On August 26 of this year, Myanmar launched a fresh campaign of violence in its western Rakhine province that killed over thousand Rohingya civilians and displaced a staggering quarter million to neighbouring Bangladesh in barely two weeks.
Myanmar forces unleashed such carnage in response to sudden attacks carried out on August 25 by the self-styled Rohingya insurgent group Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. ARSA’s coordinated attacks on 24 police posts left 11 security personnel dead.
No state would tolerate attacks on its security personnel. But to punish an entire community is never an acceptable response to aggression by a few. To turn those acts of aggression into a pretext for ethnic cleansing is to commit crimes against humanity. Many nations are rightly wary of non-state armed actors in the post-9/11 world order.
However, it is important to remember that not all armed groups – especially those that fight only members of security forces who have a record of mass civilian killings – are “extremists” or part of international terrorist conspiracies.
Let us be clear at the outset in saying that neither Bangladesh – nor Dhaka Tribune – supports ARSA, nor do we condone its violent attacks. Indeed, the state of Bangladesh does not support separatist groups anywhere, least of all among its neighbours.
But unfortunately Myanmar’s allies China and India have been all-too ready to go along with Myanmar’s demonstrably partial narrative. And so Bangladesh is compelled to stand apart on this issue, and also feel the full brunt of Myanmar’s persecution of Rohingyas – a far greater crime than ARSA’s ill-conceived adventure last month.
Myanmar’s policy towards the Rohingyas is to clear them out entirely from their homeland, Rakhine province. It is possibly the most openly stated and diligently carried out ethnic purge of recent times. Thanks to this policy, Bangladesh has had to play host to Rohingya refugees in small numbers as far back as the late ’70s,and in substantial numbers since the early ’90s, numbering up to half a million at times.
The attacks today show signs of a new intensity. Reports of military and police personnel, at times with machete-wielding civilian militias in tow, are burning villages, hacking children and shooting unarmed civilians. Bodies are floating up the Naf River bordering Myanmar and Bangladesh. Fleeing refugees have had their legs blown off by landmines laid by the Myanmar army on their side of the border.
In the middle of such carnage, Narendra Modi, prime minister of India, went ahead with a pre-scheduled state visit to Myanmar, where he expressed full solidarity with the Myanmar state in their fight against “extremist violence”. But he said nothing about the killing of civilians. He stressed the importance of “unity and territorial integrity”, perhaps channelling Indian anxiety about their own separatists. But that may not be the only reason behind his distinctly one-sided statement.
China and India have their own complex set of relationships in this region. India right now is shaken from its recent confrontation with China over the Doklam plateau in Bhutan. In the past decade, India has also tried to cultivate Myanmar, which fell into China’s orbit during its long sojourn as a pariah state.
Yet, as China has cozied up to India’s old ally of Bangladesh, India has felt the need to strengthen its ties with Myanmar as a hedge against China’s regional aspirations. Hence, it may look away as Myanmar conducts atrocities against its own citizens. Meanwhile, China – as per its longstanding policies – doesn’t believe in chiding anyone over matters of human rights.
Bangladesh fully shares the Indian and Chinese concerns about respecting the “unity and territorial integrity” of states. But to condone the wholesale killing of civilians in the name of fighting insurgents is not tolerable. Western powers, meanwhile, are sounding the right notes, but may no longer be in a position to outweigh the influence of regional heavies.
Suu Kyi charade
The West is hardly guiltless in the plight of the Rohingyas. Western powers nurtured Aung San Suu Kyi as an icon of liberty back when Myanmar was a pariah coddled by the Russo-Chinese bloc. The West was so anxious to see Suu Kyi anointed a leader that they went along with a charade of democracy arranged by Myanmar’s military junta, ignoring both that there was no real transfer of power taking place and the continuing tendency to commit gross human rights abuses by those powers.
If anything, fronting a figure like Suu Kyi has made it easier and more attractive for the junta to carry on its long-running ethnic purge of the Rohingyas.
If the West had been guilty of folly then, India and China are practicing real politik. India today is playing a role, incidentally, that America played in 1971 when the Nixon administration decided to let Pakistan have its genocide in Bangladesh as a price for access to China. Bangladesh was saved then by a pugnacious India – and leaders like Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founder of Bangladesh, and his iron-willed counterpart across the border, Indira Gandhi. In an acute irony of history, today it has fallen on Bangladesh – and Sheikh Mujib’s daughter, Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minister now of Bangladesh – to give shelter to a people as desperate as we ourselves were in 1971.
To shelter the Rohingyas will not be an easy task for Bangladesh. We are the most densely populated large nation of the world, and we have only recently graduated to lower middle-income status. What’s more, for a long time many Bangladeshis remained wary of the Rohingyas.
Many have argued that camps of destitute people would become a hive of criminal activity and upset the social balance of wherever they settled. What such prognoses get wrong is the causality; it’s not the poor who cause those crimes – they become tools of the criminal, if they are not given adequate protection.
Bangladesh, one of the biggest emigrant nations – both legal and illegal – cannot indulge in the kind of prejudice that they themselves face in many places where they seek a better livelihood. I confess that during a similar episode of violence against Rohingyas back in 2012, I too had argued for keeping a tight border, fearing that an open border would only encourage more persecution. Such considerations were predicated on the world putting pressure on Myanmar to stop its policy of ethnocide.
As we face a new reality today, where Myanmar seems intent not so much on killing a few to chase away the many but to kill as many as they can, there is a sea-change in Bangladeshi public opinion in favour of assisting those fleeing imminent death.
The signal for a new approach came right from the top when Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina called for “humane” treatment at the border. As a result, despite an occasional show of pushing some refugees back by the border guards, the Rohingyas are allowed into Bangladesh by the thousands every day.
At a time when the whole world has abandoned the Rohingyas, I personally no longer see housing them as a burden. Rather, I see it as a privilege. It’s not everyday that one is called to play the role of saviour. It is the most sacred of duties, and the greatest test of our humanity.
Where much bigger countries are unwilling to step up, it is a testament to the resilience and humanity of Bangladesh if we can play host to the Rohingyas – without condescension, without prejudice, without resentment.
Few writers of the twentieth century have captured the terror of the sudden breach of order as well as VS Naipaul. In the bleak but unforgettable opening line to his novel A Bend in the River, he wrote: “The world is what it is. Men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.”The government and the people of Myanmar have decided that the Rohingyas are “nothing.”
This is why we must give the Rohingyas shelter. We must help them avoid the cruellest of fates: becoming nothing. No matter how cruel or indifferent the world, no one deserves to become nothing.
K Anis Ahmed is the publisher of the Dhaka Tribune and Bangla Tribune.
This article first appeared on Dhaka Tribune.