The US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) is again crying crocodile tears for the Rohingya refugees relocated to Bhasan Char island, soon after the Cyclone Yaas wreaked much devastation elsewhere on the country’s coast, though the Bhasan Char was left unscathed by it.
The HRW is planning to release on Sunday a 58-page report, “An Island Jail in the Middle of the Sea: Bangladesh’s Relocation of Rohingya Refugees to Bhasan Char”. Sorry for violating the embargo but I thought I had to.
Let’s take a look at its central conclusion in its own words: “Bangladesh authorities transferred many refugees to the island without full, informed consent and have prevented them from returning to the mainland. While the government says it wants to move at least 100,000 people to the silt island in the Bay of Bengal to ease overcrowding in Cox’s Bazar refugee camps, humanitarian experts have raised concerns that insufficient measures are in place to protect against severe cyclones and tidal surges. Refugees on the island reported inadequate health care and education, onerous movement restrictions, food shortages, a lack of livelihood opportunities, and abuses by security forces.”
As a longtime Bangladesh watcher, I am constrained to draw global attention to a simple fact that during the recent Cyclone Yaas, many coastal districts of Bangladesh were inundated and suffered tidal surges but Bhasan Char was largely unharmed. The comparison is in place to expose the periodic crocodile tears shed by global rights bodies and their ‘Sushil’ allies in Bangladesh about how horrible sufferings the Rohingya have faced.
My commonsense Bengali response follows three lines of simple arguments.
1. If I let someone, and not really an invited guest, into my house to help him escape persecution — as Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina did with the tens of thousands of Rohingya in 2017 at the height of the pogrom in Myanmar’s Rakhine — can the guest or his foreign patrons dictate to me where I keep them? Can they tell me whether I should ask them to sleep in my bedroom or guest room or in my drawing room? The answer is a damn ‘No’. The host country, and a poor one like Bangladesh, can only put up with refugees for a certain amount of time until the drain on its resources does not impact the citizens.
But now the Hasina government faces a problem that reminds us of a Bangla adage “Boste Dile Shute Chay” (want to sleep if you allow someone to sit). One must add here that it is not so much the Rohingya who are leading the protest — it is the Western rights bodies, the self-appointed moral guardians of the world, who are crying hoarse that Bhasan Char is not the right place for the Myanmar refugees to be moved to. To these post-colonial champions of the global conscience, let me just say if Hasina is forced to keep the nearly one million Rohingya, because the global superpowers and regional powers cannot force a brutal Myanmar military regime to take them back, then her government will keep them where it can, the way it can. Any dictation from the highrises of Washington or New York, London or Brussels, Istanbul or Riyadh is uncalled-for noisemaking at best and an infringement on Bangladesh’s hard-earned sovereignty at worst.
2. The global powers, big and medium, have so far failed to push Myanmar, now ruled by a brutal military regime, to take back the Rohingya, their own people. The Myanmar authorities have signed up to take them back and then blatantly, on one pretext or another, reneged on the global commitment. Since the Feb 1 military coup, hopes of Myanmar repatriating these hapless Rohingyas are receding. Not the least, the powers and the UN system have failed to push the Myanmar military to stop killing its own citizens. If the Burmese military, Tatmadaw, kills its own ethnic Burmese youths like flies, does anyone in their right mind expect them to be generous to the Rohingya and facilitate a safe return and rehabilitation, even if the process is bankrolled by the UN system or the global powers? Now these powers, or the UN system or the global rights bodies like HRW must first put together a massive coordinated global effort to force the Myanmar military junta to take back the Rohingya under full UN supervision and allow for their effective rehabilitation under it.
3. If the UN system, the global powers and the big-mouth rights bodies fail to push Myanmar, not the least because of the unstinted Chinese backing it enjoys ( forget about the Chinese promises to Bangladesh to push Myanmar on Rohingya issue which is one hell of a white lie), then they must put together a global refugee burden-sharing plan for accommodating the Rohingya across the world. Am I talking about something impossible to pull off! No. The world, especially the US, provided refuge to 100,000 Lhotsampas (Nepali Hindu refugees expelled by Buddhist Bhutan in the 1990s) when it became clear that Bhutan will not take them back. The West was not keen to push the kingdom too hard, lest the world’s last Shangri-La is lost (what with Tibet gone!).
