Feature Img
Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

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.

MYANMAR_-_BANGLADESH_-_rohingya_sittweAnd 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.

Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

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.

24 Responses to “Alaol’s unfortunate children and Bengali nationalistic chivalry”

  1. rahman

    Please read the news coming out from Myanmar. It has been reported that the Myanmarese President has denied to accept the Rohingyas back into Myanmar because, according to him, these people do not belong to their ethnic minorities. He clearly stated that they would not tolerate Rohingya’s illegal entry into Myanmar. He told a UNHCR delegation that exile or UNHCR’s refugee camps are rightful solutions for the Rohingyas.

    Now, I would request the so-called humanists of Bangladesh (Mr. Rumi Ahmed, Mr. Afsan Chowdhury, and gong) to reconsider their views/position on this issue. Do they still think that our government was wrong? Gentlemen, statecraft is not just writing high-profile self-righteous articles and collecting accolade from the non-suspecting people reading their columns. Statecraft is much more complicated than that. The Myanmarese President gave us a good lesson, indeed. Thanks.

  2. Rumi Ahmed

    Thank you all for all the comments and dissents. This free flow of thoughts and varying opinion makes bdnews24.com opinion page different from others. In the following bullets, I’ll try to respond to one or two comments made in this thread regarding Rohingya issue.

    1. A very common but IMHO, weak, way to dissenting to an opinionated article is to keep pointing to what is not told in an article. It is very important to understand the scopes and space limitations of an op-ed piece. An author only can touch on a limited number of issues in an 800-1200-word article.

    2. The article in discussion made a case about Bengali heritage of persecuted Arakanese minorities and showed examples of how other ethnic group stood beside their persecuted brothers and sisters.

    3. The article gave very elaborate example and praised how the first Rohingya refugee crisis was handled. And that problem was solved by sending Rohingyas back to their rightful lands, not keeping in Bangladesh.

    4. This article makes clear case that Rohingyas are lawful Burmese citizens.

    5. While the article made passionate appeal to stand by the persecuted Rohingyas, there was no demand to let them stay in Bangladesh permanently. Every single person being terrorized to flee from their home deserves shelter and food. This is the basic call of humanity.

    6. For those who say that current Rohingya crisis is not comparable to 1971, I have only one thing to say –we have to get over with this mentality — “when it is my problem it is real problem, but when others are in problem that problem is nothing compared to my problem”. We should not say that it is not a comparable problem unless we sincerely try to put ourselves on the shoes of the families of those 10 massacred pilgrims. We also have to understand another issue. No country ever is ready to board and feed unexpected intrusions of foreigners in hundreds of thousands. When trouble comes.

    7. So what the government can do? The government should apply diplomatic pressure. Professor Huq, 1978 FM of Bangladesh, cancelled his overseas trip to return to Bangladesh immediately after the news of first batch of Rohingya refugee intrusion came out. He went to Rangoon right away, held a two-hour meeting the following day with the Burmese leader Ne Win. Zia personally called and talked to Ne Win multiple times. Emissaries went to UN, OIC, commonwealth and NAM secretariat. We want our government to take similar proactive role. Have our FM visited Burma yet? Did our PM talk to Burmese leader or Su Ki? Rather than holding those nonsense rallies to celebrate the so-called maritime victory, organize a rally of 5 million people at the heart of Dhaka to protest persecution of ethnic minorities by Burmese Junta. Let world media cover the rally. Let the Bangladesh embassy political offices help Bangladeshi communities in NYC, DC, Geneva, and other major western cities hold rally in front of UN, Burmese embassies. And all these go on; give these people food and shelter.

    8. ‘Rohingyas are bad’, they are only abusing our passport to bring bad name for our country — this sort of statements are very xenophobic. While we denounce white supremacists, KKK is USA or neo Nazis in Europe for their xenophobic thoughts and acts against us, the brown skinned people, we must guard against ourselves resorting to the same sort of behavior.

    9. This piece by Dr. Bina D’Costa just came out today. I strongly recommend this great commentary to our readers. http://www.dvb.no/analysis/the-rohingya-and-the-denial-of-the-%E2%80%98right-to-have-rights%E2%80%99/22749

    • rahman

      In his rebuttal to the comments posted on the article, Mr. Rumi Ahmed once again proved his short-short sightedness in discussing as sensitive an issue as the Rohingya issue of today (this is not 1978; this is 2012–the world has seen so much of geopolitical changes over these decades). He has added nothing, unfortunately, in this piece of rebuttal to what he already had to say in his original article. He has listed so many arguments in the rebuttal, but fails to nullify any of the arguments put forward by so many readers; he has just repeated what were already their in the article but with more crudeness.

