Rohingyas flight

Print edition : July 27, 2012

Bangladesh is facing another influx of Rohingyas following sectarian violence in the Rakhine state in western Myanmar.

in Dhaka

Rohingya Muslims who fled Myanmar in boats in Shahporir Dwip in Teknaf, Bangladesh, on June 18.-SAURABH DAS/AP

The spillover of the sectarian violence that began in early June in Myanmars Rakhine state, located south of Bangladesh, has once again started affecting the border regions of the neighbouring country. The states majority Buddhist Rakhines have been frequently clashing with the Muslim Rohingyas, who are locally called Bengalis and not considered a fellow ethnic community. Bangladesh is in a terrible predicament: should it open its border, which was closed in response to the unrest, and take in more refugees? The Bangladeshi border police have been turning back those fleeing the violence.

While the issue is a humanitarian one, it may be recalled that Dhaka has not succeeded in repatriating the thousands of Rohingyas who crossed the border in 1978 and 1991-92. Myanmar has repeatedly refused to take back the refugees, questioning their identity. Repatriation has been slow as Myanmar has been insisting on ascertaining the identity of the refugees as many of them either had not acquired a state identity or had to leave everything behind to save their lives. The ethnic Rohingya Muslims, classified under a 1982 law as stateless citizens, have been treated as illegal immigrants in Myanmar and have faced discrimination at the hands of successive military regimes. Myanmar has 135 legally recognised ethnic groups.

It is only a humanitarian measure if Bangladesh opens its border in order to save the lives of the Rohingyas. But can the country, whose economy is quite fragile and whose population of about 160 million is squeezed into an area of 147,570 square kilometres, afford to accommodate and sustain such a large number of people? Although official estimates show that there are only some 27,000 Rohingyas living in Bangladeshi refugee camps, unofficial estimates put the figure at more than three lakhs. Many of the refugees have reportedly mixed with the local population and a section of them is said to have migrated to West Asia on forged Bangladeshi passports. Regional and international organisations have not taken any proactive step to end the alleged persecution of the ethnic minority in Myanmar, nor have they attempted to help stop the influx into Bangladesh.

Trying to strike a balance between humanity and reality, the Bangladesh government said that while it could not accommodate a new influx of refugees, it had instructed its border guards to deal with the fleeing people humanely as they made desperate bids to come in by boats.

Since 1978, regions bordering Myanmar, such as Teknaf, Ukhia and Coxs Bazar, have been under stress. The first wave of refugees arrived that year as a result of the infamous Dragon King operation by the Myanmarese army. Nearly 300,000 Rohingyas had sought shelter in Bangladesh between 1978 and 1979 when General Ziaur Rahman was the President. When his wife Khaleda Zia was in power, a bigger wave of refugees crossed the border in 1991-92 following repression by the Myanmarese junta.

Undoubtedly, the refugee settlements have created socio-economic and law and order problems in the eastern part of Bangladesh. The tens of thousands of refugees, poor and socially insecure, are known to fall prey easily to unscrupulous people. They are allegedly involved in the smuggling and narcotics trade. Reports suggest that many refugees are involved in extremist activities across the border and within Bangladesh territory. It is alleged that a number of Bangladeshi political parties, particularly the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami and the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), had used the plight of the Rohingyas for their narrow political gains.

Myanmar, a multi-religious country with 60 million people, has 89 per cent Buddhists. Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Bahais constitute the rest. The bulk of the Muslim population entered what was then Burma as indentured labourers from the Indian subcontinent during British rule. Many people from Gujarat in India and even from China settled down in Burma. Even before the partition of India in 1947, Bengal had a long history of trade and business relations with Burma. The hospitality of the Burmese people is documented in Bengali literature.

The term Rohingyas

Besides Rakhine (originally Arakan), there are habitations of Muslims in other parts of Myanmar, including Yangon (formerly Rangoon). Rohingyas resemble Bengalis and speak a dialect that is close to the language spoken in Teknaf, Ukhia and Coxs Bazar regions of Bangladeshs Chittagong region. Rakhine, which was an independent kingdom, was annexed by the Burmese forces in 1784. Some historians say that at the time of the annexation many Buddhist Rakhines sought shelter in the nearby Bengal regions of greater Chittagong. There are varying claims about the term Rohingya itself. Some of them say that it is derived from Rohang, believed to be the ancient name of the Rakhine/Arakan state. Historians sympathetic to the Rohingyas have argued that the term is derived from the Arabic word raham, meaning blessings. Arab traders whose ship sank near Ramree island are believed to have sought Allahs blessings when the Arakanese king ordered their execution. The traders shouted raham, and their plea reportedly saved them from being persecuted. Gradually, the story goes, Raham changed to Rhohang and finally to Rohingyas. However, this claim is refuted by the leaders of the Arakan Muslim Conference.

Another historian has argued that Rohang is a corrupted form of the term Mrohaung (old Arakanese kingdom) and thus its inhabitants began to be called Rohingyas. Myanmarese historians challenge these claims. They assert that the term Rohingya never appeared in common parlance before the 1950s. However, they say that it does not mean that Muslims had not existed in Arakan before 1824 (the year Arakan and other territories were annexed by the British after the First Anglo-Burmese war).

