Bangladesh, which has seen two massive Rohingya influxes from Myanmar, has shut the door on the ethnic group this time

Bangladesh, which neighbours Myanmar, has watched with much interest the Thein Sein government’s moves at making peace with ethnic groups in the country’s peripheries. But the ethnic issue that Bangladesh is most interested in Myanmar has yet to address.

Rohingyas, whose population in Myanmar is estimated between 800,000 to 1 million, have faced discrimination in that country since 1982, when by law, they were denied Myanmarese citizenship.

Bangladesh’s concerns on this issue date back to 1977. That was the year that saw the first mass migration of Rohingyas to Bangladesh after the Myanmar authorities enforced a controversial national census.

By the next year, over 200,000 Rohingyas had crossed the border into Bangladesh. During 1991 and 1992, more than 270,000 refugees crossed the border again. They all carried stories of horrific violence, forced labour, rape, executions and torture.

After the latest episodes of violence in Rakhine, in which tens of thousands of Rohingyas are reported affected, Bangladesh made it clear that unlike in the past, there would be no welcome for refugees.

Despite repeated international appeals to Bangladesh to open its borders to the fleeing people, the Sheikh Hasina government took the stand that her overpopulated country, with its scanty landmass and resources, could no longer bear the burden of additional displaced Rohingyas.

Bangladesh is already sheltering 3 to 5 hundred thousand refugees who fled Myanmar in two phases, and despite its best efforts, has not been able to repatriate them, as Myanmar does not accept them as its citizens.

There is a new concern too. Government leaders, including Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, have voiced the anxiety that a section of the Rohingyas may have terror links. The Prime Minister has suggested that the international community investigate the cause of the recurring mass exodus from Rakhine. She aired a suspicion that the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami, which has a power base near the Myanmar border, could be involved, after reports that the Islamist party, which opposed the country’s independence from Pakistan, was encouraging the refugees.

The activities of a few Rohingya organisations, including that of the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO), which allegedly have links with terror groups in Bangladesh and outside, have only underlined the concern. The allegations that the refugees are being supported and armed by Jamaat-E-Islami, the fundamentalist party that had violently opposed the country’s independence from Pakistan in 1971, have ensured there is little public support today for the Rohingyas.

As if to prove Bangladesh’s concerns, the Myanmar authorities have also dubbed the Rohingyas as ‘Islamist insurgents’.

Whatever the factual position, such allegations have led to considerable antipathy towards the Rohingyas. Locals blame them for various anti-social activities. The refugees’ migration to the Chittagong Hill Tracts, which is yet to recover from its own burns from a protracted conflict, has also generated insecurities among the indigenous people of that region.

While Bangladesh’s earlier hospitality to the refugees is well known, this time the government ordered its border guards not to allow anyone. Foreign Minister Dipu Moni explained that the country had no obligation to shelter the Rohingyas because it is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol. However, the country is party to other international instruments through which humanitarian assistance to refugees may be offered.

Following a recent government order to a few Western NGOs to stop operations in Cox’s Bazaar where most refugee camps are located, the United States has urged Bangladesh to allow international humanitarian groups to continue their aid to refugees. The UNHCR and the European Commission have also requested the country to let humanitarian groups continue. The government, however, is firm about not allowing them to come into the country.

Myanmar’s pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi called for laws to protect the rights of the ethnic minorities in her maiden speech to national parliament. But the democracy icon has disappointed the human rights groups, both in Bangladesh and outside by not offering stronger support to Rohingyas who are described by the United Nations as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.

Myanmar President Thein Sen has postponed his scheduled visit to Bangladesh in mid-July to discuss bilateral issues which included the Rohingyas. Bangladesh, as of today, considers the issue Myanmar’s domestic problem, and hopes it will be resolved soon. But the history of the crisis and its repeated spill-over across the border suggest that those hopes may be belied, unless Myanmar adopts a humane approach to end the crisis.

(Haroon Habib is a Bangladesh writer and journalist.)

More In: Comment | Opinion