So it took in the Lhotsampas and gave them refugee status, finally accepting them through naturalisation as citizens. The New York Times followed the fortunes of one such family and the story touched my heart.
I have to insist here that if the world can work out a refugee burden-sharing arrangement for the Lhotsampas, why can’t the same be done for the Muslim Rohingya? Why? Because they can turn into Islamist terrorists, they can make for ready recruits for the likes of Al-Qaida or ISIS? Then comes my follow-up question: if you don’t want to take the Rohingya because of security issues, because your intelligence thinks they are potential terror recruits, why the hell do you think it is fair to weigh Bangladesh down with such a burden? Just because it is a Muslim-majority country! The Western double standards will never end and HRW’s ‘crocodile tears’ report is the latest example.
The HRW report calls upon the United Nations and donor governments “for an independent assessment of the safety, disaster preparedness, and habitability at Bhasan Char during the impending monsoon season and beyond”.
Now here comes the classic Western hypocrisy — an appeal by one HRW official.
“The Bangladesh government is finding it hard to cope with over a million Rohingya refugees, but forcing people to a remote island just creates new problems,” said Bill Frelick, refugee and migrant rights director at Human Rights Watch. “International donors should assist the Rohingya, but also insist that Bangladesh return refugees who want to return to the mainland or if experts say island conditions are too dangerous or unsustainable.”
Admission of the enormity of the problem is followed by an impossible request — I put you in my house and then my neighbour Mr John or Jim arrives with a caveat: you must allow this guy you shelter to sleep in your bed even if that means you sleep on the floor. Whoa!
The last point — how does HRW or such ‘global bodies’ reach the great conclusions in their report! By selective, pre-arranged interviews set up by their local cronies who know what the bosses want. Like the lawyer getting the witness who will provide the evidence needed to clinch the case. When I worked for a while with the BBC in my long journalistic career as their stringer in Calcutta, I became familiar with this “very independent” kind of Western narrative building — “Get three guys, one who will strongly criticise the government move, another who will provide a moderate counter-point and another who will say I really don’t know.” You guys know how to load which part of your argument and make it look convincing.
Human Rights Watch admits it interviewed 167 Rohingya refugees between May 2020 and May 2021, including 117 on Bhasan Char and 50 in Cox’s Bazar, 30 of whom were later relocated to Bhasan Char. And based on such a small sample dataset, they have drawn the conclusion that the Bhasan Char is uninhabitable. During Cyclone Yaas, my young sister from my native Barishal, Esrat Jahan Suborno (we Bengalis have Hindu-Muslim sisters by choice, not birth), told me about the huge damage caused by the storm to her house and farms, fishponds and roads on Char Momtaj. The girl was in absolute panic as she pleaded with me to tell “someone in Dhaka” to take care of her area. But the many Bangladesh mediapersons on Bhasan Char at that time did not report similar damage. The proof of the pudding is in the eating – didn’t you teach us this!
The good thing about the HRW report is the admission that the “primary responsibility for the Rohingya’s situation lies with Myanmar”. It continues: “On August 25, 2017, the military began a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims involving mass killing, rape, and arson that forced over 740,000 to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh, which was already hosting an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 unregistered Rohingya refugees who had fled previous persecution. Myanmar has failed to end widespread abuses against the Rohingya and has refused to create conditions for their safe, dignified, and voluntary return.”
But then it unleashes its fusillade of criticism on Bangladesh. “While Bangladesh commendably opened its borders to the Rohingya, the authorities have not made camp conditions truly hospitable, increasing pressure to relocate to Bhasan Char. The authorities shut down internet access for almost a year in the refugee camps, denied formal education to children, and built barbed wire fencing restricting movement and access to emergency services. Security forces face allegations of arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, and extrajudicial killings.”
The usual broken record, the repeat of a narrative we are familiar with. Hasina will have to be firm in telling the UN and the powers — thus far and no further. If you are not happy with what we have done, take these hapless people, like the Lhotsampas, and settle them in your great countries and kindly spare poor Bangladesh the burden.