The rivalry between the Rakhines and the Rohingya Muslims dates back to the colonial era. During the Second World War, the Japanese forces invaded Burma, forcing the British army to retreat. In the vacuum caused by the retreat of the British soldiers, violence erupted between the Rakhines and the Rohingyas on the question of loyalty to the British and the Japanese. The Rohingyas supported the British, while the Rakhines sided with the Japanese. The Japanese committed atrocities on the Rohingyas they started an orgy of rape, murder and torture.

The recent unrest in Myanmar began after the law-enforcers in the Rakhine state detained three Rohingya men in connection with the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman. As word spread that the Rohingya men were responsible for the offence, the Buddhists retaliated by attacking and killing 10 Muslims, who were not Rohingyas, travelling in a bus. In reprisals that followed, an unspecified number of people were killed and several cases of arson and loot took place, prompting the government to declare a state of emergency in the troubled areas.

A Rakhine holding crude weapons near houses that were set ablaze during the sectarian clashes in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state, on June 10.-REUTERS

Public opinion in Bangladesh seems sharply divided on the Rohingya issue because under the United Nations Convention of 1951 or its 1967 Protocol, Rohingyas are not refugees. Under the Convention, in order to be eligible for the status of a refugee, there must be well-founded fear of persecution by the state. But the violence in Rakhine is a domestic law and order situation. Bangladesh is not a signatory to the U.N. Convention. However, the argument becomes weak when the question of humanity is brought up.

As thousands of Rohingyas are already living in Bangladesh, a large section of Bangladeshis fear that the refugees are lured into extremism, which will pose a threat to the regions peace and security. The Rohingyas have also earned a bad name for the country as unscrupulous manpower traders send them to Arab countries on fake Bangladeshi passports. There are also allegations that having been deprived of their rights as citizens since 1962 when General Ne Win seized power in Myanmar and subjected them to persecution by the state, sections of Rohingyas have formed guerilla groups (such as the Arakan Rohingya National Organisation (ARNO) and the Arakan Rohingya Islamic Front) to demand a Rohingya land in the Rakhine state. A recent media report about the formation of the Arakan Rohingya Union (ARU) in Saudi Arabia suggests that such moves have not died down.

Myanmars pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi is expected to play a reconciliatory role in the changed political scenario. Suu Kyi has urged the nations majority to show sympathy towards minority groups. However, she has remained evasive about the citizenship status of the Rohingyas, possibly not wishing to alienate the majority. On a visit to Thailand in June, her first foreign trip in 24 years, she met thousands of Myanmarese refugees living along the Thai border and promised to help them return home. It is disappointing that a democratic icon such as Suu Kyi is silent on the Rohingya issue when many people expected her to take a lead in resolving it. If she fails to respond to the moral call, political observers feel that her image as a champion of democracy, which she built up over the years in detention, will take a beating.

Appeal for help

Some Western countries and leading human rights groups have been urging Bangladesh to open its border to allow the persecuted Rohingyas to enter. Such appeals for humanitarian help are understandable. But it would be pertinent to ask how many refugees these countries have themselves sheltered? Of an estimated 15.4 million refugees in the world today, records show that developing countries in Asia and Africa host 80 per cent.

Europe and the United States have consistently turned their backs on refugees. The boat people from Cuba were denied access to the U.S. Why does the international community find it easier to put pressure on Bangladesh to accept refugees than to tell Myanmar to ensure the security of its own people?

Following the end of nearly half a century of military rule, President Thein Sein has embarked on a series of sweeping reforms, including freeing hundreds of political prisoners and allowing democratisation of the polity, which will enable Suu Kyi to hold a seat in Parliament. Thein Sein is also taking positive steps to end the long-standing armed conflicts with the countrys ethnic minorities. However, it may be too hasty to seek a quick transition to democracy. Observers say it may take some time to change the special status of the military in the legislature as enshrined in the countrys Constitution.

The prospects for an early transition to democracy and stability have increased with Nay Pyi Taws (Yangon was the previous capital of the country) laudable decision to pursue reconciliation with various armed ethnic rebel groups. The government should seriously encourage reconciliation between the Rakhines and the Rohingyas since any trouble between the two communities often results in a cross-border flow of refugees.

The authorities have, in recent times, accused the Rohingyas of armed action inside Myanmar with the alleged help of Bangladeshs Jamaat-e-Islami, which had opposed the birth of Bangladesh in 1971. Dhaka made it clear that it would not allow its territory to be used for any terrorist activity. Foreign Minister Dipu Moni told Parliament recently that the opposition BNP and the Jamaat-e-Islami were pursuing evil politics by causing destabilisation in the region.

Dhaka and Nay Pyi Taw must avail themselves of the opportunity to discuss the issue across the table when Thein Sein visits Bangladesh in mid-July in response to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasinas visit to Myanmar last year. The two countries recently resolved a long-standing dispute over demarcation of the maritime boundary. Dhaka is also going to reopen the Dhaka-Yangon flight, which has remained suspended for several years. Relations between the two countries have reached a new high.

Bangladesh has already widened its ties with India, Nepal and Bhutan, and its relations with Myanmar should be given top priority. It is to be noted that the issue of Rohingyas is not merely a problem of refugee influx but a problem that has deep roots and therefore deserves careful attention. Independent observers say that as the political situation in Myanmar is taking a positive turn, the long-standing crisis involving the Rohingyas should be resolved on a priority basis.

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