Politicised Humanity? Tracing Discursive Shifts in Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Stance on the Rohingya Before and After August 2017
Albert van Wijngaarden   ·   26 Sep, 2018   ·   198    ·    Special Report

Executive Summary

The Rohingya refugee crisis is far from over, and a significant part of any future resolution will depend on the involvement of Myanmar’s government. This paper focuses much-needed attention on the other key state actor, Bangladesh, and examines its underlying motivation to help the refugees. Without aiming to discredit Bangladesh’s praiseworthy support, this IPCS Special Report questions the sincerity with which this aid is provided by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government. It does so by revealing the distinct change in Hasina’s language after the August 2017 escalation of violence in northern Rakhine. By adjusting her framing of the Rohingya from the ‘other’ (which sought to absolve Bangladesh of humanitarian obligations) to then presenting them as ‘human beings’ (and therefore entitled to aid), Hasina salvaged her country’s international reputation at a time when the international community started demanding action, and simultaneously appeased internal forces who had equally been advocating a more active Bangladeshi response to the crisis, and to Myanmar. Through unpacking the politics of language in this case, it is possible to more critically assess the newly proposed repatriation and resettlement plans for the Rohingya and potential future political manoeuvring intended to affect their situation.  

In the late summer of 2017, the world was shocked by heartbreaking images of Rohingya refugees desperately trying to escape persecution in Myanmar. It is estimated that Bangladesh, where almost all of the Rohingya fled to, now shelters around one million refugees in severely overpopulated camps close to the border. Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, presenting herself as a defender of these refugees, pleaded to the international community to provide aid for the displaced and to pressure Myanmar into taking the Rohingya back. For this, she has received widespread international praise, and in her own country is sometimes fondly referred to as the ‘mother of humanity.’

Without taking away from the credit due to Bangladesh for aiding the vast number of refugees in their already severely overpopulated country, this paper calls this image into question by recalling how, until August 2017, Hasina’s stance towards the longstanding Rohingya crisis had not been a shining example of humanitarianism. This paper will instead reveal a 'politicisation' of the refugee crisis by showing how Hasina’s language in speeches and statements changed after the 25 August 2017 escalation of violence in northern Rakhine, when attacks from Rohingya separatists were followed by an intense military crackdown; occasioning large-scale displacement of the Rohingya, and bringing the Rohingya crisis to the attention of international media and world leaders. Even though looking at language does not provide a complete picture of Hasina's - or her country’s - stance on the issue, as the speeches and statements analysed in this paper were primarily made on an international – or at least public – stage, they do reveal how Hasina wanted the world to perceive Bangladesh’s role in the matter. 

The earliest sources that will be used to trace Hasina’s pre-escalation stances date from early 2012. Although this was certainly not the first time Hasina publicly referred to the Rohingya, this year is significant because it was when a previous mass movement of refugees to Bangladesh occurred in the wake of a large-scale military response to the so-called 'Rakhine state riot'.

The paper uses English media reportage - both national and international - in the corresponding period to extract Hasina’s discursive stance on the Rohingya issue. The conclusions are supplemented by findings made during the author's field trip to Bangladesh, particularly Cox’s Bazaar, where the refugees are based, and through interactions with various stakeholders of the crisis.

Briefly put, this paper argues that Hasina, for a long time, considered the Rohingya to be Myanmar’s problem, not Bangladesh’s. She showed herself largely unwilling to take in refugees, proclaiming that Bangladesh was, a) incapable of supporting them and had its own problems to deal with, and b) not responsible for the situation. The understanding of Bangladesh providing shelter to refugees in the spirit of a 'willkommenskultur' is thereby replaced by an image of a pragmatic government seeking to appease key internal political actors and members of the international community. The hinge on which this shift turns is a discursive re-casting of Rohingya refugees as no longer clear ‘others’ (whose identity absolved Bangladesh of humanitarian obligations) but rather as part of ‘humanity’ (and therefore deserving of Bangladesh’s help).

As there are now plans to move up to 100,000 refugees to the isolated island, Bhasan Char, off Bangladesh’s southern coast, and others fear haphazard, forced repatriations to Myanmar, it is key to bear in mind this politicisation of the crisis in order to better understand and improve the situation of the Rohingya moving forward.

We welcome your feedback, and should you have questions for specific authors, please write to us at officemail@ipcs.org. 

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