[Image: Greg Constantine, Pulitzer Center]
It was 1978 or 1979, Weekly Bichitra made a cover story titled, “ Manush Aite achhe – naaf nodeer baner lahan” (People are coming in like flood on Naaf River). All on a sudden, a group of people living in northwest Burmese Arakan region and who happen to be of Bengali ethnic lineage and Muslim in faith, started leaving their homeland of several dozen to several hundred years and cross the border to enter Bangladesh in utter desperation. They came by boats, sampans, makeshift banana trunk vessels (vela) – some came on foot through impenetrable mountain forest. They all were escaping the atrocities of operation Nagamin of Burmese army.
Burmese government was suspicious of what they believed as collusion between Arakan communist party and secessionist thought of Arakanese Muslims. Starting on April 1978, refugees started pouring into Cox’s Bazaar, Teknaf and Chittagong Hill tract areas and by June, over 200,000 Bengali Muslim descendent inhabitants of Burmese region of Arakan, who call themselves Rohingyas, started living in 13 camps set up along Bangladesh Myanmar border. Of the 210,000 souls, more than half (over 110,000) were children between 1 to 15 years of age and there was absolutely no obstruction from Bangladesh side in letting them in. 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 Burmese leader Ne Win, very robust stand by Bangladesh foreign office and smart diplomacy by the foreign Minister Professor Shamsul Huq, 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 second time in 1980. The diplomatic breakthrough with Burma was so unbelievable that even The Economist in its August 12, 1978 issue in an article titled “Burma and Bangladesh”, 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”. History will tell us that Economist was wrong — totally wrong in its prediction. This 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 military junta.
Speaking of history. The history of Bangla literature will never be completed without the mention of medieval Bangla literature exercise at Arakan King’s courts. Alaol is unquestionably the greatest medieval Bengali poet- author who still remains relevant for his masterpieces like Padmavatee, Tohfa, and Soyful Mulk Bodiuzzaman. Born in Hathajari, Chittagong, Alaol migrated to Arakan kingdom during early 17th century. Alaol was not a rare Bangali migrant to Arakan. Arakan kings court was full of Bengali Muslim bureaucrats, literatures like Magon Thakur, Doulot Kazi. Starting from 9th century till mid 20th century, migrants from all parts of India India including Bengal constantly moved in all directions. There is no denying of the fact that many Bengali Muslims settled in Arakan, Rangoon and other regions of Burma. Due to religious affiliations, migrant Arabs also aligned themselves with Bengali Muslims. And until mid 20th century, this movement definitely was not illegal migration and subjects of the Queen resettling to another part of the Empire, British Burma, were absolutely legal.
After 1960 when Burma fell under dictatorship, to pump up nationalistic fervor, a new mono racial Burmese nationalism was trumpeted. 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 diplomacy, Ne Win could not but take back all 200000 refugees. But soon 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 Muslim Bengalis of Arakan. Ethnic cleansing campaign slowly resumed and another refugee crisis climaxed in 1991.
When Taliban government in Afghanistan wanted to initiate special color 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 color coded cards for decades. This color coded white cards identifies a large number of Burmese of Bengali heritage Muslim religion as “Bengali Muslims”, not Burmese, nor Arakanese, not Burmese national. The mainstream locals of Arakanese call the Bengalis as ‘Kala’, a racial slur. They don’t have any rights all other Burmese national automatically enjoys and they even are not allowed to Marry across culture. 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, 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, like Alaol, Magon Thakur time migrants’ descendents for several centuries and some for several decades. These later immigrants moved to British Burma 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 east Bengal and Pakistan may have. If those Bengali descendent Muslims of Arakan are illegal immigrants in Burma, than half of world’s current population are illegal immigrants in their current homeland.
Tamils killed India’s prime Minister. Yet Tamils of India used all they have to protect ethnic Tamils from being annihilated in Sri Lanka. Indian diplomacy earned privileged, expedited immigration status for Tamils in Canada, France and other first world states. Are there many ethnic groups who resorted to more terrorism than Tamils? 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 give Bangladeshi passport holders bad names. Can anyone understand what sort of cheap and irresponsible comments are these? Rohingyas are terrorists? What terrorism did they do in Bangladesh? Of the dozens Islamic terrorists hanged by authorities in Bangladesh and of the thousands of Islamic radicals in Bangladesh jails, how many are from refugees 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 that Rohingyas are ruining our peoples’ impeccable nicety records in the Gulf States, ask him or her 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 bad elements who are not Arakanese Muslim refugees, rather are vested quarters from mainstream Bangladeshis.
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 Greek protect their Citizens in Cyprus, how Serbia stands tall for the Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia.
Tell me, when everyone is trying to escape overcrowded Bangladesh, why these people desperately keep coming back to Bangladesh? Can we imagine what level of helplessness will force one to leave hundreds of year’s ancestral land and all belongings and rush to hostile Bangladesh? Do you really believe that they are really 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?
This country was built 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. 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 Mujib created Bangladesh? Mujib’s Bengali nationalism now cries in vain helplessly in front of the gun trotting border guards of Bangla Desh.