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Published: February 13, 2014

Regional dynamics in South Asia: political instability and humanitarian access in Bangladesh

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Raquel Vazquez Llorente is a Researcher at the European Interagency Security Forum (EISF). Raquel is responsible for producing original research papers that help share and promote best-practices amongst the humanitarian sector, with the aim of building the capacity of security and risk managers. Raquel also collaborates with other bodies undertaking research projects in the sector.


In January 2014, Bangladesh held elections surrounded by chaos and clashes. The ruling Awami League won one of the most violent elections in history, and the situation in the country remains tense. Protests and political gatherings in Dhaka have been taking place for the last weeks in Gulshan-2, where not only the main opposition party but also foreign aid agencies and INGOs have their country offices. Political instability in the past has impeded humanitarian and development work, forcing agencies to halt cash-based transfers and undermining disaster preparedness efforts.

Upcoming census and ethnic tensions in Myanmar
Last week we reported on the anti-INGO protests that took place in the first week of February in Rakhine state, Myanmar, and the challenges faced by aid agencies providing assistance to the Rohingya—the largest Muslim community in the country. Amidst Rakhine Buddhist resistance against international organisations, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar will undertake a final visit to the country from 14 to 19 February, prior to the end of his six-year mandate. His meeting with members of the government and the Rohingya Muslim and Rakhine Buddhist communities comes before a nationwide census that may stir ethnic tensions.

It has been over 30 years since the last census in Myanmar in 1983. Previous attempts to count the Muslim population in Rakhine State have led to violent incidents, and this census may be instrumentalised by extremist groups—notably Buddhist nationalism—to support their anti-Muslim narrative. Ethnicity, citizenship and religion are particularly delicate issues in Rakhine, and the 41 questions included in the census may have political ramifications for the Rohingya. Also, according to official sources, no extra security will be provided from March 29 to April 10, when the count is taking place.

Political instability and regional humanitarian consequences
Past violence against Rohingyas in Myanmar has led to tens of thousands fleeing the country and seeking asylum in neighbouring shores. Bangladesh is home to the largest number of exiled Rohingya—around 300,000. UNHCR only assists those who registered before 1992, less than 30,000 people. Some other estimated 36,000 are unrecognized refugees in makeshift camps to which UNHCR and other international and national humanitarian agencies have limited access. The Bangladesh government has traditionally not welcome efforts for improving humanitarian access for the Rohingya, even closing the border to those escaping June 2012 violence.

For the Rohingya, regional politics have proven to impact their situation both in Myanmar and Bangladesh. A year and a half ago, when communal clashes were escalating in Rakhine and almost 30,000 Rohingya were fleeing the country; the Bangladesh government ordered MSF, Action Contre la Faim and Muslim Aid to cease aid to the Rohingya in Cox’s Bazaar, south east of the country. In light of the recent ethnic tensions in Rakhine that may escalate during or after the census, Bangladesh is already being urged by international actors—notably the US—to permit NGOs to provide humanitarian assistance in Cox’s Bazaar refugee camps.



Upcoming census and ethnic tensions in Myanmar:

Myanmar Conflict Alert: A Risky Census, ICG, 12 February 2014, http://www.crisisgroup.org/en/publication-type/alerts/2014/myanmar-conflict-alert-a-risky-census.aspx

No extra security for Rakhine State during census, Myanmar Times, 12 February 2014, http://www.mmtimes.com/index.php/national-news/9550-no-extra-security-for-rakhine-state-during-census.html

Rohingya not recorded as Myanmar citizens in census, World Vision, 12 February 2014, http://www.worldbulletin.net/world/128749/rohingya-not-recorded-as-myanmar-citizens-in-census

Myanmar: UN Special Rapporteur in final visit to assess human rights situation, OHCHR, 11 February 2014, http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=14239&LangID=E


Humanitarian access for Myanmar Rohingya in Bangladesh:

Don’t push back Rohingyas, US official for Myanmar Judith Cefkin urges Bangladesh, The Daily Star, 4 February 2014, http://www.thedailystar.net/dont-push-back-rohingyas-9829

Bangladesh’s “Rohingya strategy” stokes concern, IRIN News, 26 November 2013, http://www.irinnews.org/report/99207/bangladesh-s-rohingya-strategy-stokes-concern

Analysis: How Bangladesh aid restrictions impact Rohingyas, IRIN News, 19 November 2013, http://www.irinnews.org/report/99157/dhaka-restrictions-impact-rohingyas

Bangladesh: Rohingya refugees face more restrictions, 12 October 2012, http://www.irinnews.org/report/96526/bangladesh-rohingya-refugees-face-more-restrictions

Bangladesh bans foreign charities helping Rohingya, AFP, 2 August 2012, http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5hQ_3ZjVHl7aIoJDJX61PvnfZQS-g?docId=CNG.d2edb3fd52d7f07f5ba0aa6822b41294.791


Political instability and regional humanitarian consequences:

Political killings spread fear in Bangladesh, Al Jazeera, 11 February 2014,


CrisisWatch, ICG, 1 February 2014, http://www.crisisgroup.org/en/publication-type/media-releases/2014/crisiswatch/crisiswatch-126.aspx

Bangladesh political violence spurs attacks on minority groups, IRIN News, 31 January 2014, http://www.irinnews.org/report/99565/bangladesh-political-violence-spurs-attacks-on-minority-groups

Aid in the balance — Bangladesh’s political mess, Devex, 17 January 2014,  https://www.devex.com/en/news/aid-in-the-balance-bangladesh-s-political-mess/82675

Clashes and boycott mar Bangladesh election, BBC, 5 January 2014, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-25602436

Political instability undermines disaster preparedness in Bangladesh, IRIN News, 22 April 2013, http://www.irinnews.org/report/97889/political-instability-undermines-disaster-preparedness-in-bangladesh


Background information:

Safety and security, Bangladesh, FCO, last accessed on 13 February 2014,https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/bangladesh/safety-and-security

 Global emergency overview, ACAPS, February 2014, http://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/geo%2028January-04February.pdf

UNHCR Factsheet-Bangladesh, UNHCR, September 2013, http://www.unhcr.org/50001ae09.pdf

ECHO Factsheet-Bangladesh, ECHO, September 2013, http://ec.europa.eu/echo/files/aid/countries/factsheets/bangladesh_en.pdf

Myanmar: sectarian violence in Rakhine. Issues, humanitarian consequences and regional responses, Dr. Cameron Hill, Parliament of Australia, 24 July 2013, http://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/pubs/rp/rp1314/Myanmar#_Toc362436877

Rohingya Crisis: A Historical Overview, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, 22 June 2012, http://www.ipcs.org/seminar/southeast-asia/the-rohingya-crisis-in-myanmar-implications-for-national-reconstruction-regional-987.html

States of denial. A review of UNHCR’s response to the protracted situation of stateless Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, UNHRC, December 2011, http://www.unhcr.org/4ee754c19.pdf


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