By Syed Badrul Ahsan
December 9, 2016
For Bangladesh, it is that old dilemma: Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. In these past few weeks, the country has been under pressure from global human rights bodies as also governments and organisations in the West to permit Rohingya Muslims fleeing repression in Myanmar entry into the country. In other words, the Bangladesh authorities have been and are being urged to open the country’s borders to the petrified Rohingya, who have come under fresh assault in Rakhine State in Myanmar.
On the other hand, the Bangladesh government remains wary of letting the Rohingya in owing to some not-so-happy experiences in the past. In the 1990s, a very large number of Rohingya, fleeing persecution in Myanmar — and it was a time when the Myanmar military was in absolute control of the country — entered Bangladesh and made their home in the coastal regions of the country in what could be termed as the larger Chittagong district. Indeed, it is not too hard to find Rohingya in the Cox’s Bazar region. While a very insignificant number of these earlier Rohingya migrants returned home as a result of local and international measures, a very large segment of as many as 5,00,000 stayed back.
The fears of a fresh influx of Rohingya therefore have compelled the Bangladesh government to refuse entry to those who have once again been exposed to the brutality of the Myanmar army. Bangladesh’s government and vast sections of its people are not swayed by the argument — put about by foreign governments and rights bodies — that once the Yangon authorities are persuaded into arriving at a deal on the status of the Rohingya, the majority of whom happen to be followers of the Islamic faith, those Rohingyas allowed entry into Bangladesh will go back home.
The appeals made to the Bangladesh authorities, even by some Bangladeshis themselves, for refuge to be granted to the fleeing Rohingya, often have an emotional aspect. It is argued that Bengalis should look back at the history of their own persecution by the Pakistan army in 1971, when 10 million of them crossed into India and were provided shelter and everything that such shelter entailed for more than the nine months when the country’s War of Liberation was at its peak. To this argument, the response from those who want the Rohingya to be kept away is simple: Back in 1971, Indian moral and material assistance held out the assurance for Bangladesh’s people that their country would soon be liberated and all the refugees would be in a position to return home. In the present case, their argument goes, the 1971 analogy does not work. For one, the Rohingya are not engaged in a war of independence. For another, conditions do not exist for Bangladesh to pursue a military solution to the Rohingya issue with Myanmar. For quite another — and this is important — once the the Rohingya are let in to Bangladesh, there is hardly any guarantee that Myanmar will take them back. After all, hasn’t Yangon been making it clear for years that the Rohingya are not Myanmar citizens, that indeed they are Muslims, and Bengalis to boot, who have infiltrated into Myanmar from Bangladesh?
And yet, very large components of Bangladesh’s people, including those who argue against letting the Rohingya in, are in a state of profound moral agonising at this point. Images of Bangladesh’s coast guard and its navy turning away Rohingya approaching the country’s shores and probably compelling them to drift out to the Bay of Bengal have been deeply unsettling for people. Demands are being made regularly, for the government to pursue the issue on the strength of global interpretations of the status of the Rohingya with the Myanmar government. The difficulty here is that Myanmar, despite presenting itself to the outside world as a fledgling democracy, remains unmoved by the plight it has pushed the Rohingya into. So far, the Bangladesh government has been unable to do much other than summoning the Myanmar ambassador to the foreign office in Dhaka to register its concerns about the new repression unleashed on the Rohingya.
There is yet another twist given to the situation by certain quarters in Bangladesh. The emphasis is on the repression perpetrated on “Muslim” Rohingya which, in other words, is as much as suggesting that Yangon has embarked on a systematic policy of repression against a particular religious component of its population. Be that as it may, what has certainly confounded Bangladesh’s government and people is the absolute silence of Myanmar’s democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi on the issue.
Media reports and comments in Bangladesh have roundly condemned her refusal to take a positive stand on the Rohingya issue, with irate writers demanding that she be stripped of her Nobel Prize for Peace. In her years in incarceration, Suu Kyi enjoyed mass adoration in Bangladesh and it was only natural to expect, once her National League for Democracy won the election and assumed office, that she would influence a change in the approach to the Rohingya situation. That she has said not a word, and indeed she has carefully stayed clear of addressing these persecuted people as Rohingya, has rankled, and convinced, people in Bangladesh that the Myanmar military continues to call the shots and that Suu Kyi, despite holding office, wields little authority.
Last but not least, the government and the people of Bangladesh, even as they sympathise with the Rohingya, are unable to ignore some bitter realities of the recent past. From among those Rohingya who have been in Cox’s Bazar and Chittagong for the past couple of decades has emerged a new class of Islamist militants hostile to the growth of liberal politics in the country. Most of these new militants came under indoctrination by such fanatical groups as the Jamaat-e-Islami. Other elements of bigotry have been in the picture as well. None of this has been pleasing to the government and the people of Bangladesh. Add to that the corruption involved in a supply of Bangladeshi passports illegally to large groups of Rohingya, who then made it to West Asia as wage earners. That would have been overlooked had it not been for many of the Rohingya getting booked for criminal activities in Saudi Arabia and other countries.
The embarrassment for Bangladesh was therefore on two counts. In the first place, no one had any clue as to how these Rohingya — and all of this occurred in the times of the government which preceded the present one — were able to come by Bangladeshi documents. In the second, the Rohingya, in the guise of Bangladeshis, committed criminal acts in the Middle East, leaving the country red in the face.
In the conditions which prevail today, morality suggests that Rohingya fleeing persecution in their country be let into Bangladesh. At the same time, a sense of reality points to the terrible burden that could be put on Bangladesh’s resources if they are allowed entry, with hardly any guarantee that they will soon, or ever, go back home. After all, the Myanmar authorities would like nothing better than to see the backs of an ethnic group they have doggedly, and infuriatingly, looked upon as Bengali Muslims who had illegally settled in Rakhine State. As the old cliché goes, Bangladesh is on the horns of a dilemma.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is associate editor, ‘The Daily Observer’, and a senior columnist in Bangladesh.