still seems like the modus operandi in the region.


Living in one of the poorest and most isolated states in Burma, the Rohingyas, who are some 800,000 in number, are surely ranked among the world’s most persecuted and forgotten people. Until 1989, the Northern Rakhine State was known as Arakan since time immemorial. The ruling military junta changed its name to reflect the dominant ethnic group, the Rakhine Buddhists. The Rohingya dominated townships of Maungdaw, Buthidaung, and Rathedaung fall under this province.

Being statelessness, the Rohingyas are denied access to Burmese citizenship even though they have lived in Burma for generations. They are accorded only permanent resident status, with the majority holding a Temporary Registration Certificate as an identity document instead of the Citizenship Scrutiny Card that full citizens hold. Rohingyas are said to be related ethnically to the Bengalis of Chittagong area, leading the Burmese government to claim they are Bengali Muslims who arrived unchecked during the British and Pakistani rule and more recently from Bangladesh, thus forfeiting any legitimate claim to Burmese citizenship.

It is difficult to understand the origin of Burma’s animosity toward the Rohingyas other than undercurrents of racism and Islamophobia based on their darker skin and Muslim identity in an overwhelmingly fairer-skinned Buddhist-centric state. While the Rohingyas’ general isolation from the mainstream ethnic Rakhine and Bamar population is a contributing factor, it is not substantially different from the fractious ethnic relations and isolation of other minorities in Burma. According to the last official census in 1983, the Burman or Bamar, the ruling-majority ethnic group, accounted for 69 percent of the country’s population. Other ethnic groups like Karen (7%), Kachin (1.5%), Chin (2.5%), Mon (2%), Rakhine (3.5%), Shan (9%) etc. make up the other one-third of the population. Rohingyas account for just 0.15% of the total population.

As a culmination of their persecution, Rohingyas started to flee, over the years, to Bangladesh. Although starting in 1978, the biggest influx was in 1992 when an estimated 250,000 fled to Bangladesh. Most of them were repatriated following an agreement between Bangladesh and Burma with UNHCR supervision. However, almost 30,000 documented refugees still live in two government camps, assisted by the UNHCR, at Kutupalong and Nayapara- both within 2km of Burma. Nevertheless, hundreds of thousands more have been living illegally in nearby areas since the Bangladeshi government stopped registering arrivals.


The year 2011 has seen the political environment of Burma marked by the seismic change of transition from military rule to a civilian government led by the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which took office in February. The second session of the new Parliament dealt with the issue of proposals to improve the status of the “Muslim residents” of northern Rakhine State i.e. the Rohingyas. However, with the Government’s response to the proposals being a reiteration of age-old policies we can foresee no change in the situation.

The Rohingyas suffer from serious state discrimination and degrading practices in Burma including arbitrary arrest and detention, forced labor and portering, arbitrary taxation, extortion, requiring permission for travel even between villages, requiring state authorization to marry, expropriation of property and poor access to higher education. Not surprisingly, many Rohingyas try to flee, making the desperate and dangerous journey in overcrowded and rickety boats to seek asylum and a better life in Thailand, Malaysia, and Australia.

Although citizenship laws, mainly the 1982 Burma Citizenship Law, do not exclude Rohingyas from acquiring naturalized citizenship, in practice, the overwhelming majority holds only temporary documents or is without any documents. Those who manage to acquire naturalized or full citizenship rely on individual connections. Though technically legally obtained, they risk being accused of falsely acquiring identity documents, as the policy is that all “Bengalis” in Rakhine State are entitled only to the temporary documents.

One of the main reasons why some Rohingyas have demanded they be recognized as a ‘national ethnic group’ and be granted citizenship by birth is that anything less opens the possibility of revocation. However, Rohingyas, who do not have the means or connections to acquire better documentation but need it to ease travel and work still welcome the possibility of naturalized citizenship.

