WHY BANGLADESH WON’T ACCEPT ANY MORE ROHINGYAS

Although the issue has come into a new limelight with President Obama’s visit to Myanmar, no one really needs any introduction to the topic. Pictures of Rohingya men and women have been flooding the international newspapers since the sectarian clashes began in the Rakhine state of Myanmar. And fingers have not only been pointed at the Myanmar government for its failure in protecting its minorities, but also at Myanmar’s neighbor Bangladesh.

The Bangladesh government has firmly refused to allow any more Rohingya influx into the country. And has, instead, followed a neutral diplomatic stance by refusing to condemn either of the two sides. International condemnation, particularly in Pakistan of which Bangladesh was once a part, have on the other hand been tremendous. Everyone has criticized the already impoverished state for its silence and refusal to accommodate people in dire need.

Indonesians protest against Myanmar

But the local public opinion on the issue have been divided.

Although the official count of Rohingyas who are housed in UN refugee camps in the border city of Cox’s Bazaar is around 30,000, the real count is at least 200,000. Most of these Rohingyas work in Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh’s most economically-important tourist city. A good many of them marry among the Bengali communities and become settled. The luckiest ones even succeed in getting a Bangladeshi passport, which acts as their gateway to the oil-wealthy economies of the Middle-East where the country sends millions of workers every year.

But all these refugees have to be clothed, fed and educated by the state. In a country where people struggle to meet their daily needs, the government has a very good reason not to take any more burdens. And so to preempt any more influx of Rohingyas in search of hope in Bangladesh, the government has even reduced access to Rohingya refugee-camps for international and local NGOs; making sure that all humanitarian aid were delivered by the army and border guards only. Recently, in an extremely embarrassing feat, a Turkish lawmaker, while on holiday in Cox’s Bazaar during the eve of Eid-ul-Azha, was arrested by the police for trying to distribute meat of the sacrifice among the Rohingya refugees.

But the most important reality of the problem was generated in a spat of sectarian attacks by Muslim mobs on Buddhist communities in Cox’s Bazaar.

A Rohingya refugee, who has fled the sectarian tensions in Myanmar, pleading with the Bangladesh Border Guards to grant him into the gates of Bangladesh

After a Buddhist teenager of Cox’s Bazaar tagged a controversial Islamophobic photo on facebook right after the mayhem of Innocence of Muslims, mobs of Islamists, within a few hours, gathered with bamboos and sticks, and attacked Buddhist temples and homes in Ramu, Ukhia and several other regions of Cox’s Bazaar. Speculators have confirmed that the attack was more planned than anyone could have imagined. People were brought in through trucks and buses from all over the district, where diverse religions have never had a problem, and within a span of a few hours the Buddhists were rendered homeless.

Everything was done in a planned, coordinated manner. Several centuries-old Buddhist statues have been destroyed for good and the police’s role have been called into question. Many have accused the local politicians of being a part of the blasphemy. Fingers have been pointed at DGFI and NSI—-Bangladesh’s two most notorious intelligence agencies——since it was impossible to carry out such an attack on minorities without their foreknowledge.

It all ended with the Awami League, the liberal, secular, left-wing ruling party, and the BNP, the centre-right, conservative, Islamist-secular, opposition party throwing accusations at each other.

But one thing was clear: Rohingyas were involved in vast numbers. Whoever planned the attack, carried out the arson by recruiting them from the UN refugee camps.

Jamaat-i-Islami, Bangladesh’s most problematic Islamic fundamentalist party, has firmly denied any accusations of having a role in the attack on minorities. Although there is a pervasive belief that the conservative, pro-Pakistani Islamist group was involved in the assault, its members have refused all charges of using any stateless Rohingyas to advance their political agendas.

Meanwhile, the atmosphere in the capital city has been untouched by the Rohingya issue. The centre of all political activism, art, culture and policy-making, Dhaka has gone on as if nothing has happened. One of the most liberal cities of South Asia, Dhaka and its economic ambitions have embraced its stance on the Rohingyas more positively than outsiders can think.

