Dec 6 is a very significant day as on this day in 1971 India officially recognised Bangladesh as a sovereign country. I remember that day very well as my Oxfam staff (mostly Bangladeshi) in Calcutta were ecstatic and there was considerable joy but also tears. There was no actual celebrating as the war was going on, but there was a great sense of victory…… Calcutta was under black out at night and that night of Dec 6 I was sitting on the lawn of a hotel and listening to the Pakistan Radio English news which said that the Pakistan air force had caused a direct hit on the Calcutta telephone exchange and the Howrah Bridge was floating down the Hooghly and Calcutta was cut off from the rest of India!
Having been responsible, in 1971, for the humanitarian needs of about 600,000 Bangladeshi refugees, in over 50 Oxfam-supported refugee camps in all the states bordering India and Bangladesh and having visited the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar District in 2017, I am often asked about my extensive feelings and how I see the future for these people from Rakhine State.
In 1971 we knew that all the refugees from Bangladesh wished to return to their homes in Bangladesh after the fighting ceased. They wanted to return home. In fact they returned home much quicker than we expected and all the refugees had returned to Bangladesh by the end of February 1972. The Rohingyas do not feel the same way. They have been systematically attacked, tortured and suffered humiliating discrimination on a regular basis since the independence in 1948. There is a record of 21 such armed ‘Clearance Operations’ since that year. Why would they want to return ‘home’ to the Rakhine State?
In a letter from registered refugees to the Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, which was printed in the Dhaka Tribune on Dec 1, 2017, an extract reads:
“The present situation of the Rohingya is the result of joint oppression by the ultra-racist Rakhine and Myanmar military government, through forcible expulsion from their homeland by means of genocidal massacres, discriminations, rape, plunder, killing and burning, destroying religious schools and mosques, and torturing and harassment in the most inhumane manner. Therefore, prior to any refugee repatriation process, the government of Myanmar should accept the following prerequisites and fully implement them in Arakan.
The pre-requisites for repatriation are:
- Recognition of the Rohingya as an indigenous ethnic minority of Myanmar
- Issuance of national security cards to all Rohingya
- Lift all form of restrictions and harassments such as travel ban, marriage restriction, land and property confiscation, extortion, arbitrary arrest, forced ration collection for army etc.
- Stop building model villages and send back all model villagers to their origin
- Return all confiscated lands and properties to the original owners
- Give assurance for religious freedom
- Give access for higher education and provide enough hospitals and medical facilities in northern Arakan.
Apart from UNHCR, Bangladesh, and Myanmar, representatives of the refugees or community leaders should be included in the repatriation dialogue.
The Rohingya have been refugees twice — portions of them were repatriated to Arakan through bilateral repatriation agreements between Rangoon and Dhaka in 1978 and 1992, but it did not provide adequate safeguards to the refugees upon their return, and their problem still remains unsolved.
Therefore, we would like appeal to you to pressure the government of Myanmar to accept the Rohingya as an ethnic minority, and to grant full citizenship rights before any refugee repatriation process.”
This extract from the letter to the Bangladesh Prime Minister presents a horrifying picture how the Rohingya’s dignity, freedom and livelihood has been taken away over many years-a systematic plan to exterminate or remove an ethnic group from Myanmar. In October this year, as part of a ‘Citizens’ Commission for Investigating Genocide and Terrorism in Burma ‘, I visited the Kutapulong and Balukhali refugee camps at Teknaf. We interviewed a number of refugees who had recently arrived in Cox’s Bazar District.
One person told us that:
-no new mosques could be built for the last 20 years
-they have not been able to pray in existing mosques for the last 5 years
-even in a village with 100 Muslim families and 5 Buddhist families, the village leader always has to be Buddhist
-children have not been able/allowed to go to school since Aug 25, 2017
-married couples are not allowed to have more than two children
-birth registration has not been done for the last few years
-the nearest health facility is 1.75 miles away but only Burmese Buddhists are seen there from 2015
-in 2010, he and his father were forced to vote (to give a semblance of ‘democracy’)
Although the Rohingya from Rakhine have no status, many of the Rohingya I talked to said they would go back to their homes in Rakhine State if they were convinced it would be safe, their land was restored to them and ownership was guaranteed and they were given Myanmar citizenship. A number of them said that they had brought their land documents with them and so could prove ownership. However, one old woman told me that this was the third time she had escaped persecution and certain death and come to Bangladesh as a refugee, and that this time she would refuse to go back to Rakhine State. It will, indeed, be very difficult to persuade many Rohingya to return to Rakhine State. Md. Ismael of Chikonchori Village stated the following when interviewed by researchers of the Center for the Study of Genocide and Justice of the Liberation War Museum:
“I couldn’t tolerate all this happening with us in Myanmar and so I have left my country. I have left my relatives with whom I have no contact today. I don’t know how they are doing there in Myanmar, may be they are still alive, may be they are killed, I don’t know. The Maghs and military tortured me. The Magh people used to threaten us by saying, “Go away from here, otherwise we will kill you all.” Eventually, they killed my relatives, snatched away properties. They destroyed all mosques and killed Muslim Aleems (the educated Muslims) of my area. Suddenly, one day, the military people came and torched all the houses of my village. I lost my home. I’ve seen so many dead bodies around me, my neighbours were brutally killed. Children were scorched to death, women were raped and my good luck saved me that day. I, along with my family, kept hiding behind a nearby hill for two days. Then I fled to Bangladesh to save my life, to save my family. I had no other option. It took five days to reach here. Now I don’t know what’s next?”
MD ISMAEL (33), CHIKONCHORI, RAKHINE
India provided unparalleled support to Bangladesh in 1971 when it took care of 10 million refugees. Now, it is expected and requested that India will use their very considerable influence to pressurize Myanmar to implement the recommendations of Kofi Annan’s report of the ‘Advisory Commission on Rakhine State’, and the Bangladesh Prime Minister’s ‘5 Points’ that she presented to the UN General Assembly so that the Rohingya refugees will be able to return to their homes in the Rakhine State safely and with full legal status. On Dec 9 there will be observation of the ‘International Day of Commemoration and Dignity of the Victims of the Crime of Genocide and of the Prevention of this Crime’. Therefore, it is a most appropriate time for the Government of India to further pressurise the Government of Myanmar.