• Sunday, December 21, 2014

Freedom in the air

Time running out

Saiful Huq Omi

The underlying truth about the border tension between Bangladesh and Myanmar has different aspects; the central one, for sure, is the Rohingya issue. The news about the border tension is framed as if it all started in May 2014 when they opened fire on us, and one of our brave souls, Mizanur Rahman, died in the attack. Except that the tension did not start when Mizanur Rahman was killed. It started years ago, and the issue still remains alive. Rohingyas have remained at the epicentre of the whole tension.
From the research we have done, we know that the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO) was much stronger decades ago. RSO and a few other armed militant groups started to regroup after the June violence in 2012. They started to recruit new members. Funding from the Middle East as well as from Turkey is playing a role here.
It seems that the US, UK, EU, UN and human rights organisations have either completely failed to stop the ongoing slow-burning genocide in Myanmar or they have been lax in taking steps against it. Taking up arms is becoming the RSO's only option. It is perhaps not the most logical consequence but an inevitable one, stemming from the decades of injustice to a community, which, according to the UN, is the most persecuted group in the world.
Two years ago, everyone thought Aung San Sui Kyi would have a landslide victory when the elections took place. In my latest visit to Myanmar, I realised that it was getting to an interesting point now. No one can guarantee that NLD, Sui Kyi's party, will win with a landslide. Thein Sein, the leader of the military backed government, wants to capitalise on the situation to win popularity and play the Buddhist card again by bringing up the Rohingya issue to the centre of discussion. Let's not forget, Buddhist votes will decide who wins the election. It is for this same reason that Sui Kyi had decided to remain silent at the beginning. By keeping mute over the issue Suu Kyi thought that she would reassure her communal voters that she was with them, no matter even if they were the prime perpetrator of genocide.
“Create unrest on the borders, generate jingo nationalism within the citizens, unite them with it and make them forget the real issues” -- a typical strategy for an unpopular government. It is not the first time that this strategy has been used to unite voters. Think back to the India-Pakistan border issues -- Kashmir, Kargil and so on -- our own tensions with India; Narendra Modi's flaming rhetoric promising deportation of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. How many more examples do we need? It is a political tool used as leverage to incite communal sentiments during elections.
It is also not just a matter of the refugees. There is rampant drug trade going on at the border. Myanmar's army runs and controls the billion-dollar business. With the ongoing operations against Yaba in Bangladesh, the Myanmar army may become irate. They are losing money and the BGB is leading the operation against the traders. The rise in lawlessness at the border coincides with the use of Rohingyas as 'mules' trafficking drugs across the border.
Let us all accept that we have a problem and stop the blame game. A good way to start would be to have a count of how many Rohingyas are in Bangladesh, since no official census has been taken so far. We have to engage with the international community in such a way that repatriation to Rakhine becomes possible. We must also be proactive in making sure the influx does not happen again, i.e. making sure that crimes against humanity are not being committed. Till then, the Rohingyas seeking refuge in Bangladesh can be given temporary status that will make them feel safer and less vulnerable, so that they do not fall, unwittingly, into the hands of traffickers, criminals, political radicals and so on. Let us deal with a human issue in a humane way. Let's stop portraying them only as criminals when some of our own political leaders are controlling criminal activities in that region of Cox's Bazar. How many more like Mizanur have to die before we realise that we need to act fast? Let's act wisely; let's lend our hands to those who need it the most, let's lend our hand before the outstretched palms are radicalised and used against our interest.


The writer is a photographer and activist.

Published: 12:00 am Sunday, June 08, 2014

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