Although there have been mass-demonstrations by intellectuals, freedom fighters and human rights organizations after the attack on Buddhists, the people here are more busy with calling for a permanent end to child marriage and for scraping the new bill on Hindu laws that discriminate against Hindu widows. In a city where religion is becoming less important everyday; where feminists are chanting slogans of rescinding the use of Sharia in property inheritance; and where an ever-increasing proportion of the people are echoing calls for a removal of the phrase “Complete faith and trust in the Almighty Allah” used in the country’s constitution; the Rohingyas aren’t a topic that people want to think about.

Bangladesh’s economic ties with Myanmar have also been an issue. As the neighbor embraces a liberal economy after its democratic transition, Bangladeshi capitalists and businessmen have targeted Burma as a new potential market for enormous growth. Talks are already underway to set up Bangladeshi power-stations in Myanmar so that the energy-starved nation can meet its huge power demand in the rapidly boosting up industrial sector. Any disruption of the diplomatic and trade ties between the two countries would ultimately harm Bangladesh’s expanding business prospects in the region, and would rather benefit its mightier neighbor India.

So questions on all social networks by Bangladeshis have been similar. Don’t people lose lives on a daily basis in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Palestine? No one cares about them, so why all this targeting Bangladesh for something it played no part in? Why suddenly this we-muslims-need-to-save-our-brothers-and-sisters-in-Myanmar-from-Aung-Sun-Suu-Kyi type of thing? Aren’t our tax money low enough already for a huge population like ours?

The Nobel Laureate Suu Kyi’s silence on the issue has also been condemned all over the globe

However, many have raised a voice for the Rohingyas as well. Editorial columns and opinion on leading media outlets have condemned the violence and criticized the Bangladeshi government for its lack of an international response over the issue. Some have reminded the country that during the liberation war of 1971, when the Pakistani army and Jamaat-i-Islami were persecuting and raping as much as possible to create ‘a breed of better Muslims’, the neighboring India, seeing a positive political opportunity of a divided-Pakistan, granted refugee status to 2 million people who fled the violence into West Bengal.

But the situation in this case is different. If more Rohingyas are allowed refugee status in Bangladesh, it is quite unlikely that they will ever return to Myanmar again when the Burmese government accepts them back; thus further burdening the Bangladesh economy.

In an age of high economic ambitions, capitalism and materialism in South Asia’s one of the most populous and rapidly-developing countries, this is how the pervasive belief about Rohingyas is prevalent. Any government in power would have closed off its borders in a situation such as this. In fact many analysts now think that the Bangladeshi government made the perfect decision during the conflict. Not only did it stop violence from escalating within its own borders, but also kept international pressure and awareness abuzz on the Myanmar government, which has followed a system of ethnic cleansing and persecution of the Rohingyas since the early 1970s.

Right after the liberation war devastated Bangladesh and pushed it back by at least five decades, the nascent country, despite all its hurdles, gave refugee status to the thousands of Rohingyas who fled the Burmese military’s sectarian war against the Muslim communities. But after three decades, there is a popular feeling that it’s now time for Suu Kyi and her men-in-uniform to take back the people whom they have wronged in their own lands just because they were Muslims and not from the same faith as the majority of the people. As much as there is a call for Pakistan to take back its huge number of refugees in Bangladesh who have been rendered stateless during the 1971 war, there is also a call for the Myanmar government to stop further burdening the economic potentials of a country desperately in search of social prosperity and interfaith harmony.

The Plight of the Stateless: The Rohingya Diaspora

This article was written in collaboration with Eshpelin Mishtak for umnotablogger.com, a Bangladesh-based e-magazine, to address the recent Rohingya refugee crisis of Bangladesh.

