It was 1978. The now-defunct Weekly Bichitra made a cover story titled, “Manush Aite achhe – naaf nodeer baner lahan” (People are coming in like flood on Naaf River). All of a sudden, a group of people living in the Arakan region of northwest Burma, and who happened to be of Bengali ethnic lineage and Muslim in faith, started leaving their homeland of dozens to hundreds of years and cross the border to enter Bangladesh in utter desperation. They came by boats, sampans, makeshift banana trunk vessels (bhela). Some came on foot through the seemingly impenetrable mountain forest. They were all escaping the atrocities of Operation Nagamin by the Burmese army. The Burmese government was suspicious of what they believed as collusion between Arakan’s communist party and secessionist thoughts of Arakanese Muslims.
Starting in April 1978, refugees started pouring into Cox’s Bazaar, Teknaf and Chittagong Hill Tract areas. By June, over 200,000Rohingyas — Bengali Muslim descendent inhabitants of Burmese region of Arakan — started living in 13 camps set up along Bangladesh-Burma border. More than half (over 110,000) of these people were children below 15.
And there was absolutely no obstruction from Bangladesh in sheltering them. Large enclosed living quarters were built overnight. Refugees were kept in those fenced out camps. A high level government official ran the program from the ground and a national coordination council led by Cabinet Secretary led the national and global efforts.
The head of the state was personally involved in every minor detail of the planning and execution of the program. And thanks to personal influence of President Ziaur Rahman on the Burmese leader Ne Win, very robust stand by Bangladesh foreign office, and smart diplomacy by the foreign Minister Professor Shamsul Huq, the Burmese government took all the refugees back within less than a year.
In July 1978, two months into the refugee problem, an agreement was signed between Bangladesh and Burma. The first batch of 58 refugees was repatriated in August 1978 and the repatriation of last stranded batch (who did not have any document supporting their residence in Burma) was completed by December 1979. Senior Burmese Ministers visited the camps to supervise the repatriation process, which they called ‘the Hintha project’.
In an extremely rare gesture, the secretive leader of traditionally isolationist Burma, Ne Win, visited Bangladesh twice, first in 1979 and again in 1980. The diplomatic breakthrough with Burma was so unbelievable that The Economist wrote:
“Was it a miracle or mirage that Burma and Bangladesh produced a month ago in the name of tidy instant settlement of their refugee problem? A month later, all details of the planned repatriation scheme still secret, the second (‘Mirage’) looks rather more likely”. (Burma and Bangladesh, August 12, 1978).
History would record that the Economist was totally wrong in its prediction.
And some day, the same history will also condemn our present day leader and the foreign minister to utter failure in protecting fellow Bengalis from persecution at the hand of a cruel de facto military junta.
Speaking of history….
The history of Bangla literature can never be completed without the mention of medieval Bangla literature exercised at the Arakan Kings’ court. Alaol is unquestionably the greatest medieval Bengali poet. He still remains relevant for masterpieces like Padmavatee, Tohfa, and Soyful Mulk Bodiuzzaman.
Born in Hathajari, Chittagong, Alaol migrated to Arakan in the early 17th century. Alaol was not a rare Bengali migrant to Arakan. The Arakan court was full of Bengali Muslim bureaucrats as well as writers like Magon Thakur and Doulot Kazi.
There is no denying of the fact that many Bengali Muslims settled in Arakan, Rangoon and other regions of Burma. Starting from the 9th century till mid 20th century, migrants from all parts of India, not just Bengal, constantly moved in all directions. Due to religious affiliations, migrant Arabs also aligned themselves with Bengali Muslims. And until mid 20th century, such movements were not considered illegal migration — subjects of the Queen resettling to another part of the Empire (from British Indian province of Bengal to British colony of Burma) was absolutely legal.
After 1960, when Burma fell under dictatorship, to buoy its power with nationalistic fervour, the regime trumpeted a pumped up mono- racial Burmese nationalism. As a direct result of this, state sponsored violence started gaining momentum against ethnic and religious minorities including Bengali Muslims.
The Junta only needed an excuse to start major scale ethnic cleansing. In 1978, Ne Win’s Operation Nagmin was initiated and it was totally based on unfounded reports of Muslim campaign of secession. In 1978, under pressure of Ziaur Rahman’s diplomacy, Ne Win could not but take back all 200,000 refugees.
But in the absence of continued engagement from post-Zia Bangladesh, he took more tangible steps towards ethnic cleansing of Rohingyas. A constitutional amendment of 1982 took away citizenship rights of Muslim Bengalis of Arakan. Ethnic cleansing campaign slowly resumed and another refugee crisis ensued in 1991.