Following Burma’s transition from military to a nominally civilian government, many Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh were briefly hopeful but soon became disappointed. Rohingyas were given voting rights in the 2010 elections and promised citizenship if they voted for the military regime’s representatives, but after the 2010 election, the Rohingya situation is only worsening, reported sources inside Burma. Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh fear their condition may not change any time soon. They are skeptical about a string of reform moves by the Burmese government, saying they are not aware of any real improvement of their areas’ conditions, which forced them to flee their country.

The Rohingyas are also unhappy about a perceived lack of support from Aung San Suu Kyi. However, the Rohingyas still have high expectations of her. They demand that rather than avoiding the Rohingya people and their problem, she should take all measures to formally accommodate the Rohingyas into the ‘family of the Union of Burma’, with full ethnic and citizenship rights, as one of the many ethnic nationalities of the country.


The Bangladeshi government has pushed for the repatriation of the Rohingya refugees to Burma and representatives of the Burmese government have recently recognized the demand of Bangladesh. But, this will have no impact on the vast majority of Rohingyas who are unregistered.

However, during a December, 2011 visit to Burma by the Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Burmese President U (which means Mr. in Burmese) Thein Sein expressed his desire to cooperate with Bangladesh in resolving the Rohingya issue; and two days later the visiting Bangladesh officials said Burma had agreed to take back documented Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh after verification by its authorities. The biggest turning point was, perhaps, the Burma government’s agreeing that a large portion of the listed refugees is actually Burmese nationals, as was disclosed by Bangladeshi Foreign Secretary Mr. Mijarul Quayes at a press briefing after attending a Foreign Office Consultation held in Burma on August 25, 2011. Bangladesh, Burma and the UNHCR took a fresh initiative to return the refugees to their homeland and both the governments are in discussion to launch synchronized patrol of the common border by border-guards of the two countries to stop a fresh influx of Burmese citizens into Bangladesh.

The Government of Bangladesh has often raised concerns that the provision of assistance to displaced people from Burma could create a “pull factor”. Hence, it has applied a restrictive policy on assistance, limiting the protection space for the 30,000 registered Burmese refugees in the two official camps, and allowing little access to the unregistered Burmese outside the camps. Refugees face restrictions on their freedom of movement and lack the right to work. Bangladesh is neither a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention nor its 1967 Protocol. This limits efforts aimed at improving their situation and preparing them for eventual solutions, including voluntary repatriation. Nevertheless, the Bangladesh govt. still does not forcefully push these refugees back to Burma solely on humanitarian grounds.

Bangladesh has recently also sought the support of the European Union (EU) in resolving this long-standing issue. In early 2012, a visiting seven-member EU delegation led by William Hanna, EU Ambassador to Bangladesh, was urged by top GoB figures to settle the problem, by sending the Rohingyas back to their homeland in Burma. In reply, the delegation informed that the EU had already chalked out a project worth $100 million to be implemented in Burma for the Rohingya refugees currently living in Bangladesh. The EU is also in the process of setting up an office in Burma to restore diplomatic ties with the country because of the changing political conditions. The delegation assured of extending help in the repatriation of the Rohingyas as the refugees have been, they observed, causing various economic and social problems in the Cox’s Bazar area.


  1. The Source Country.

Reasons such as national security and illegal immigration are poor excuses on the Burmese government’s part for such treatment of the Rohingyas. The Rakhine State, like other Burmese border regions, is populated on both sides of the state line by members of the same ethnic groups with the accompanying cross-border population movement and trade and family ties. Furthermore, Muslim armed resistance has been insignificant since the 1950s and never did compare with the well-established ethnic armed groups in Kachin, Kayin, and Shan states.

There are murmurings that the Burmese government may be considering naturalized citizenship or some status other than permanent residency for the Rohingyas. Such a move would be consistent with current citizenship practices as the immigration authorities have, over the last few years, made commendable efforts to provide citizenship documents, primarily naturalized citizenship to people of Indian origin in Burma who also have indeterminate citizenship status. Further, it does not make sense to exclude only the Rohingyas as Indian origin Hindus in Rakhine State with similar eligibility are granted naturalized citizenship.