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Photo courtesy: The Daily Star

The photo shows a Rohingya man pleading to officers of the Bangladesh Border Guards to let him and the children and women of the boat to land ashore on Bangladeshi land. The military officers then gave them food, water and fuel, and mandated them to return back to their home from where they had escaped to flee a murderous sectarian violence between the Muslim Rohingyas and the Buddhist Rakhines in the state of Arakan.

Heart-breaking as the photo looks, it clearly symbolizes what the Rohingyas have been going through in Myanmar for decades.

Rohingyas are a particular ethnic tribal group of Myanmar who speak a local dialect of Bengali and are all Muslims. These two reasons make the Myanmar government claim that the Rohingya are actually Bangladeshi immigrants who have settled there when in fact the tribes have existed there for centuries at a time. During the partition of India in 1947 when the British packed all their belongings to leave, the Rohingyas asked Jinnah, the leader of the Muslim League, to include Arakan in Pakistan (which was formed as a separate state for the Muslims) because of the huge Muslim population prevalent there.

While the Myanmar government persistently claims that Rohingyas are actually Bangladeshis, the Bangladesh government in turn says that they are all

Photos from the conflict

Burmese(people from Myanmar). As a result of this, the government of Myanmar has denied citizenship to the Rohingyas, keeping them widely segregated outside the wider Buddhist communities. They are severely repressed and no family is allowed to have more than two children. Access to their basic human rights such as food, shelter and education are all controlled by the central government. They are not allowed to get posts in the government or in the private sector, and no Muslim minority is allowed to be employed in the police or army.

However despite all these problems the Rohingyas have coexisted peacefully with the Rakhines in Arakan. Most of the youth have crossed the seas and traveled into Malaysia and Thailand, where they work as illegal laborers with no security as the law enforcers there can arrest them off as illegal immigrants. But the majority have moved into the neighboring Muslim-majority state Bangladesh.

Now in Bangladesh, which is already brimming with a huge population of its own with a severe competition for resources, most of these stateless Rohingyas get captured by the Border Guards Bangladesh and are then dumped into the UN refugee camps found in the Bangladesh-Myanmar border. An estimated 30000 Rohingyas live in these camps while the number of Rohingyas present in Bangladesh is actually around 300000. The ones who survive abuse and arrest from the Bangladesh border forces escape into the nearest villages. A significant portion marry off among the Bengali Muslim communities, get a Bangladeshi passport and a national id card and become Bangladeshis for life. A good number use the Bangladeshi passports to go off to the Middle-Eastern countries, especially the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where they work as laborers and foreign expatriates.

But recently the plight of the stateless Rohingyas have escalated all of a sudden. When a group of three Rohingya men raped a Buddhist woman, the Buddhist communities fired assaults on the Muslim minorities. A bus carrying Rohingyas was burned down in response to the rape and eventually this fueled into a huge sectarian conflict between the Muslim Rohingyas and the Buddhists. Far from being rational, the state media and the political leaders of the newly-democratic Myanmar launched countless assaults on the Muslims and thus brought about a huge anti-Muslim fever among the apparently peace-loving Buddhists. Houses, shops and businesses were vandalized and openly Muslims were persecuted under the heat of the day by the locals and also the law enforcers. The people dubbed the Muslims as terrorists and compared the violence to that of 9/11 and the Mumbai attacks without having absolutely no knowledge of the events that led to the aforementioned attacks.

The widespread persecution have prompted a diaspora of the Rohingya populace into Bangladesh in boats and fishing trawlers. Now for Bangladesh, this has become much more than a problem. It is quite evident that the government of Myanmar will never accept these Rohingyas back into their land, and there is no way that the government of Bangladesh will be able to accede more people into the already impoverished country. Therefore the best thing that the government decided to do was to strengthen the Bangladesh-Myanmar borders and coerce the incoming Rohingyas back into their land, where they are almost sure to be persecuted by the wider Buddhist communities. This not only violated several international UN laws for refugees—-through which international human rights groups have asked Bangladesh to open up its borders—–but also brought about an ubiquitous dilemma for the Bangladeshis living inside the country. On the one hand, denying the Rohingyas into the land automatically increases the likelihood that they will be persecuted and discriminated against in their own homelands. While on the other hand, Bangladesh happens to be both one of the most populace and poverty-stricken country at the same time.