When Taliban government in Afghanistan wanted to initiate special colour coded ID system for Sikhs and Hindus of Afghanistan, the whole world shuddered in pure disbelief. However this same world has no idea that hundreds of thousands of ethnic and religious minorities in newly renamed Myanmar carry colour coded cards for decades.
These colour coded white cards identify a large number of Burmese of Bengali heritage Muslim religion as “Bengali Muslims”, not Burmese nationals, nor Arakanese. The mainstream locals of Arakanese call the Bengalis as ‘Kala’ — a racial slur.
The carriers of these cards don’t have any rights that other Burmese nationals enjoy. They are not even allowed to marry across cultures.
These people live amid unbelievable level of poverty, uncertainty, exploitation and discrimination. Many don’t have access to basic healthcare, education, shelter and even food.
And every now and then on the slightest excuse, the whole state and military wrath comes upon them, forcing them to flee with life.
These Bengali descendent Muslims are living for generations in Myanmar some for several centuries, since the time of Alaol or Magon Thakur. Others moved to British Burma several decades ago for job or business, got married and settled down there.
The root of Bengalis in Arakan is much deeper than Indian migrants in West Indian and Pacific Ocean Islands, Turkish migrants across Europe, North African migrants in Persian Gulf states or Bihari Rail worker migrants in Bangladesh and Pakistan.
If these Bengali descendent Muslims of Arakan are illegal immigrants in Burma, then perhaps half of world’s current population are illegal immigrants in their current homeland.
Tamil extremists pioneered suicide bombing and killed an Indian Prime Minister. Yet Tamils of India used their political and economic muscle to protect ethnic Tamils from annihilation in Sri Lanka. Indian diplomacy earned privileged, expedited immigration status for Tamils in Canada, France and other first world states.
We casually call Rohingya refugees terrorists. Our trademark allegations against them is that it is indeed the Rohingyas who are doing all the crimes in the gulf states and giving Bangladeshi passport holders a bad name.
It is impossible to overstate the crassness of such irresponsible comments. What terrorism have they committed in Bangladesh? Of the handful of Islamic terrorists hanged by authorities in Bangladesh and of the thousands of Islamic radicals in Bangladesh jails, how many are from refugee camps in Cox’s Bazaar/ Teknaf? Of all the Bangladeshi passport holders in jails of gulf countries, how many of them are from Cox’s Bazaar refugee camps and surrounding areas?
Next time anyone tells you that Rohingyas are ruining our peoples’ impeccable nicety records in the Gulf States, ask them to identify at least one Rohingya culprit doing bad things in Saudi Arabia. If the Arakanese Muslim refugees in Bangladesh get themselves involved in religious fundamentalism, and some of them might indeed got trapped into such activities, it is because they are a vulnerable group and they are being used by vested quarters from mainstream Bangladesh. ‘Because Jamaat Shibir work on these vulnerable Rohingya Muslim refugees in Bangladesh and try to convert them into their vote banks, we must not shelter any other Rohingya being persecuted in Arakan’ – this is extremely cheap and irresponsible nationalistic chauvinism.
When our intellectuals make broad condemnations as Rohingyas being terrorists or when our leading government spokesman Syed Ashraful Islam makes statement that Rohingyas are rapists, we forget how India protested Idi Amin’s treatment of Ugandan Indians, how Caucasian world reacts to minority white persecution in Zimbabwe, how Turkey and Greece protect their Citizens in Cyprus, how Serbia stands tall for the Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia.
Tell me, when everyone is trying to escape the overcrowded Bangladesh, why these people desperately keep coming back to Bangladesh? Can we imagine what level of helplessness will force one to leave ancestral land of generations and all belongings and rush to hostile Bangladesh? Do you really believe that they are having great fun braving the ocean and rivers to coasts of Teknaf and sleep on the rough earth under the open sky in barbed wired camps?
Our country was founded on Bengali nationalism. After a couple of decades of ebb, Bengali nationalistic chivalry is back full court in Bangladesh. But by our acts, we are exposing the bankruptcy of this hollow nationalism. While we embrace Alaol’s Padmavatee as the greatest gem of medieval Bangla literature, how can we ignore our ethnic bond with Alaol’s descendents?
When a child is forced out of his home and is starving on the rough seas – only because she or he is of Bengali ethnicity — how it is possible that she or he would not have a shelter in the Bangladesh created by the friend of Bengal? Mujib’s Bengali nationalism now cries in vain, helplessly in front of the gun trotting border guards of Bangladesh.
Rumi Ahmed is a Blogger, rights activist and political analyst.