      A writer should always make effort to examine all the pros and cons of an issue, and come to an informed conclusion, and then enlighten us with his/her findings. He/she must not use this forum to propagate his/her personal political views (they have all the rights to hold those views in their personal capacity). Space limitation is the silliest excuse to defend a one-sided and politically-motivated article on an issue that concerns all of us.

      So, there is no point, frankly, to discuss this issue any further as far as this clueless article is concerned. One thing, however, came out bare open in Mr. Ahmed’s rebuttal, when he calls the celebrations of maritime verdict “nonsense rallies to celebrate the so-called maritime victory”. It can now be safely concluded that Mr. Rumi Ahmed would have been a happier person if the maritime verdict went against Bangladesh. Why? Simple; he would have gotten one more occasion to criticise the present government and praise Zia’s government. We have seen childish behaviour of some of our leaders after the maritime verdict: “it is not the credit of the government, but of the Foreign Ministry–they did well… we are withdrawing the congratulations to the government because the government has deceived us–in fact Bangladesh has lost the case against Myanmar”…and so on. These people would surely have been dancing on the streets had we lost the case against Myanmar. How pathetic! Mr. Rumi, may be unwittingly, has now exposed himself which camp he belongs to, and in the process lost his credibility as an objective observer and writer. A very sad affair indeed.

  3. Mohammad Zaman

    Children of Alaol are off the precipice and the spineless leaders of their ancestors are backing off. It is a sad saga of the reign of our almighty Prima Donna!

    And unfortunately, the much reckoned icon of democracy and human rights of Myanmar, during her whirlwind European tour, hesitated to recognize those unfortunate Rohingya people as Myanmar nationals … so much so for human rights …

    Rumi Bhai,
    It is great piece.
    Loved it.

    And about Ziaur Rahman; he indeed was a leader of uncompromising personal honesty/integrity. As the dreamer and the principal architect of SARC, he commanded an international stature that is worth envying…

  4. rahman

    As one of the readers has rightly commented on the article, this is indeed an “Emotion provoking” article; and that’s all. There is not much value added to this article over the article of Mr. Afsan Chowdhury—perhaps the first one in this page after the latest episode of Rohingya refugees began in Bangladesh a few weeks ago. The article by Mr. Anis Ahmed, in contrast, bore much more signs of research and objectivity.

    I do respect the apparently deep humanitarian sentiment of the author for the Rohingyas: even if it is at the cost of the core interests of his current fellow citizenry. He, however, appears to go some extra miles to take in the people, who once were part of our ethnic origin, but now have different nationalities due to historical reasons that the author himself so carefully painted in the article. I personally have no objection to his idea of giving shelter—even permanent shelter—to all these people of Bengali Muslim (we should also add Bengali Hindu/Buddhist/Christian and others) ethnic origin. Indeed, they are our people. There is one little problem though. Since we are among the highest population density countries with one of the poorest people on the earth, we should also annex the regions, where these peoples of ours live, to Bangladesh; these should include Arakan, West Bengal, Assam, Orissa, and Bihar—to begin with. We can then comfortably host these helpless peoples living in different countries whenever they face problems with their majority rulers. This would be a practical solution to address the so deep emotional and humanitarian sentiments of Mr. Rumi Ahmed and the others who have aligned with his humanitarian approach.

    One reader has rightly pointed out that the article, its humanitarian concerns notwithstanding, did not throw any light on our limitations as a poor and small country. Indeed, the author’s intention does not appear to address the issue from an objective perspective or to explore ways for a durable solution to the Rohingya issue; he rather focused on how much the latest policy line of the government could be criticized (he has all the rights to do so) and at the same time portray himself as the greatest humanist among a bunch of selfish people like me—what we call “two birds with one stone”. He has rightly praised the ‘diplomatic skill’ of late President General Ziaur Rahman in his dealing with General Ne Win of Burma: Is it that two military rulers had similar understanding of the issues and talked in the same wavelength because of their military background? Who knows? Fortunately or unfortunately, Bangladesh is not ruled any longer by a military dictatorship but by a democratically elected government, while Myanmar continues to languish under military command. So, it is futile to compare the ‘diplomatic charisma’ of a military dictator with the foreign minister of a democratic government: a democratic government remains accountable to its people while a military ruler does not.

    It is absolutely wrong to colour any population with particular traits: generalization should be avoided. But if the author did not have any clue as to how Bangladesh’s passports are being abused by the Rohingya people particularly in Saudi Arabia bringing bad names to the Bangladeshi people, he could have visited the kingdom to obtain first-hand experience. Again, it would not be an easy exercise as the author himself describes, and rightly so, the Rohingya people as our descendents and, therefore, not easily distinguishable. The same applies to terrorist activities (in fact mostly law and order issues) committed by these desperate people in Bangladesh. One should not blame them for these types of activities: they are doing these crimes for their survival— to earn a living for themselves and their families.

