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Rohingya issue: Bangladesh should play a more proactive role

President Zillur Rahman addresses the 4th Extra-ordinary Session of the organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) held in Mekka on August 15, 2012 and says: "We must take a pro-active role towards a lasting solution to this long-standing (Rohingya) problem both bilaterally and multilaterally."

There has been a spate of commentaries in different news outlets on the happenings in the Rakhine state of Myanmar. The comments of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to British newspaper Sunday Express on July 28 during her visit to London to attend the inaugural ceremony of 30th Olympics Games and her interview to Al-Jazeera TV network on July 28 drew my particular attention. By and large, the Prime minister shrugged off her responsibility to take more Rohingya refugees because Bangladesh is an overpopulated country. She was warned of possible terrorist connections among thousands of Muslim refugees trying to enter Bangladesh. A new theme has been added to the most persecuted human beings by the military-backed civil government of General Thein Sein of Myanmar. 

The comment by the Prime Minister has created a hue and cry in theinternational arena. Brad Adams, Director of the Asia chapter of New York-based Human Rights Watch, blamed the government of Bangladesh for "violating its international legal obligations by callously pushing asylum seekers in the rickety boats back into open sea putting them at grave risk of drowning or starvation at sea or persecution in Myanmar". 

The fact of the matter is that the Bangladesh government has no legal obligation because it neither acceded to the 1951 United Nations convention relating to the status of refugees nor the 1967 protocol relating to the status of refugees. 

From humanitarian point of view, the Bangladesh government should have behaved responsibly to take fleeing Rohingya refugees to save their lives temporarily and seek solution of the problem through the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Presently, Rohingya and other Muslim communities in Myanmar are spending nightmarish days because of ruthless ethnic cleansing allegedly by police, para-military forces and army in collaboration with Arakanese Buddhists. They are fleeing the country because of oppression. Many were arrested on flimsy grounds and are being tortured in jail. The ethnic cleansing operation was strengthened when President Thien Sien told Head of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees on July 12 that the only solution to the sectarian strife was to expel Rohingya to a third country or to camps to be looked after by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. This means the President is walking away from the real crisis in his own country and passing the buck on to someone else and he appears to be deviating from his commitment made to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina while she paid a visit to Myanmar in December, 2011 to take back the Rohingyas from Bangladesh who entered the country in 1990.

The 56-page report of the Asia chapter of Human Rights Watch released on July 31, 2012 gives a graphic picture of attack and counter-attack following the reported rape of a Buddhist woman by three Muslim Rohingyas at Rakhine state of western Myanmar. That incident led to the eruption of a sectarian riot on June 3. Rohingyas have been singled out for attacks by Rakhine Buddhists as a result of "inflammatory anti-Muslim news media accounts and local propaganda". News media in Myanmar has no independence and is controlled by the Myanmar authorities. Human Rights Watch reported that "the army, police, Nasaka border guard forces, and Lon Thien para-military have committed killings, mass arrests, and other abuses against the Rohingya. They have operated in concert with local Arakan (Rakhine) residents to loot food stocks and valuables from Rohingya homes. Nasaka and soldiers have fired upon crowds of Rohingya villagers as they attempted to escape the violence, leaving many dead and wounded". 

The July 18 report of the Amnesty International corroborated the report of the Human Rights Watch by saying "six weeks after state of emergency was declared in Myanmar Rakhine state, targeted attacks and other violations by security forces against minority Rohingya and other Muslims have increased".

By now between 500,000 and 90,000 people are reportedly displaced because sectarian violence. Although officially Myanmar National Human Rights commission acknowledged death of 78 persons, the Human Rights Watch estimates the death toll must have been exceeded 100. Displaced persons are in dire need of food, shelter and medical assistance.

The Amnesty International further adds that "Myanmar has not only added to a long litany of human rights violation against Rohingya, but also has done an about-turn on the situation of political imprisonment". It means the government of Myanmar has backed out from their commitments of reform in political arena. Instead of releasing all political prisoners, the number of political prisoners are on the rise.

Western powers, particularly Great Britain and the US, should take note of the trend of persecution of ethnic minorities in Myanmar and consider not withdrawing economic sanctions immediately. The United Nations, on the other hand, should ensure that the Myanmar government should honour and respect ethnic minorities in Myanmar. A process of reconciliation with ethnic minorities like Rohingya, who are being tortured and persecuted ruthlessly for several decades, and Karen, against whom civil war has continued for 40 years, should begin in earnestness under the umbrella of the internationalcommunities. They should be rehabilitated in their country with roof on their heads and food and necessary paraphernalia to survive. Releasing pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and holding free and fair bye-election in 2011 is not enough to demonstrate sincerity of the army-backed civilian government in Myanmar in carrying out political reform and removing social injustices against its ethnic and religious minorities.

The horrible sectarian violence in Myanmar is the result of Myanmar's illogical 1982 amendment of the constitution depriving citizenship to Rohingya. Rohingyas have in fact has been living for centuries in Burma, now known as Myanmar. Rohingys have become stateless people. Burma's first democratic leader U Ne recognised Rohingya as ethnic citizens of Burma in 1951 immediately after Burma gained independence from the British colonial rule in 1948. Historically, Rohingya are the mixtures of Moguls, Turks and Persians and racially mixed with Bengalees, Hindus and Buddhists. Persian was the court language of Arakan state, now known as Rakhine state, till the 18th century. Until 1784 Arakan was an independent kingdom. Arakan and Tenasserim were annexed by the British after the first Anglo-Burmese war on 5 March, 1824 and became part of Burma. According to a legend as described by Jerome Taylor, religious affair correspondent of The Independent of London, and Oliver Wright, Whitehall editor of the same paper, Rohingya people are descendants of Arab traders whose ship wrecked on the coast of Burma in the 8th century. 

It is heartening to note that the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) has taken a decision at its extraordinary session in Mecca on August 16 to bring the issue of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar to the notice of the UN General Assembly, highlighting crimes against humanity and the refusal of the Myanmar government to recognise the Rohingya their right to citizenship. Indonesia played a vital role to push the OIC to take a concrete action to stop violence in the Rakhine state in Myanmar. The governments of Indonesia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, United Arab Emirates and Iran have shown special commitments toward Rohingya Muslim while Saudi King Abdullah has announced $50 million on August 18 to assist Rohingya Muslims describing them "as victims of several right violations, including ethnic cleansing, murder, rape and forced displacement". The Society for threatened peoples welcomed the decision of the OIC.

President Zillur Rahman diluted the issue of the most persecuted Rohingya Muslim with that of other minority Muslims around the world at the extra-ordinary session of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) in Mecca on August 16. Bangladesh missed the opportunity to take up this vital humanitarian problem the country has been faced with since 1990. The government of Bangladesh should step up diplomatic manoeuvre to form international opinion against Myanmar government for mistreatment of their citizens and restore citizenship of Rohingya people in line with the call of the Amnesty International either to amend or repeal 1982 citizenship law of Mynamar.

Like many others, I am also disappointed by the silence of Aung San Suu Kyi, the democracy icon of Myanmar, whom I received at Dhaka airport sometime in 1982 at the request of Bangladesh Ambassador to Burma Syed Najmuddin Hashim while she stopped over on way to London to join her husband. 

The writer is a retired Bangladesh diplomat and former President of Nova Chapter of Toastmasters International Club

Reported by : Mohammad Amjad Hossain from Virginia, USA

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