Syed Fattahul Alim
The Daily Star
Publication Date : 18-06-2012
Minister Dipu Moni was rather candid when she told the parliament on Thursday
that Bangladesh was not bound by any international law to open its border for
the Rohingya, that there was no warlike situation in that country, and that
the Myanmar government was not forcing its citizens out.
The government further noted its serious exception to the UNCHR's issuing public statements urging it to open its borders to the Rohingya refugees. Also with equal stress, it reacted to US Human Rights Watch (HRW) and State Department's call to give shelter on humanitarian grounds to the victims of ethnic repression fleeing Myanmar.
What are we hearing from the foreign minister of a country that underwent oppression and persecution at the hands of the Pakistani occupation forces who turned the country into a veritable abattoir in 1971? How can she forget that millions of Bengalis crossed the international border into neighbouring India and enjoyed the generosity and hospitality of Indian people and their government? How can she even mention that the country is not a signatory to certain international laws to oblige it to provide shelter to humanity in distress?
We cannot relegate ourselves to the status of those governments who often defy international calls and pleas to show kindness and sympathy towards people in need on the pretext of their not being a party to this law/convention or that.
Is it not a disgrace to our image as a people whose social, religious and cultural ethos revolves around the basic tenets of humanity, generosity and compassion for the suffering humanity? Why should such a situation at all arise so much so that foreign governments and international agencies concerned with human rights and refugee rehabilitation have to plead with the Bangladesh government to show compassion for people seeking refuge from persecution in their own homeland?
It may be noted that the recent spate of communal violence started following the incident of rape and murder of a young Buddhist woman allegedly by some criminals belonging to Rohingya minority community. This sparked ethnic violence in the Rakhine state (formerly the Arakan province) of Myanmar. Hardly a week later, on June 1, a Buddhist mob murdered 10 Muslim pilgrims from a bus. The violence spread further and the mobs have been engaged in systematic looting and arson attack on village after village inhabited by ethnic Rohingya Muslims and butchering their men, women and children indiscriminately.
From their past experience, the Rohingya know fully well what kind of protection they would get from the Myanmar government in such crisis times. For in the past, in 1991 and before that in 1977, it was not in the aftermath of any ethnic or religious riots, but of crackdown by the government forces on them that the Rohingya people had to flee their homes and seek refuge in Bangladesh.
Is it then any surprise that these helpless terror-stricken people, who are yet to be acknowledged as citizens in their own ancestral homeland by their rulers, are again knocking at our door?
This is an SOS call from humanity in distress. Our gut response should therefore be humane and kind to these people and extend the humanitarian assistance these people are desperately in need of before being requested by any third party to do so. And by pushing these helpless human beings back into the hands of their persecutors we will lose whatever good reputation we had earned in the past.
There is no question that the international community had earlier failed miserably to respond to the Rohingya crisis properly. Whenever similar crisis would erupt in the past, leading to mass exodus of Rohingya victims across the border into Bangladesh, the UN and members of the international community would confine their responsibility to only requesting Bangladesh to provide shelter to these people. Bangladesh did always comply with their request. But then, except supplying some relief materials and money, they would conveniently forget the issue. As a consequence, the root cause of the Rohingya crisis remained unresolved, while Bangladesh was left to shoulder the burden of the un-repatriated refuges decade after decade.
Clearly, such bad experience has prompted the Bangladesh government to take such a stiff stance against accepting a fresh influx of Rohingya and react to international humanitarian bodies' plea in this regard in the way it has done. For the fear among the government people that, like in the past, it is going to be just a repetition of the previous experience this time again is not quite unfounded.
But that cannot be reason enough to be insensitive and heartless towards those hapless people, who were forced to leave their homes for no fault of theirs.
The issue of political correctness should not get the better of the considerations of humanity under any circumstances. We must continue to press the international community to prevail upon the Myanmar government to control the riot and create an appropriate environment for these victims of persecution to return to their homes.
At the same time, being an unwilling host to these refugees, Bangladesh government should also constructively engage the Myanmar government in a dialogue so that once peace is restored it would be ready to take back all the Myanmar refugees living in Bangladesh.
Since the Myanmar government is of late opening up to the West, the world powers should take advantage of this situation to pressure it to return its minority Rohungya Muslims their rightful status as citizens of that country; give back their lands and ensure all kind of protection to these people so that they may not have to flee their homes to another country in the future.
The writer is Editor Science & Life, The Daily Star.