by Andy Heintz, CounterVortex
The Burmese military’s murderous repression hasn’t just affected its home country, it has also had consequences for neighboring Bangladesh. It has been four years since Burma’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, launched an assault against the country’s Rohingya Muslim population with genocidal intent, forcing hundreds of thousands to flee across the border to Bangladesh.
“The crimes in Rakhine State, and the manner in which they were perpetrated, are similar in nature, gravity and scope to those that have allowed genocidal intent to be established in other contexts,” said the UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar. In the final 20-page report, it found: “There is sufficient information to warrant the investigation and prosecution of senior officials in the Tatmadaw chain of command, so that a competent court can determine their liability for genocide in relation to the situation in Rakhine state.”
The UN described genocide as intent to destroy an ethnic, national group in whole or in part. The designation has been used in the past to describe war crimes in Bosnia, Sudan and the Islamic State’s murderous campaign against the Yazidi communities in Syria and Iraq. The UN has called for Tatmadaw’s commander-in-chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing (now leader of the ruling junta), and four other generals to face justice for committing war crimes.
The other four generals the UN panel said should be prosecuted are army deputy commander-in-chief, Vice Senior-General Soe Win; the commander of the Bureau of Special Operations-3, Lieutenant-General Aung Kyaw Zaw; the commander of Western Regional Military Command, Major-General Maung Maung Soe; and the commander of 99th Light Infantry Division, Brigadier-General Than Oo.
Today, the number of Rohingya Muslims living in Bangladesh has climbed to more than a million. They live in overcrowded refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, a coastal town in the country’s south. One of these camps, Kutupalong, is the largest refugee camp in the world. The government, which was lauded for taking in such a massive influx of refugees, is now prioritizing getting the Rohingya repatriated to their home country. The Rohingya, however, have refused to go because of the likelihood they would be subjected to massive persecution and violence if they were to return. Their concerns were only amplified by February’s military coup in Burma (also known as Myanmar). The country is now controlled by the same militarywhose sadistic actions made them flee in the first place.
The Rohingya endured another tragedy in March when a massive fire swept through one of the camps, burning down thousands of homes, killing several people, and injuring many others. Fire, however, is not the only weather-related threat the Rohingya might have to contend with. They also are at risk of facing cyclones, monsoons, flooding and mudslides. In addition, the once-friendly relationship between the host communities in Bangladesh and the Rohingya is now more complicated than when the Rohingya first fled to the country.
Crisis in Cox’s Bazar
Shireen Huq says that when the fighting broke out in 2017 the country’s border guards could see the fires and hear the cries coming from across the river.
“They said what you are seeing now is the black smoke. We saw the flames. How could we not open the border?” she recalls.
Huq, founding member of Bangladeshi women’s rights organization Naripokkho, says that it was the guards acting independently—not the government—who initially opened the borders to the Rohingya. Their decision was strongly supported by the local people at the time. It was only as the situation worsened and the influx of refugees started to swell, the Bangladeshi government got involved and officially ordered the borders to be opened.
“The local people were demanding the Bangladeshi government open the borders and let them in,” Huq says. “Local people were welcoming the Rohingyas by giving them shelter, food and clothes. You must remember Bangladeshis have experienced genocide, and it is within our living memory. It’s not some story from a distant past. So, when we are faced with another population suffering a genocidal attack, then there is immediate empathy. It is an instant reaction.”
Unfortunately, the selfless compassion the Rohingya initially received from the local population has become more complex as it has become clear—because of the situation across the border—the Rohingya will not be leaving Bangladesh any time soon.
“Clearly the government is feeling stressed, and the local people are also feeling more stressed,” Huq says. “The initial warm welcome for the Rohingya disappeared soon after it became clear these people were going to stay here for an indefinite period.”
She added the unease among the population began to increase when the number of refugees in the country swelled from 250,000 to a million or more people. The locals also have been frustrated with international humanitarian organizations, who they feel have not made adequate effort to connect with the local population while working to provide the Rohingya with the resources needed to scrape out a living in the camps.
“Another reason the local people were upset was when they saw all these international agencies arriving in huge numbers with a lot of resources and making very little effort to connect with the local community,” Huq said. “These agencies didn’t hire local people, they hired people who came from other parts of Bangladesh and abroad. They were not part of the dialogue. They are not part of the conversation.”
Another issue that has upset the locals has been the increase in traffic on the main road connecting Cox’s Bazar to Teknaf.
“There is a huge amount of traffic moving because each agency has its own car,” Huq said. “I heard a mother say they are scared to let their children go to school on their own because it’s too dangerous to cross the road. There is no carpooling.”
Gender-based violence also has been a problem in the camps, as Rohingya women are experiencing high rates of rape and domestic abuse. One reason for this is the lockdown in response to COVID-19, which left many women confined to their homes with their abusers. Whereas the Tatmadaw used rape and other appalling forms of violence as a weapon of war, the most prevalent type occurring in the camps has been domestic. Data gathered by the International Rescue Committee revealed that of the Rohingya women and girls who reported experiencing gender-based violence in Cox’s Bazar from June to December of 2019, a total of 81% were victims of domestic violence. This number surged to 94% between January and October of 2020.
The grim nature of the camps, however, hasn’t only led to new horrors for women; members of both sexes have fallen prey to traffickers who promised them jobs and a better life outside the camps. Instead of an improved standard of living, they have been sold into slavery or “forced prostitution.” A June 2019 report by the US State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons report found Bangladesh had not investigated dozens of potential crimes of forced labor and sex trafficking against the Rohingya living in refugee camps in the country.
