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 the 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 from the British 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?
Last Wednesday, September 19, Britain’s Foreign Secretary was visiting Myanmar. How many people including Ministers have to visit Myanmar and Cox’s Bazar before deciding what to say at the UN?
I was very angry that when people (especially foreigners) started writing about the crisis a year ago and most of them did not do any historical research, even recent history. In early 1992, I attended a UNHCR meeting in Dhaka about a Rohingya influx at that time. 20 years ago, while working with the Red Cross, I had oversight of the Red Cross/Red Crescent work among about 30,000 refugees in Kutapalong and Nayapara camps. However, to understand things much more, one needs to go back many centuries at which time eastern Bengal had become a cauldron in which a mixture of different races had bubbled, boiled over, and occasionally quietly simmered.
Although Islam had touched the coastal areas of Bengal between the 8th and 12th centuries, it was in the 13th century when Muhammad Bakhtiyar established a Muslim ruled state, the first of many dominated by non-Bengalis, including Turks, North Indians, Afghans, Arakanese and Ethiopians.
In the 16th century Portuguese freebooters from Goa secured a foothold but, failing to found an empire, either entered service of the rajahs of Arakan as mercenaries or turned pirate. The struggle for supremacy between the Muslims and Buddhists came to a head in 1661 when the rajah of Arakan put to death the Mogul viceroy of Bengal who had sought refuge with him, leading to a punitive expedition which resulted in the whole Arakan district becoming a province of the Mogul empire. Chittagong for some time was known as Islamabad. And for a while the cauldron simmered, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and Catholic living an uneasy peace with one another.
The Burmese conquered Arakan in the 1780s which led to the arrival of refugees including many militants who then used the British territory as a base from which to launch counter-attacks against the Burmese occupying Arakan. When some sort of peace treaty had been agreed, Captain Cox had the task of looking after thirty to forty thousand refugees.
British policy encouraged Bengali inhabitants from adjacent regions to migrate into the then lightly populated and fertile valleys of Arakan as farm labourers. The East India Company extended the Bengal Presidency to Arakan. There was no international boundary between Bengal and Arakan and no restrictions on migration between the regions. In the early 19th century, thousands of Bengalis from the Chittagong region settled in Arakan seeking work (The Development of a Muslim Enclave in Arakan (Rakhine) State of Burma (Myanmar). Aye Chan. Page 403). It is hard to know whether these new Bengal migrants were the same population that was deported by force to Bengal’s Chittagong during the Burmese conquest in the 18th century and later returned to Arakan as a result of British policy or they were a new migrant population with no ancestral roots to Arakan (“Rohingya and national identities in Burma”. New Mandala. 2014-09-22).
A great uncle of mine who lived and worked in Rangoon in the 1930s said that although a few Rohingya trace their ancestry to Muslims who lived in Arakan in the 15th and 16th centuries, most Rohingyas arrived with the British colonialists in the 19th and 20th centuries
I wonder how many people have taken the trouble to understand that for centuries the Burmese have wanted the Arakan Muslims out of Burma. It is not just something that has festered since Independence in 1948. Now, it seems, Chinese connected commercial interests are pushing state sponsored land-grabbing at a fast rate.
It is said that there is some evidence that the British may have promised that the Rakhine State would be part of East Pakistan as part of a reward for fighting with the British against the Japanese in the Second World War. The Burmese had sided, for some time at least, with the Japanese.
The international community has neglected the Rohingya problem for decades and now, with some countries blocking negotiations, the way ahead is uncertain to say the least. Severe sanctions should have been clamped down on Myanmar a long time ago.
In October last year, as part of a ‘Citizens’ Commission for Investigating Genocide and Terrorism in Burma ‘, I visited the Kutapulong and Balukhali refugee camps at Teknaf. Collecting evidence that could be used in any submission to the International Criminal Court, we interviewed a number of refugees who had recently arrived in Cox’s Bazar District. One man 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 August 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.
As demanded by the refugees, 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 original villages
– 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.
Many officials working in Cox’s Bazar realize that it is likely that the refugees will be here for years to come. Therefore, it is vitally important that the local or host communities receive development assistance at the same time as the refugees are receiving relief and humanitarian assistance.
A lot of hard work needs to be done at the United Nations in the coming days…