Humanitarian urgency of Rohingya and not so-good-neighbourliness of Bangladesh

By Haikal Mansor, A Journey through Darkness

As the neighbour, Bangladesh is morally bound to provide fleeing Rohingya a safe protection under international humanitarian, human rights and refugee laws, not the other way around

At the time of conflict or adversity, a good neighbour always counts. So is expected from Bangladesh. Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB)’s push-back poses a serious security threat to the lives of Rohingya refugees and it does not relay the message of good-neighbourliness in the time of great despair.

When Burmese armed forces launched “Clearance Operation” against the world’s most persecuted people in the northern part of Maungdaw which sits along the border of Burma and Bangladesh, the government of Bangladesh has followed the request of its counterpart in shutting down the 237-km long border to allow the Burmese government in crushing down a group of stick-and-spear bearing assailants who attacked 3 police posts on 9 October.

army in Maungdaw

It is not justifiable any spectrum of arguments whether it is political or humanitarian grounds. It is also no denying that Bangladesh is the country of first contact or refuge for more than 2 million Rohingya who have gradually fled their native Arakan (now Rakhine) State over half a century of campaigns of intimidations under the successive Burmese military regimes.

Scattered in Bangladesh

Bangladesh encountered two massive waves of Rohingya refugee influx when King Dragon Operation and Operation Clean Nation (Pyi Thaya) were launched in 1978-79 and 1991-1992 respectively. The first operation forced an estimated 297,000 Rohingya and more than 250,000 in the latter. The majority of them were forcibly repatriated and the continuous cycle of persecutions made the large part the repatriated Rohingya to become refugees for second time and for some third time. Currently around 500,000 Rohingya scatter across Bangladesh including 32,600 in two registered refugee camps in Kutupalong and Nayapara, more than 57,000 in Leda, Kutupalong and Nayapara unregistered refugee camps.

Many critics of Rohingya refugees argue that the resources are scarce for the overpopulated Bangladesh and accommodating more Rohingya leaves further strains on the delicate matter.

But should not be in humanitarian perspective. Being the world’s third largest Muslim-majority country with a secular pluralistic Democracy, the public humanitarianism is broadly highlighted in the accommodation of nearly half a million Rohingya even though the government puts restrictions on basic human rights such as education, healthcare and livelihood.

As the world becomes ever small and connected due to the opening up of international borders and the “Golden Era” of social media along with the ubiquity of internet, the ongoing military operation across the border provides challenges in ignoring or hiding the human rights violations.

A neighbourly treatment to vulnerable Rohingya women and children?

Hundreds of Rohingya refugees are forced to return or directly handed over to the very military who commits the severe human rights abuses.

The first instance of handover of Rohingya to Burma’s Border Guard Police (BGP) took place on 11 October when BGB transferred two Rohingya named Kamal and Yousuf who were fleeing for treatment after being injured in indiscriminate shooting, and they were later levelled as “Bengali terrorists” on the state’s media. 29 more Rohingya were handed over a week later.

A family of four – mother Nur Kis (35), daughter Rozina (13) and two sons Mohammed Tufil (10) and Mohammed Hobib (7) from Yae Twin Kyun (Raimmabil) village, too were presented as “terrorists” on the media a day after being handed over on 26 October. In the same week, 10 young women who swam across the Naf river were captured and forcedly returned to BGP.

As the operation intensifies in November, scores of Rohingya refugees who crossed the river are either pushed back or handed over.

On 15 November, Dhaka Tribune reported that 86 Rohingya including 40 women and 25 children were arrested and sent back to Burma. “The detained Rohingya were given humanitarian assistance and sent back around 2:30pm,” said Teknaf 2 BGB Battalion Deputy Commander Major Abu Russell Siddique.

“Between October 1 and November 17, we have pushed back 278 Muslim nationals from Myanmar as they tried to enter Bangladesh territory illegally. We have intensified patrols and vigilance along the border,” commander of BGB Abu Zar Al Zahid recounted.

125 Rohingya were also prevented entering into Bangladesh on Monday, 21 November, and the commander of Coast Guard Teknaf station, who oversees the patrol, Lt. Nafiur Rahman told AFP, “there were 125 Myanmar (Burma) nationals in seven wooden boats. They include 61 women and 36 children. We resisted them from entering our water territory.”

While hundreds of Rohingya refugees who made into Bangladesh are waiting to be sent back, a few Rohingya who reached the areas of Rohingya Refugee camps face different challenges. In isolated incidents, four Rohingya girls aged between 16 and 18 were kidnapped from Ukiya TV Centre Point by a local gang and another elderly man testified of being looted shortly after the arrivals.

“I know, at least 400 Rohingya men, women and children entered Bangladesh on Sunday. This is also a fact that Bangladeshis border guards are pushing back Rohingya boats every day,” a Teknaf tourist guide Foizullah told VOA.