    The author is a very learned person in international affairs as well. He has referred us to so many situations around the contemporary world where, according to him, humanity has prevailed over national interest or realpolitik; only we, the cruel Bangladeshis, continued to remain inhuman. But the fact of the matter is that in none of these situations—Greek Cyprus, Turkish Cyprus, Bosnia, Sri Lanka, and so on—a government has perpetually welcomed the fleeing population just because they belonged to the same ethnicity. Look at Sri Lanka—India remained quite when the SL government literally annihilated the Tamil population; look at Greek and Turkish Cyprus—both countries sent their soldiers to the divided island to save their ethnic population but did not allow them to enter either into Turkey or Greece. Is that a possible course of action for us also? Mr. Ahmed may know better and should advise us if we could send our soldiers to rescue our Rohingya descendents in Arakan—the way Turkey and Greece have done to protect their respective people.

    Seriously, it was below my level of intellect to understand what the author actually wanted to say by lamenting at our Bengali nationalism for not allowing the Rohingyas free-for-all entry to Bangladesh and thereby giving a free pass to the military ruler in Myanmar to clean-off their territory of the remaining Bengali-Muslim-Rohingyas. Mr. Ahmed also maintains a deafening silence about the role of Myanmar—the main party in the crisis, and about the role the big brothers in the West, should have played in this affair. Objectivity is something that we need to practice more—rather than emotion—when matters related to national interest and statecraft are involved. Thanks.

    • Hasan

      Mr. Rahman! I want a link of your said article written by Mr. Anis Ahmed done on more research and objectivity.

    • Mohammad Zaman

      Mr. Rahman conveniently forgets the 9-month caesura leading to the victorious December.

      Yes, it is not convenient for us to allow the suffering Rohingyas. But you do things that are right to do.

      Why blame the Rohingyas for abusing Bangladeshi passport, when they are not supposed to get a Bangladeshi passport.

      Who provided them with the passport?

      • rahman

        With all due sympathies for the Rohingya people, I would request to please do not compare the 1971 situation in the then East Pakistan with the Arakani situation of today.

        I completely agree with you about the passport issue. It is indeed regrettable that some of our officials provide these passports to the Rohingyas with full knowledge that they are not Bangladeshis. Like in all other sectors of our society, corruption–the mother of all problems– is rampant in this sector as well. Thanks.

  5. Shamim Ahsan

    This was utter failure in part of our foreign minister!

  6. Chowdhury Abul Hasan

    If Ziaur Rahman could do it then why can’t Dipu Moni? This is really unfortunate. What a failure on the part of our foreign ministry!

  7. Tamara Almas Zakir

    This is such a good article. I am all for helping the helpless but how can a poor country like ours keep taking more and more load of refugees? How can we sustain that way?

  8. aman

    I think this a very good write-up and people in power must read it and act accordingly.

  9. Abul Kalam

    The writer is absolutely right. It needs government initiative to solve this problem. We can neither push back those helpless Rohingyas nor keep on sheltering them. We have to think practical. We are not a developed country but a very struggling one.

  10. Simon Alman

    This is one of the best write-ups I have read on the Rohingya topic. If Myanmar could take back its refugees so many years ago then why can’t it do the same now? Where are we failing in our negotiation? Is there any negotiation at all?

  11. Belal Beg

    While appreciating the author’s deep human concern for Rohingya refugees and citations of examples of several other such cases, no light was thrown on the grinding limitations of a poor, small country beset with internecine communal politics weak in leadership resources.

    Under the circumstances, Bangladesh’s action is not ‘chauvinism’ but intelligent move to protect national interest and force the world take the responsibility. The world especially the USA because of its global interest is aware of Rohingya problem since its dramatic advent in 1978. The then army-backed government succeeded to handle the first exodus of the Rohingyas but their subsequent governments kept quite about it and allowed the problem stay alive and complicate possibly because they could no longer afford it.

  12. Dr. Asad Zaman Asad

    Well written!
    I saw a few Rohingya refugee Muslims (patients) in Australia, who look like Indian/Bangali but they can’t speak or understand Bangla (Bengali) or even local “Chittagonian” language that indicates they should not have been pushed from Myanmar.

    We can’t tolerate things happening in Middle East, but we are watching Burma/Myanmar putting in showcases for decades!!!

    I agree with your opinion about the origin of Rogingyas in Arakan/Burma. I am emotionally and ethically in favour of giving shelter to Rohingya refugees, but being overburdened with own high dense population I don’t really know how much Bangladesh can bear.

    -Dr Asad Zaman Asad

  13. Golam Arshad

    Rumi: Why not the Rohinghya be a bilateral issue between Myanmar and Bangladesh? Will our FM be serious and take up this issue as a bilateral diplomatic exercise, without any further delay!

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