Naturalized citizenship would go some way toward reducing the arbitrary and discriminatory practices affecting the Rohingyas. It would improve their ability to travel, to acquire a passport and to have better access to higher education. More significantly, the citizenship laws provide that after three generations, all descendants of naturalized citizens shall be granted full citizenship.

As the Burmese govt. is bent on beginning a new era of engagement with the international community, it can ill afford to turn away from its existing grim records of human rights. If it really wants to reinstall itself as a responsible and respected member of the club of nations, it must recognize the legitimate rights of the Rohingyas and move swiftly to give them appropriate status and opportunities in the Burmese society.

  1. The Refugees.

The thought that the Rohingyas will suddenly be accepted as a national ethnic group cannot be taken seriously. There is no public or political support from any ethnic group or from national stakeholders including opposition and exile groups, and certainly not from the majority ethnic Rakhines in the Rakhine State where deep suspicion and hostility remain. Further, Rohingya groups are usually isolated and excluded from multilateral discussions within Burma and even among exile movements.

The Rohingyas should seize the current opportunity and ride the ongoing democratic wave, failing which they will once again be left behind. Of course, naturalized citizenship is not on a par with national ethnic group recognition, but presently it remains the most realistic and workable solution to their statelessness. Meanwhile, they should carry on peaceful movements, both at home and abroad, for the full recognition of their cause and predicaments, and its resolution therein.

  1. The Host Country

In this regard, the Bangladesh govt. should take a two-pronged action path: a. direct engagement with the Burmese govt.; b. gradually building up pressure on the Burmese govt. through multilateral engagement.

Bangladesh government should register the unregistered Rohingyas living outside the camps.  Then our government can use the sheer ‘logic of number’ to put pressure on the Burmese govt. through the international community, which has much influence over it at this moment. In any case, the Burmese govt. does not want to talk about those refugees living outside the camps and are unregistered. Moreover, the unregistered refugees are more of a threat than the registered ones for Bangladesh, as these are not accounted for and one cannot keep track of them. They are illegally obtaining Bangladeshi passports and using it to various means including getting jobs and other facilities here; even traveling abroad to lucrative labor markets. These are important manpower-markets for Bangladesh and the Rohingyas are making a bad name for us. Many of these out of the camp refugees are becoming social nuisances by engaging in various criminal activities and vice. The huge number of undocumented Rohingyas is also damaging the environment. Their presence is detrimental to the forests in Cox’s Bazar and the CHT. Even more alarming is the prospect of their becoming national security threats if they engage en masse in either insurgent activities or religious violent extremist acts. Therefore, it is better to register them than to leave them alone and allowed to go astray.

Bangladesh cannot take any rash decisions regarding this issue as our vital national interests are bound with the matter of a good relation with Burma. It can provide us with much-needed energy: both fossil fuel and possible hydro-energy. Being a country almost locked by India on all sides, Burma is the only land outlet for Bangladesh. It is vital for us as it could provide Bangladesh gateways to South-east Asia and even to China through the much talked about Asian Highway. Cross-border trade could also flourish and Bangladesh can make Burma’s newly opened economy and market a lucrative destination for Bangladeshi goods and investment and vice versa. Burma could provide us with much-needed grains, cereals, pulses, and timber. Keeping good relations with it is vital as we share contiguous areas at the Bay of Bengal and cooperation is always needed between neighbors for proper management of mineral and natural recourses of the sea.

Lessons could be learned from the recent peaceful settlement of the sea bounder demarcation dispute between the two countries. This was achieved through obedience and respect towards the international dispute settlement mechanism under the rubric of the UN by both the countries. In that particular issue, much more were at stake than in this present instance. Therefore, a peaceful settlement is possible and is the only way forward. Bangladesh can raise the question of the Rohingyas in the ASEAN forum, BIMSTEC or even the UN.