The decision sparked massive outrage among the public in Dhaka and the rest of the cities. A poll carried out by the Daily Star shows that most of the people want the borders to be opened for the Rohingyas to come in. But the majority of the intellectuals think that Myanmar should solve its own problems. The Rohingya massacre should be stopped no doubt, but Dhaka is unwilling to comply with mounting international pressure to allow the Rohingyas into Bangladesh because of the obnoxious, racially-prejudiced Myanmar government which continues to call the Rohingyas Bengali immigrants.

According to international journalist and Myanmar specialist Francis Wade, more Muslims are being persecuted than reported by the media. This is what he had to say:

“The role of security forces in the violence has also been underreported, which contributes to statements like this one yesterday from an EU spokesperson: “We believe that the security forces are handling this difficult intercommunal violence in an appropriate way.” That does not marry with reports from locals on the ground.
At least four people have told me that police are acting alongside Arakanese in torching homes of Muslims, while several reports have emerged of police opening fire on crowds of Muslims (NB: Muslims are forbidden from entering Burma’s police force or army – this does carry significance when violence is of this nature). An NGO worker said last night that her family friend, a former politician from Sittwe, has been killed after being arrested over the weekend, while AFP reports that a Rohingya shot by Burmese police has died in Bangladesh.
The UN is unlikely to act unless there is clear complicity in the violence by state agents. The trouble is however that with few journalists or observers on the ground, those responsible for the deaths (which could well be in the hundreds by now) are hard to pinpoint. The UN has withdrawn staff from the region, but Human Rights Watch has urged the government to allow observers in.
There also seems to be something of a PR campaign to cast Muslims as those behind the killings (to make clear, Muslim groups are not innocent bystanders, but have also been involved in arson attacks across the state). One such example is the shaving of the heads of dead victims, often Muslims, and dressing them in monks robes – “and they (media) will take photos of this fake monk corpse to show to the world that these dead bodies were murdered by Muslim [sic]”, one source wrote.”

On the other hand, Rohingyas captured by BGB, Bangladeshi Border Guards, tell horrific tales of persecution and abuse by the Buddhists, who are normally perceived as peace loving and gentle. One family reportedly lost a daughter en route to Bangladesh, and were forced to bury her at sea since they could neither go to Myanmar to bury her, nor reach Bangladesh without being pushed back. Reports of robbers/pirates attacking refugee boats are also prevalent, with one boat captured by BGB with no-one but a malnourished new-born inside; supposedly, the elder members could not take him when they jumped out of board in order to save themselves from pirates.

Amidst all of these, the Bangladeshi Government is maintaining a strict policy of not calling them refugees, and nor allowing them entry. The newly formed democratic government of Myanmar agreed on principle, to take back 30,000 registered “non-refugees”, but the project has seen no light since the talks, and it appears that the Bangladeshi government is scared about taking in more of them because of the categorical denial of citizenship of the Rohingyas as Burmese.

In this situation, many Bangladeshis, who are in favor of allowing the Rohingyas to enter Bangladesh, have started publicly supporting the view. Facebook groups have opened up, and many are blogging in support of them. Some categorically suggest invading Myanmar, an improbable idea, while others opt for allowing entry on humanitarian grounds. Bloggers have even asked the widely popular Bangladeshi premiere, Shiekh Hasina, to intervene directly into the matter and not forget that the prime minister herself was given asylum by Germany when her life was in danger back in 1975.

While all decisions rest on the government, the enraged public is patiently waiting to see an end to this massacre. Because this is not only a crisis and a violence that disrupts interfaith and interracial harmony, but also prompts a huge humanitarian crisis for the world. After all, each drop of human blood, regardless of religion, castes and creeds is equally important.