Column by Mahfuz Anam: The trouble with our only other neighbour | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, April 02, 2021 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:14 AM, April 02, 2021

Column by Mahfuz Anam: The trouble with our only other neighbour

Global response focuses on the coup, ignoring the Rohingya problem

Myanmar is our only other neighbour, with India being the overwhelming first. To the credit of our policymakers, we have tried our best to maintain good relations with Myanmar notwithstanding their treatment of Rohingyas, forcing nearly 300,000 of them upon us thirty years ago, in the early nineties.

We really wanted to have a cordial relation, if not a warm one, with them. We thought if the whole world could trade with them, why couldn't we (especially after the withdrawal of western sanctions)? Thus, we reacted to the Rohingya influx of the nineties very softly. The tactics appeared to work when more than 230,000 of the 250,000 refugees from the first influx were repatriated, with the UNHCR playing an active role in the process. With about 20,000 remaining, we heaved a sigh of relief hoping that the rest would also be repatriated in time.

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Then, suddenly, everything changed. Using the pretext of some activities of an armed group, the Myanmar military started a genocidal attack on the Rohingyas living in the Rakhine State. As the democratically elected leader and de facto chief of the government, we naturally expected Aung San Suu Kyi to play a far different role than what we were used to see from the military rulers. She did not. She may be a steadfast fighter for democratic rights but it was not meant for all. In terms of a fair treatment of Rohingyas, she turned out to be just as ethnically biased as her predecessors. The iconic symbol of freedom turned to endorsing ethnic cleansing when it came to a particular group, who practiced a religion—Islam—that was different from the majority practicing Buddhism.

We, in Bangladesh, saw first-hand the brutality of Myanmar's army when Rohingyas started flooding our borders again in 2017. Suddenly, nearly 800,000 of them poured into the Cox's Bazar belt and overwhelmed us. We opened our doors and hearts and took them in.

We told the world about the inhuman sufferings of hundreds of thousands of innocent people, especially women and children. Innumerable men and women were killed, thousands tortured and women raped, homes burnt down, and a whole community driven away from their ancestral land. The world took notice but only peripherally. Bangladesh got a lot of praise for its humanitarian act, part of the money it needed, but none of the concerted international action needed for a quick and safe repatriation, which is what would really have solved the problem.

We watched, sometimes aghast, as the world—including some countries that professed extreme cordial relations with us—took a convenient position mostly based on geopolitical considerations rather than on facts on the ground. We were told that's how the world works, forcing us to wonder as to whether we made a mistake by allowing our humanitarian instincts to get the better of our more considered ones.

After the recent military takeover in Myanmar and the brutality with which it has been supressing protests against it, the world is taking a second look at the regime and hopefully having a better understanding of the true nature of this military machine that has absolutely no compunction about killing its own people to stay in power. It definitely should qualify as being among the worst military machines in the world. It sucks up the tax payers' money, the resources it earns from its limited exports and the earnings from the sale of its considerable mineral resources to line up its own pockets, and spends mostly on its own salary and perks and providing a luxurious living for their high-ups.

The army takeover was prompted by the Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy's extraordinary showing at the latest polls, getting 346 seats, which was far more than the 322 needed to form the government. This overwhelming show of strength totally upset the carefully choreographed power sharing structure set up in the military-imposed constitution. Hence, the coup had to take place before the parliament sat. Suu Kyi was arrested the very day the parliament was to sit.

An unprecedented public rejection of this takeover has both surprised and unnerved the military who are used to taking people's subservience for granted. The continued protest and gradual extension of support by other ethnic groups of Myanmar are setting the stage for what could be an epic struggle for democracy in that country.

As the world wakes up to the new realities in Myanmar and takes up tougher positions against the coup, we are observing with great concern that it is speaking less and less about the 1.2 million Rohingyas stranded in the refugee camps in Bangladesh. Restoration of the newly elected parliament and reinstatement of the elected government into power are now the priorities of the international community. The more these issues are coming to the fore, the more the Rohingyas' plight is fading into the background.

We believe that the above two issues—restoration of democracy and repatriation of the Rohingyas—are two sides of the same coin, and as such, the international community should not separate them. They should rather raise them together, and just as vigorously.

An argument could be made that there is an emergent national unity among the larger Myanmar society as well as growing support from various ethnic groups against the military, which has to be preserved. It cannot be forgotten that a large section of the Buddhist community, including the monks, supported the anti-Rohingya actions and a general anti-Rohingya sentiment exists among a large section of the local population. Therefore, mixing the two issues would weaken the anti-military coalition which is still at a nascent stage at the moment. Hence, according to this argument, it would not be wise to raise the Rohingya repatriation issue at the moment.

We in Bangladesh cannot accept this argument. It is true that a large segment of the Myanmar's population harbours anti-Rohingya sentiment but that is because of the decades of misrepresentation of history and distortion of facts about the life and culture of the Rohingyas. State-sponsored programmes of demonising this ethnic group and deliberate propaganda against their religion—Islam—and also falsely linking them to terrorism have resulted in this divide. Breeding hatred against this particular group was a state policy, and this has been the case for decades under the military since the 1962 coup, which replaced the elected government of U Nu and brought to power the Union Revolutionary Council headed by General Ne Win. Before that, Rohingyas were a constitutionally recognised part of the Myanmar's (then known as Burma) ethnic diversity and an integral party of its body politic.

We strongly feel that just as the international community must help the people of Myanmar to restore democracy and freedom in that country, so also it must assist them to regain the totality of their history and cultural heritage so that they are set free of the ethnocentric and racist biases that have poisoned their minds for so long.

The world community must also understand the challenges faced by Bangladesh. We have been an exemplary host for more than a million Rohingya refugees since 2017. We did receive international help but bore the maximum burden ourselves. Now that the nature of Myanmar's military regime has been fully revealed for the world to see, and there is a momentum at the international level for solving the present crisis, the Rohingya issue should not be lost sight of. This is the moment to build a grand coalition against the brutal regime and to simultaneously bring democracy and a culture of tolerance in that troubled country.


Mahfuz Anam is Editor and Publisher, The Daily Star.

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