Both the US and the EU have recently opened their diplomatic offices in Burma. The British Prime Minister, the EU’s foreign policy chief and the US Secretary of State, all have made high profile visits to Burma alongside our own Honorable Prime Minister. So this issue should be persuaded through the diplomatic channels. The international community should be informed about the plight of the Rohingyas. They must put pressure on the Burmese govt. for an acceptable and permanent settlement of this long-standing thorn of this region. They should ask Aung Sung Su Kii as well to speak up on this issue. The Bangladesh Govt. can appoint a special envoy regarding this issue or create a separate desk at the foreign office until the solution to this problem. We can also try to lobby China in this regard who has had great influence over the Burmese military over the years. The Chinese have a lot of interest in this region and in Bangladesh too, so they would not want a destabilized Bangladesh-Burma relation. The bottom line is that the situation must be monitored closely by our govt. and all necessary actions must be taken to thaw the problem.


  1. Democratic Push a Good Opportunity for Burma to Resolve Rohingya Statelessness
    Eric Paulsen| February 11, 2012. . on 08.04.12.

Published online at (Web version of Foreign Affairs Insights and Reviews)

Book Chapter Review

From the Book: American Diplomacy (1900-1950) – By George F. Kennan

This book is a collection, published in 1951 by The New American Library, Inc., of six lectures delivered under the Charles R. Walgreen Foundation Lecture Series at the University of Chicago and of two articles, which had previously been published in the Foreign Affairs Magazine.

In its foreword, Mr. Kennan states that it was his realization of “…the lack of an adequately  stated and widely accepted theoretical foundation to underpin the conduct of [American] external relations…” that aroused his curiosity and encouraged him in examining the basic concepts by which American Statesmen had been guided between 1898 and 1950, and prompted the subject-matter of the abovementioned lecture series. Basically, Mr. Kennan embarks on a project to dissect and identify the origins of American foreign policy and the events that helped to shape the psychological and philosophical underpinnings of the foreign policy-making apparatus of the U.S. i.e. the State Department during the period of 1900-1950. The reason why he is so concerned about the foreign policy-ethos of the first 50 years of the last century is because of the fact that, that half-a-century had relegated the U.S. from a world-power as supremely confident in its security as “the Roman Empire” to an extremely vulnerably super-power which, in the words of Mr. Kennan, could “…think of little else but this [insecurity] danger.” He added the last two articles on Soviet-American relations so that they “…can be taken as reflecting the application of the same intellectual approach [as learned from the experience of the half-century that had elapsed] to problems…” of those scorching days of cold war years.

In his first lecture of the series, The War With Spain, Kennan analyses how American foreign policy up-to that period, and during the hysteria of that war, was like the fate of Robinson Crusoe: that the U.S. was oblivious of its sources of security, which was the balance of power that had been maintained in Europe shunning any threat from a great power from the Eurasian landmass towards the U.S.; and what great storm awaited for it once the “…sheltered position behind the British fleet and British Continental diplomacy…” would  disappear. Hence, the boat of U.S. foreign policy floated aimlessly in the high seas of the world of international politics and touched the shores of an unplanned war and of an unwanted expansion towards the overseas territories. But, upon careful examination, Kennan reveals that all was not so naive; that hawks like the future-president Theodore Roosevelt and others inside the administration of President McKinley, as Kennan puts it, “…simply liked the smell of empire and felt an urge to range themselves among the colonial powers of the time, to see [U.S.] flag flying on distant tropical isles, to fill the thrill of foreign adventures and authority, to bask in the sunshine of recognition as one of the great imperial powers of the world.” Add to that the patriotic public-frenzy that was initiated by the sinking of the U.S. Navy Battleship ‘Maine’ at the Havana harbour killing 266 American seamen under less-than-clear circumstances; domestic politics in a year of election; and the yellow journalism that ensued in various newspapers (especially those of media-baron William Randolph Hearst) of aggrandisement of the American perception of continental security, its “manifest destiny” in the oceans, its business interests in trade with the greater Orient, its supremacy in terms of values as an “enlightened and Christian nation”; and one had the perfect recipe for American expansionism in the form of war against Spain and appropriation of territories held by her: the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Guam, Hawaii; and the maiming of Cuba from Spain. Of all, the most perplexing was the attack  on the Manila Bay and the subsequent occupation of the Philippines, as there was no mention of any territory other than Cuba in the Congressional resolution of ultimatum to Spain or that “…the President was authorized to use the armed forces for any purpose not directly related to the Spanish withdrawal from Cuba.” It later became apparent that this expedition was the brainchild of the then Assistant Secretary of the Navy Mr. Roosevelt and some of his close and like-minded associates such as the Commander of the U.S. Asiatic fleet Admiral Dewey, and that this personal project, in course, became the national demand through the glorification of American bravery by the print-media and by the expansionists in the Congress which left McKinley without any option but to annex that archipelago.

