The Rohingya genocide and ambivalent Bangladesh – I

by Taj Hashmi | Published: 00:05, Sep 17,2017 | Updated: 23:33, Sep 16,2017


The photo taken on September 15 shows Rohingyas from Myanmar gathering around a truck delivering clothes in Ukhia, Cox’s Bazar. — Agence France-Presse/Munir Uz Zaman

‘AMBIVALENCE’ is a state of having simultaneous conflicting beliefs and opinions towards people, objects, events, and concepts. It is the most appropriate expression to portray the state of Bangladeshi indecisiveness toward the ongoing genocide of Rohingyas in Arakan. Both the people and their government in Bangladesh seem to be unenthused to the sufferings of Rohingyas just across the Naf River. While Bangladeshis who have been demonstrating on streets against the Rohingya genocide have been predominantly devout Muslims and their leaders (mostly madrasa teachers and imams); ‘secular’ Bangladeshis and their leaders have at best been lukewarm towards the state-sponsored persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. And the ruling Awami League has ensured that the opposition, especially the Bangladesh Nationalist Party — its arch rival and nemesis — be not allowed to distribute any relief materials among Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. Recently, the partisan police prohibited a convoy of 22 trucks from entering Teknaf, which were carrying relief goods for refugees, on behalf of the BNP.
Apparently, there has been some positive response from the Government of Bangladesh toward the ‘Rohingya Crisis’, which is solely about the influx of Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh, and their eventual return to Myanmar. It hardly addresses the genocide issue at all. It is a ‘positive response’ indeed, as soon after the eruption of violence in Myanmar on 25th August, the GOB asked the BGB (its border security personnel) not to allow any refugees into Bangladesh from across the border; and prime minister Sheikh Hasina also ensured the Myanmar authorities of joint-operations against Rohingya ‘terrorists’, by Bangladesh and Myanmar security forces, together.
Some external factors seem to be the main catalysts in the Bangladesh government’s change of heart in this regard. Turkish president Erdogan’s recent bold condemnation of the Myanmar regime for the mass killing, and his sending the first lady and his foreign minister to Bangladesh as a gesture of solidarity with the Rohingya people might have embarrassed the Bangladesh government. Last but not least, chief minister Mamata Banerjee and people in neighbouring state of Paschim Banga in India seem to be much more vocal against the Myanmar regime than the government and people of Bangladesh. In this backdrop, let us look at the problem in historical and contemporary perspectives. Shockingly, the influx of around four hundred thousand Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh (as of mid-September) seems to be the bigger issue for its people and government than the genocide per se.
‘Genocide’ is the right word to describe the ongoing mass killing, rape, and expropriation of Rohingyas in Myanmar. As Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin (1900-1959) first used the expression in 1943 in his book, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation - Analysis of Government - Proposals for Redress to define the mass killings, rapes, torture, extortions, and marginalisation of Jews and others in Axis-occupied Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, I think ‘genocide’ appropriately explains the off and on persecution, killing, and expropriation of Rohingya minority in Myanmar, since 1948.
According to Professor David Simon, director of Genocide Studies programme at Yale University: ‘genocide is underway against the Rohingya of Myanmar… As several recent reports document, in recent months, security forces, allied militias, civil society organizations, and citizens have committed atrocities ranging from pillaging, looting, and forced displacement to rape, torture, and murder against the Rohingya’ (Yale Macmillan Centre, ‘Commentary – Lessons of the Rohingya genocide’, January 17, 2017).
Although we have learnt from former UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon that the Rohingyas belong to the ‘single biggest stateless community in the world’, we have no idea about the total number of Rohingyas in the world. We know around two million Rohingyas have fled Myanmar since 1978, but we have no clues about the total population of these people who are still in Myanmar. Our guestimate of ‘two to three million’ may be attributed to the deliberate exclusion of the Rohingyas from census operations by successive autocratic regimes in Myanmar, since 1962. We only come across the most racist, prejudicial observations by Myanmar authorities on the ‘exceedingly high’ birth-rate among the Rohingyas in Arakan. Among others, two Nobel Peace Laureates, Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama also think the Suu Kyi regime of Myanmar is genocidal. The latter even believes, had Buddha been alive today, he would have sided with the Rohingyas.
