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’.