This lecture, basically, illustrates how diplomatic squabbles with Spain over the insurgent and secessionist movements in Cuba, which could very easily have been solved through normal diplomatic channels, had given rise to “…the first extensions of United States sovereignty to important territories beyond the continental limits of North American…[and] the first instances of sizable populations being taken under [U.S.] flag with no wide anticipation that they would ever be accepted into statehood” that acted as the harbinger of American interventionism and policy of regime change in the years to come. At the end, Kennan plainly states, “…having resorted to war for subjective and emotional reasons, [Americans] conducted it in part on the basis of plans which….had never been seriously examined and approved by any competent official body; which were known to, and understood by, only a tiny handful of individuals in the government service; and which obviously reflected motives ulterior to the announced purposes of the war as defined by Congress” i.e. that the people of Cuba is in dire straits and desperately need American aid for their freedom and that this is inseparably connected to the safety and security of American lives, of the United States itself, and with excepting the “divine burdens of the white men”; having a feeling of  déjà vu! my dear readers? But Kennan very rightly points out the moral backlashes it created in the Congress and elsewhere between the expansionists and the idealist, if we may call them. That this latter group argued on what right the U.S. had to appropriate distant lands without giving their inhabitants citizenship and degrading them to colonial subject status, that whether a country like America, which was built upon the ideals of freedom, equality, and opportunity for all, upon the concepts of democracy and constitutionalism, can, in fact, accept an overseas empire, what would such precedents mean for the spirits of the American Declaration of Independence, its sense of virtue, and its relations with other nations, etc. “Kings can have subjects; it is a question whether a republic can”, the anti-imperialists cried out, and asked the Americans to consider “…what effect the imperial policy will have upon themselves” if it is permitted to be established.

But, at the end, the logic of “contingent necessity: the argument that unless [America] took these territories, somebody else would and that this would be still worse” emerged victorious despite all the avenues for a peaceful settlement had still not been fully exhaustive; and without any regard for the costs of a long-term commitment for the acquired lands. George Kennan concludes his lecture with the impression that “…in the course of their deliberation they [statesmen of 1898] stumbled upon issues and problems basic to the health of our American civilization;….which are still before us and still requires answers…” and that the post-WWII generation no longer had the luxury of repeating the same mistakes that their forefathers had done so i.e. taking up “paternalistic responsibility” for which they are not mandated or which they cannot justify.

The second lecture entitled Mr. Hippisley and the Open Door talks about “the dispatch of John Hay’s Open Door notes”. The story goes like this: during an age of colonial and imperial rivalries, Great Britain controlled one of the most lucrative veins of oriental trade – China. But, increasingly, other great powers of Europe; France, Germany, Russia; were flexing their muscles and making various deals with the castrated sovereign of Peking, which could have resulted in a scramble for China and partition of some parts of it into the “spheres-of-influence” of the abovementioned nations. This would have greatly hampered the interests of Britain. The most alarming of those were the maneuvers of Imperial Russia, as it set about to establish a naval base at Port Arthur in the Gulf of Pechili. The secret communication sent out to the Czar’s government from the British Foreign Office abundantly expressed “Her Majesty’s Government’s” concerns stating that this “…will command the maritime approaches to [China’s] capital, and give to Russia the same strategic advantages by sea which she already possesses in so ample a measure by land”.

Unfinished and To be Continued…

Published online at (Web version of Foreign Affairs Insights and Reviews)