However, conspiracy theories about the ‘Rohingya Crisis’ abound. Not only the military-backed Suu Kyi regime is in a state of denial about committing any genocide against the Rohingyas, but some international ‘experts’ even suggest that the victims are not Rohingyas but Bangladeshi intruders; and that the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army is the main destabilising factor in Arakan. While one Russian analyst argues that George Soros and mega US business are terrorising the Rohingyas with the help of Myanmar’s security forces with Suu Kyi’s approval, just to jeopardise Chinese investments in Myanmar, China is still defending the Myanmar regime. Renowned Myanmar expert Lex Rieffel is very enlightening in this regard: ‘I know how horrible the situation is. I have been to Rakhine state and have seen the Rohingya confined to a refugee camp on the outskirts of the state capital of Sittwe…the Rohingya have been formally ‘stateless’ for more than 20 years, thus depriving them of access to employment, education, health services, and freedom to move within the country’ (Lex Rieffel, ‘There’s no simple solution to the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar’, Brookings Brief, Sept 13, 2017).
Myanmar’s majority Burman Buddhists have been persecuting the Rohingyas since their annexation of Arakan in 1784. Some scholars estimate as high as 50 per cent of Chittagonians are descendants of Rohingya refugees/settlers in greater Chittagong, 35,000 Rohingyas are said to have fled to Chittagong in 1784 alone. More than 50 per cent of the entire Rohingya population in Arakan is now living as refugees or illegal settlers in various countries. One may find an objective account of the history of the Rohingyas — especially the way they have been victimised by the majority Buddhist politicians, security forces, and people during the pre- and post-colonial periods — in Riccardo Marzoli’s scholarly work (‘The Protection of Human Rights of Rohingya in Myanmar: The Role of the International Community’, Master’s Thesis, LUISS University, Rome 2015).
Unfortunately, no civil and military government in Bangladesh has yet behaved with some dignity and courage to warn their Myanmar counterpart to behave, to respect international law and human rights of minorities. From their insensitive reaction to the mass killing of Rohingyas, and pushing thousands of them as refugees into Bangladesh, by Myanmar, it appears that Bangladeshis have simply forgotten the history of their own Liberation War. They must not forget that but for India’s generous help — especially, its sheltering ten million Bengali refugees during the War — Bangladesh would not have come into being only after a nine-month-long armed struggle in 1971. Both the successive BNP and Awami League governments since 1978 have tried to address the problem Rohingya refugees through UN and human rights organisations. While the BNP Government successfully resolved the Rohingya refugee problem in 1978, all governments afterward have miserably failed to resolve the problem, re-emerged again since 1991. As there are no signs of any remission in the intensity of organised attacks and killing of Rohingyas in Arakan, Bangladesh might end up getting more than a million refugees before the end of 2017 (BBC World News, Sept 2-4, 2017).
Dr. Kamal Siddiqui, a retired principal secretary to the prime minister of Bangladesh, in a personal communication to this writer wrote on August 31, 2017 on the GOB’s lukewarm support for the Rohingyas:
Has Bangladesh the moral right to behave like this? In 1971, when it was facing genocide from Pakistanis, did not India help Bangladesh with shelter, arms and training? I am afraid both AL and BNP have similar policy towards the Rohingyas. I was in PM’s Office in 1992-93 when Rohingyas came in large numbers to Bangladesh…. I see the same indecent behaviour now. I hope Turkey, Iran, Qatar, Malaysia and Indonesia will get together and do something to help the beleaguered Rohingyas and put Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan and Bangladesh to shame.
Bangladesh government since the overflow of Rohingya refugees at its ‘sealed’ border with Myanmar has recently opened its border, allowing the refugees in. However, the GOB has virtually no Rohingya policy for the last eight years. Even after the resurgence of mass killing of Rohingyas had begun on August 25, the GOB proposed joint-military operations with Myanmar against ‘Rohingya militants fighting in Rakhine state’ (‘Bangladesh offers Myanmar military aid against Rohingya rebels’ AFP/Arab News, 29 August 2017). This stand was not that different from the Modi Government’s latest decision to deport all Rohingyas from India (Reuters, August 14, 2017). I am afraid, if Bangladesh does not become proactive in addressing the Rohingya Crisis, and instead starts joint military operations against Rohingya insurgents along with Myanmar, the ARSA, which is fast turning into a revolutionary/terrorist-insurgent outfit in Arakan and elsewhere in Myanmar, will backfire and eventually, destabilise Bangladesh as well.
Then again, the GOB’s lack of any sense of direction in its foreign policy is well-reflected in its appeal to Washington to ‘put pressure on Myanmar’ to stop the inflows of refugees into Bangladesh. PM Hasina ‘made the appeal when US Acting Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Alice Wells met her at her office’ (Daily Star, August 31, 2017). At the end of the day, it appears that for the GOB, and most Bangladeshis in general, the ‘Rohingya Crisis’ is all about the influx of unwanted refugees into Bangladesh! Nothing more,
nothing less!
To be continued

Dr Taj Hashmi teaches security studies at Austin Peay State University in the US. He is the author of several books, including his latest, Global Jihad and America: The Hundred-Year War Beyond Iraq and Afghanistan (Sage, 2014).

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