Bangladeshi authorities and aid groups did get more proactive in combating traffickers by passing out comic books, performing street plays, and doing more police patrols that warned refugees of the risks posed by traffickers. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) published a comic titled “The Brave Stories” that described the life of a young woman who was forced into prostitution, and that of a 22-year-old man who was made to work long hours in a field without any pay. These activities have at least helped raise awareness as 420 cases of trafficking were identified between June and December of 2019—a four-fold increase from the previous 14 months.
Still, Ali Kabir, a long-time anti-trafficking researcher affiliated with the World Commission of Human Rights, warned that trafficking will be difficult to stamp out until conditions in the camps improve. “As long as livelihoods in the camps don’t improve, they will always say yes to going outside,” Kabir told Reuters.
The relocation solution
The Bangladeshi government has come up with a controversial solution to the situation in the camps that has been roundly criticized by human rights organizations and many refugees. The government proposes to relocate thousands of refugees to a remote place. The island, which surfaced in the Bay of Bengal 25 years ago, is called Bhasan Char, which means “floating island.” The Bangladeshi government’s stated goal is to move 100,000 Rohingya from the camps to the island.
While government officials have claimed the island is habitable and will provide the Rohingya with a higher standard of living than exists in the camps, the plan has been criticized by human rights groups and some refugees who argue the island is vulnerable to flooding at high tide and suffers from erosion. Critics also have complained the transfer of refugees from Cox’s Bazar to the island has occurred without allowing the United Nations to do a technicaland humanitarian assessment to judge if the area is appropriate for habitation. Healthcare workers and human rights groups also have heard complaints from refugees on the island that there is no freedom of movement, no access to proper sanitary products, and no adequate medical facilities to deal with emergency situations. For example, a man who had fallen unconscious on the island had to be taken on a three-hour-journey by boat to get adequate medical attention.
There also are allegations that—despite the assurances of the Bangladeshi government—not all refugees have been relocated voluntarily. Twelve families told Human Rights Watch they were put on a list to be relocated to the island without their consent.
“I have no idea how my name appeared there, but I never voluntarily put my name on that list,” one refugee said. “I only learned I was on the list after the Camp-in-Charge [camp authority or CiC] called me to his office and told me. After that, I fled from my shelter. I am hearing now that the CiC volunteers and majhis [community leaders] are looking for me and my family. I am afraid that if they find me, they will force me to go.” Another refugee said, “My name appeared on the list so now the CiC has threatened me, saying that since my name is there, I must go. He said, even if I die, they will take my body there [to Bhasan Char]. I don’t want to go to that island.”
On April 6, HRW reported that Bangladeshi security forces arrested and beat at least 12 refugees who were trying to leave the island. In addition, a Bangladeshi sailor allegedly beat four children with a PVC pipe on April 12 for leaving their quarters to play with refugee children in another area. These children were among a group of refugees who were rescued at sea and brought to the island. Photographs taken by other refugees showed the severe bruises the children suffered.
“The Bangladeshi government saved countless lives by providing refuge to the Rohingya people but that doesn’t justify detaining them on an island and beating them if they try to move,” said Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director. “The burden Bangladesh has taken on in caring for the refugees does not negate its responsibility to ensure that they are safe, and their rights are protected.”
In mid-March, a team from the UN High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR) visited the Bhasan Char and offered a more complex picture of the situation on the island. The team’s report acknowledged the government’s “extensive investments” in infrastructure and safeguards on the island, but said further improvements were necessary. Specifically, the team advised the government to complete the extension of the flood embankment before any more people were relocated to the island, given the frequency of cyclone activity in the area.
“At the same time, the UN team believes it is critical that the ongoing extension of the embankment is completed as early as possible and to full specification which, when complete, would reduce the risk of storm surges and flooding on the island,” Charlie Goodlake, a spokesman for the UNHCR in Dhaka, told BenarNews in a statement.
The team also recommended putting in an emergency management plan for severe weather events including building up essential goods and supplies that will be made available to the island if such events were to occur.
“The UN team recommends to the government that any future relocations are undertaken in a gradual and phased manner, which would help to ensure that the governance structure, facilities and services available on Bhasan Char are commensurate to the needs of Rohingya refugees living there,” Goodlake said.
Will Bangladesh stand alone?
Sayeed Ahmed of The Diplomat writes the government spends $1.2 billion a year to support the refugees and alleges it spent $280 billion preparing for the Rohingya to arrive to the island. “While the international community is quick to criticize Bangladesh,” Ahmed asserts, “offers to help are less frequent.”
Ahmed paints a very positive picture of Bangladesh’s treatment of the Rohingya, both by the people and the government. He adds that this support was provided despite some harsh consequences of taking in more than a million people. These include: dried up aquifers, air pollution caused by increased vehicle traffic and fuelwood burning, plastic bottles and polythene choking up drains, and deforestation of the area’s hills. Ahmed also cites increases in drug and human trafficking becoming as well as petty crime, and a drop in local wages. He argues that Bangladeshis have acted with grace and compassion despite these hardships.
One thing Ahmed certainly gets right is that Bangladesh, and especially the host communities where the refugees live, deserve more help from the international community, particularly the wealthier countries. The UNHCR is currently calling for $943 million in aid both for the Rohingya camps and the local Bangladeshi communities.
The United States, Western Europe and China should provide not just aid but long-term assistance to the Rohingya and their host communities, including large investments in education, healthcare and job training. These programs should be developed based on interactions and collaboration with the refugees and the people in these communities. It is to the great shame of these countries that Bangladesh has been far more generous in its acceptance of refugees despite having far fewer resources. Providing Bangladesh with long-term assistance is the least they can do.
Photo: Rohingya refugee camp in Ukhia, Cox’s Bazar
Credit: Captain Raju, Wikimedia Commons
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Reprinting permissible with attribution