The Rohingya issue now looms large in public discussions and the media, with the issues of democracy, disappearance, dialogue, elections, Padma Bridge all being relegated to the back burner.
The Rohingyas are streaming in through the river and sea and Bangladesh has been unavoidably caught up in the crisis. The Myanmar government has termed the Rohingyas as miscreants, militants and Bangalis. To us they are an isolated, persecuted ethnic minority who are fleeing to Bangladesh for shelter. They are refugees.
The word ‘refugee’ conjures up pictures of 1971. Ten million people were forced to flee from this country to India. The difference was that we were the majority and we did not share a border with what is called ‘Pakistan’ today. There was India in between, an adversary of Pakistan. We found refuge there.
We were also caught up in the war of liberation. The war began before we could be labeled as refugees. Perhaps 10 or 20 thousand young people from the one million refugees came back into the country to wage war. The others fought from India soil. The crisis would have been prolonged had the millions of people of this besieged country not taken part in the liberation struggle in any way that they could. There are those who say that the war should have gone on for 10 years and then we would have achieved the real Golden Bengal. But those people were nowhere to been seen in the battleground at the time. The fact is that, if the war continued for too long, this country would just be a mass of burnt soil. There would be no people.
The Rohingya issue is a different matter. There was a time when passports and visas were not required to travel from one country to another. The concept of a nation state did not exist in this region. During the Mughal rule, Arakan was a part of the Indian empire. There was no division between Bengal and Arakan. If border demarcations were determined as per the norms, in keeping with anthropological and geographical considerations, Arakan would have been a district of Bangladesh. Karimganj would have remained in Sylhet, not been parceled off to Assam. And Murshidabad would certainly not have been a part of West Bengal. But machinations of history unnecessarily amalgamate or divide a people. Wars have been fought over such matters in Europe and much remains unsettled. In the UK, the Scots consider themselves as an independent entity and in Spain the Basques fight for a separate state.
We were victims of a geopolitical war too, in 1971. The world powers at the time were polarised on the issue. It is the same now in 2017, over the Rohingya people. We are beset with questions as to what Indian prime minister Narendra Modi said or what position China has adopted, and so on. But there is no room for sentiment or sulking in international geopolitics. Everyone looks into their own national interests. India won handsome ‘dividends’ by supporting us in the 1971 war because this diminished the military strength of its arch enemy Pakistan. China supported Pakistan in its own national interests. This has been a source of angst for many of our pro-Chinese communists. And many, in toeing the line of Chinese foreign policy, even went against their own people. In the case of the Rohingya issue, the neighbouring countries are also proceeding in accordance to their national interests.
The question is whether the national interests of India, China, Japan, Russia, the US or Saudi Arabia, coincide with our interests. China needs Myanmar for direct access to the Bay of Bengal. And to India, Myanmar is a corridor to the ASEAN bloc. An oil pipeline is to be laid down to bring in oil from there. All these days we had been hearing that India was our closest friend, that China had opened up its coffers to invest in our country. If this is true, then we have no real reason to worry. After all, if India and China put on the pressure, Myanmar is bound to change its policies.
The US had been watching this region with eagle eyes since the 1960s. The late Pakistan president Ayub Khan had written in his diary that plans to do something with a part of Burma, northeast India and East Bengal had long been lying in Pentagon’s desk drawers. This region was seen, at the time, as a ‘buffer’ between China and India. There was a time when Afghanistan was seen as a ‘buffer zone’ between the Tsar’s Russia and British India. That is why Afghanistan has been torn asunder. We hope that Myanmar does not meet the same fate, falling into the vortex of international politics and diplomacy. This may well have a spillover effect on us. We must proceed with caution. Rohingyas have been coming into Bangladesh since the seventies, and the problem is not a new one. Why did we not try to find a resolution to the problem over these years? We could have approached the international powers to resolve the issue.
The ethnic minorities of Myanmar are many in number. Many of them seek independence. Independence seekers and militants are not one and the same thing. We who were freedom fighters take serious exception to the word ‘militant’. Those who were razakars, collaborators, needn’t worry about this. But it is also true that without strength and support from within and outside the country, aspirations for independence are reduced to rash unruliness.
Born in Pakistan and raised in Saudi Arabia, a certain Ataullah has now come to the limelight. Because of them, hundreds of thousands of people are in danger, being killed, raped and persecuted. A densely populated poverty-ridden country like Bangladesh is having to bear the burden of this burgeoning number of refugees. Why should we have to pay the price for the mistakes, conspiracies and adventurism of a handful of people?
The UN has taken this up as a refugee problem and has committed to providing assistance. Our government is planning to form a special enclave to accommodate the refugees. Relief is coming in from Turkey and Malaysia. But how long will this problem continue? Whether we want it or not, there are many international and regional powers who will actively endeavour to prolong the problem indefinitely.
After independence, Bangladesh succeeded in winning its first challenge in 1974, becoming a member of the UN General Assembly. We have faced many problems since then, often with our neighbor India. Efforts were made to resolve these problems through bilateral talks. We have resolved disputes over border demarcation, exchange of enclaves, sharing of Ganges waters, etc, through discussions. There are many more problems that remain unresolved and talks continue.
The dimension of the Rohingya problem at present hardly leaves room for bilateral talks with Myanmar. Castigating Aung San Suu Kyi or playing the humanitarian card will not cut the ice. There are the instigators who want to send out our fighter plans, submarines and troops, but all this is just anger and emotion. War is not a solution. Pakistan has been fighting wars all along and look where it is now. And there is the Arab-Israel war with the very obvious winners. The US and European countries are making billions of dollars in arms sales. The profits are all theirs.
We must proceed with extreme caution and create friends in the international arena. Our proclaimed friends must prove themselves. The term, ‘human rights’, can be found in the UN Charter and in almost all constitutions. Our efforts must be diplomatic. A summit meeting can even be held with Myanmar. Remember how Anwar Sadat once flew over to Tel Aviv, or how Bill Clinton flew in Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat to Camp David! In 1971 Indira Gandhi went around the world, lobbying for the cause of Bangladesh. Then there was the Soviet veto in the Security Council. We didn’t gain independence automatically.
We are now faced with this challenge of diplomacy on an international scale. It is imperative that we display our prowess in the field.
*Mohiuddin Ahmad is a writer and researcher and can be reached at email@example.com.
*This column, originally published in Prothom Alo print edition, has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir.