By Sadhan Mukherjee*
The decision of the Bangladesh government to settle some 60,000 Rohingya refugees from Cox’s Bazaar camp, near Chittagong, to Thengar Char Island has evoked very strong adverse comments. Some 300,000 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar are estimated to be currently in Bangladesh.
The Island is situated at the estuary of Meghna River and was formed barely 10-12 years ago. It is an island formed by the deposit of sediments brought by turbulent Ganga, Padma and Meghna rivers passing through various rocky formations and long land mass. Ganga is known as Padma as it enters Bangladesh and further downstream, it is joined by Meghna.
The Rohingya refugees are being considered a drag on Bangladesh’s economy, and they also exert big pressure on Bangladesh’s scarce land resources, it is said. Despite criticism, the Bangladesh foreign minister has again reiterated on 7 February that these refugees will be settled in that Island.
The Rohingya are one of the most persecuted refugee groups in the world. They are a sort of Bengali speaking Muslim people in Myanmar, formerly called Burma. Myanmar is a Buddhist majority country and the population mainly speak Burmese. Myanmar authorities claim that the Rohingyas are immigrants who came from East Pakistan after Myanmar’s independence in 1948 and also after Bangladesh won its independence in 1971. The Rohingyas on the other hand claim they are original inhabitants of Rakhine state, now called Arakan which is a part of Myanmar.
Here is again is a history of peoples muddled up with colonial conquests and population migration. A Rakhine state existed in the western part of Burma for many centuries and many Rohingyas claim their forefathers lived there. The Rohingyas say, based on oral history and inscriptions on certain temples, that their social history can be traced back to 3325 BCE.
The Muslims came to Rakhine state mostly in the 15th century and they spoke their own language. There is some evidence of early Bengali Muslim settlements in Arakan dating back to 1430s when Rakhine ruler Min Saw Mon regained control of Arakanese throne with military assistance from Bengal Sultanate. In gratitude, Mon ceded some territory to Sultan of Bengal and naturally a number of Bengali Muslims came and settled in the area in various vocations.
However, after the first Anglo-Burmese war in 1826 the British annexed the area and encouraged migration of people from Bengal as farm labourers. There have been conflicts between the Buddhist people in Rakhine state and the Rohingya, and the area soon became communally polarised.
After Myanmar won independence, the conflict sharpened.
The Rohingyas started a so-called mujahideen movement and the Buddhist people in 1960s initiated an Arakanese Independence Movement. After General Ne Win captured power in Myanmar in 1962, he enacted the Burmese Nationality Law which denied citizenship to Rohingya people who now comprise roughly 1.3 million or about 2 per cent of Myanmar population. In India there are about 36,000 Rohingyas, in Bangladesh between 3 to 5 lakhs and in Saudi Arabia about 4 lakhs. Some Rohingyas in small numbers are living in several other countries.
The migration of Rohingyas however is not new. In 1785, Arakan was conquered by the Konbaung dynasty which was ruling the northern part of Myanmar. Some 35,000 Rakhine people fled to Chittagong region of Bengal. Many were killed; some were deported to the then central Burma. Between 1752 and 1757 the last of the wars between Konbaung dynasty and the Hanthawaddy kingdom that was ruling southern part of Burma was fought. Incidentally, the northern part of Burma spoke Burmese while the southern part spoke Mon language.
The British then captured the area. They followed the typical colonial policy which brought many Bengali-speaking settlers to the fertile plains of Rohingya area for farming. Even Arakan was made a part of the Bengal Presidency for administrative purposes.
Now the Rohingyas are being persecuted, hounded and brutally attacked by Myanmar government forces. There is also some dissention in Bangladesh where the Rohingyas are not considered to be Bengalis. This might lead to a conflict. Most of the refugee-Rohingyas are in camps near Cox’s Bazar. The Bangladesh government wants to settle them now in inhabited areas to the Thengar Char Island, which is barely 10,000 sq km in area, and where no one now lives.
It is said that, in the monsoon season, most of the Island gets submerged. Being an Island of very recent origin, no big trees have yet grown there. There is hardly any arable land on the island. The Bangladesh government has begun a tree planting programme there to prevent erosion and flooding.
The area is also a haven to dacoits and pirates being a remote island. It is over 80 km from the nearest town, Noakhali, and over 30 km from the populated Hatiya Island. Naturally human rights groups have strongly protested against this settlement and declared the resettlement plan inhuman.
The Bangladesh government has issued an order on 26 January saying: “It has to be assured by taking preventive measures that they (refugees) cannot spread out and mix with the locals,” and that the “identified refugees should be arrested or pushed back to the camps if they try to go out beyond the assigned boundary.”
No wonder this force majeure has earned strong criticism from many. Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, said the plan threatened a human rights catastrophe and a humanitarian disaster. “Bangladesh should be looking for ways to better protect the Rohingya rather than coming up with punitive plans that will put their lives at risk,” said Robertson.
Without protection and any other facilities for survival what will the Rohingyas do in that Island is a moot question. In a letter to the Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Mohammed Imran, the camp leader at Cox’s Bazaar Rohingya refugee centre, has urged her government to reconsider the decision to relocate the refugees to the Island.
He pointed out that such a plan “amounts to imprisonment in a flood-prone place of extreme isolation”. He underlined that the in the present location at Cox’s Bazaar, the refugees “live under the protection of UNHCR” and moving the refugees to the island will “put their lives in physical danger.” He added that “the island’s isolation from the mainland brings questions of access to power, healthcare, education”, and there is no “guarantee of adequate and timely delivery of necessary supplies. Would others (volunteers, etc.) be able to reach the island to provide assistance?”
The letter was published in the Dhaka Tribune as the author could not get it sent to the government and then mailed it to the paper for the knowledge and attention of its readers.
A few weeks earlier, Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi sent an envoy to Dhaka to discuss with Bangladesh government the issue of Rohingya refugees and ease the troubled relations between the two countries. Sheikh Hasina asked the envoy to take back “all Myanmar nationals” now in Bangladesh.
But Myanmar envoy Aye Aye Soe, in a typical bureaucratic manner spoke of starting a discussion “on an identification and verification process”. She added: “If they find they are from Myanmar, they will be repatriated at the appropriate time,” and that there was “no timeline” for the talks. This means Myanmar was negating the hope of any early solution to the problem. Meanwhile the Bangladesh government is going ahead with the plan of resettlement of the Rohingyas on Thengar Char.