A Rohingya from Teknaf who doesn’t want to be identified expressed his despair in BGB’s sending back of around 350 Rohingya mostly women, children and elderly by 10 to 15 rickety boats, “it is agonizing to see hapless women, crying children and frail older persons being sent back in the middle of cold winter night, who have lost everything including loved ones in the military operation in Maungdaw.”

Not first muted and deeply concerning stance

Despite echoing the good value of a neighbour in a series of public demonstrations and solidarity stances with the persecuted Rohingya across major cities in Bangladesh, the response of the government is typically mute and deeply concerning.

The border guards are given strict orders to prevent any Rohingya entering Bangladesh, which home minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal confirmed, “we have kept our BGB, Coast Guard and police prepared to thwart any infiltration attempt by the Rohingya people from Myanmar.”

It is not the first time that the government has taken deeply concerning stance. At the heights of campaign of genocide against Rohingya in 2012, the border was completely locked down turning away countless boatloads of Rohingya into the water by giving “a bottle of water and some food” despite international calls to open the border and provide protection.

During an interview with Barnaby Phillips of Al Jazeera on 28 July 2012, Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina categorically denied entry of Rohingya into her country and unconcerned with the crisis of Rohingya.

Mudflats of dead bodies and helicopter strike

In 1991-92 Operation Clean Nation, the then Burmese military regime has damped bodies of Rohingya as a warning of their brutality. When the military upgraded their toys, helicopters were used to fire on Rohingya boats stranded in the middle of the Naf river in June 2012.

A 10-year-old girl who escaped the fatal shooting said through interpreter, “we floated in the sea for four days and my younger brother starved to death. We had six boats. Then a helicopter came and opened fire, and three boats were lost, all of those people [in them] were killed.”

Another witness narrated the same atrocity, “three [boats] were together and three became separated from the group, and these three that fell behind were set on fire by the helicopters. At first, we couldn’t be sure that the boats were being fired on because of the sound of our engine but then we saw the boat catch fire.”

During the military operations, mudflats along the bank of Naf river testify the severity of human rights violations against Rohingya committed by the governments on both side of the river.

Fleet of boats pushed back by Bangladesh border guards in 2012 have vanished in the hostile water still reflecting and refracting the faces of crying grown-up men, frightened children and dejected girls and women in the mind of many, whereabouts of them are still unknown. They probably were among the unknown bodies brought to the muddy shore.

The same damping of bodies resurfaces again less than a year after the celebration of Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD landslide victory. It is not a warning from the repressive military regime or the genocidal government of Thein Sein, but a summary killing of innocent Rohingya civilians and a result of neighbourly pushback.

Reuters reportedly told that the Burmese border police gunned down some Rohingya who were trying to cross the river on 16 November. “A lot of dead bodies were floating in the sea,” claimed a Rohingya who chose to remain anonymous. “The residents told me nearly 72 people killed near the river bank, that the military shot into the crowd on the river bank,” he continued.

On 8 November, another group of Rohingya from Zee Pin Chaung village were shot dead while attempting to escape the persecution in Burma. “On Tuesday at 8pm three men and two women were illegally crossing the border. They were shot dead by the Border Guard Police led by Captain Myo Zaw Win. Four corpses are floating on the river but no one dares to pull them out,” said a Rohingya villager of Zee Pin Chaung.

Deaf ears of the government

“In groups, they started to crying ‘please save us from the Maghs [the majority Buddhists] and the military…. They will kill us, if you send us back.’ But we had to push them back. I felt sorry for them,” a border guard who does not want to be identified said on 17 November.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesperson Adrian Edwards called for opening of the border, “we are appealing to the government of Bangladesh to keep its border with Myanmar open and allow safe passage to any civilians from Myanmar fleeing violence.”

The calls of many other human rights organizations “to open its border for the fleeing Rohingya people on humanitarian ground” do not reach to the deaf ears of the government of Bangladesh. Mr. Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal stood firmly, “our position is no illegal entry; be it Rohingyas or others.”

“They are fleeing violations of international law and Bangladesh has a responsibility to help. The international community should be pressuring Bangladesh to open its borders and accept international aid being offered to help Rohingya refugees,” the director of Burma Campaign UK Mark Farmaner reminded of the responsibility of Burma’s neighbour.

The Clearance Operation in Maungdaw enters into its 46th day which leaves hundreds of Rohingya dead in extra-judicial killings, more than a thousand in tortures and interrogations, at least 120 Rohingya gang-raped in the Burmese military and Police Guard Police’s  ‘weapon of war’ and more than 30,000 without food, water, medicine and shelter after the forces set fire at least 1,250 houses which extensive destructions been revealed in a series of Satellite imagery taken by Human Rights Watch on 9, 14 and 22 October and 10, 17 and 18 November.

“Where I looked, I saw only burnt houses. The army killed my father and elder brother. I don’t know what happened to my mother and sister,” are the words of 17-year-old Mohammed Amin which echo the humanitarian urgency of the situations of Rohingya on both sides of the Naf river.

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