Rohingya: Another version of Palestine issue

Rohingya refugees wait roadside for aid at Thaingkhali makeshift refugee camp in Cox`s Bazar, on 14 September 2017. Photo: Reuters
Rohingya refugees wait roadside for aid at Thaingkhali makeshift refugee camp in Cox`s Bazar, on 14 September 2017. Photo: Reuters

A Hong Kong-based news website, Asia Times, has painted a Palestine-like refuge scenario in Bangladesh’s southeast corner, in view of no progress in repatriation of Myanmar nationals of Rohingyas.

The news site pointed out that when Myanmar security forces launched its now notorious 'clearance operations' in western Rakhine state in August 2017, it was not the first time the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority had fled en masse into neighbouring Bangladesh.

But, the Asia Times writes, “a failed attempt to repatriate a first group to Myanmar in November and the construction of solid, concrete buildings on an island off the Bangladeshi coast signal an entirely new situation is emerging: a Palestine-like scenario with a permanent, stateless and impoverished refugee population ripe for exploitation by extremist groups in South and Southeast Asia.”

More than 720,000 Rohingyas fled Myanmar’s brutal security force crackdown, adding to another few hundred thousand that were already in Bangladesh.

The United Nations has indicated the forced expulsion represented crimes against humanity and may have been driven by “genocidal intent,” wrote the site in an article “Asia’s version of Palestine emerging in Bangladesh”.

A first batch of 2,200 refugees was supposed to have been repatriated on 15 November, but none agreed to return if their demands for citizenship and justice for the atrocities they had been subjected to were met, the article said.

That, of course, was a non-starter as the government in Naypyitaw is highly unlikely to grant the Rohingya, who they consider illegal migrants from Bangladesh, citizenship or accept responsibility for an offensive security officials say was a legitimate response to Rohingya insurgent attacks on border guard posts, the news site observed.

It mentioned that Myanmar’s military leaders, now struggling to stay out of the reach of The Hague’s International Criminal Court, where they could potentially face genocide charges for their 2017 crackdown, have not faced any moves domestically to seek justice for the widespread death and destruction.

Plans to relocate as many as 100,000 Rohingya refugees to Bangladesh’s Bhasan Char Island would ease pressure on the overcrowded camps on the Myanmar border, but it is unclear how refugees with few skills and no resources would survive on a small, isolated and barren island located in one of the world’s most cyclone-prone areas, the article pointed out.

Construction on the island is reportedly proceeding apace, but Rohingya refugees are already reportedly reluctant to move to the island.

According to the article, the situation today is in sharp contrast to 1978 and 1991-1992, when hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas similarly fled persecution to Bangladesh. In 1978, the Myanmar government launched an operation code-named Naga Min, or King of Dragons, which aimed at identifying illegal immigrants across the country.

Despite reports of rape, arson and murder, the then ruling military got support from even its most vocal domestic critics, who shared the view that the Rohingyas are not indigenous but rather “Bengali settlers” from Bangladesh, the Asia Times article added.

An estimated 200,000 Rohingyas fled across the border, but were allowed to return when Myanmar and Bangladesh, after a stream of protests mainly from Islamic countries leading to intervention by the United Nations, reached an agreement in July 1978, it recalled.

Many, however, filtered back into Bangladesh when they found that their old homes in Myanmar had been razed and their land had been taken over by new ethnic Burman or Rakhine settlers, the article added.

In early 1991, it said, thousands of Rohingyas once again began streaming across the border, bringing with them tales of forcible eviction from their homes, and the destruction of mosques and Islamic schools.

By 1992, more than 200,000 refugees were living in makeshift camps across the border in Bangladesh until a repatriation agreement was reached under the auspices of the United Nations, the article further said.

During the 1992 crisis, Prince Khaled Sultan Abdul Aziz, commander of the Saudi contingent in the 1991 Gulf War, visited Dhaka and lashed out against the Myanmar government for its persecution of the Rohingyas, the article pointed out.

The first was in 1978, when the immensely wealthy Saudi Arabian charity Rabitat-al-Alam-al-Islami sent aid to the refugees and built a hospital, mosque and madrasa for them at Ukhia, south of Cox’s Bazar in southeastern Bangladesh, the article said.

It mentioned that several hundred thousand first, second and third generation Rohingyas, many descendants of Muslims who left Myanmar after World War II, live elsewhere in impoverished suburbs.

A permanent refugee population in Bangladesh, could have grave implications for the domestic security situation in that country, similar to the volatility seen in Lebanon and other Middle Eastern countries where Palestinian refugees have been languishing for more than half a century, the article said.