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Repatriation of Rohingya Refugees
By C.R. Abrar – is Professor, Department of International Relations, University of Dhaka, and Coordinator, Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit.
In 1978 and 1991 Bangladesh was faced with influx of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. In 1978 about 200,000 refugees crossed into Bangladesh to flee persecution by the Myanmarese army in the Arakan region. Their stay in Bangladesh at that time was short lived as the problem was resolved through diplomatic initiatives in sixteen months.
The situation is somewhat different this time when about a quarter of a million of refugees took shelter in the Teknaf-Cox’s Bazar region. Following the successful completion of the Cambodian operation the Rohingya repatriation constitutes the single largest UNHCR operation in Asia. In spite of the Bangladesh Government’s agreement with the Myanmar authorities and UNHCR’s Memorandum of Understanding with both the governments on repatriation, initial steps in the repatriation has been rather slow.
Currently the repatriation process has virtually stagnated. The presence of such a large number of refugees, which at one stage appeared to be for an indefinite period, has created tensions in the host communities and impacted adversely the economy and environment of the region. It is in this setting that a study on the Rohingya refugees is being undertaken.
The study has three major parts. The first part will attempt to identify the root causes of the refugee problem. The backwardness and the remoteness of the Rakhine region in Myanmar, the communal tension that exists between the Buddhist and the Muslim populations and the state sponsored repression are some of the obvious reasons that have led to occasional exodus of the Rohingyas from their normal place of habitat. All these will be examined in the context of a complex interaction and cross-migration of the peoples of the Arakan-Cox’s Bazar region over the last few centuries.
It may be argued that, like a dozen of other sub-national groups in Myanmar, the Rohingyas also failed to be integrated in the mainstream Myanmar nation-building project and continue to be a marginalised community in the remote region of Arakan. Thus the feeling of alienation of the Rohingyas towards the Myanmarese state and the attitudes and policies of the successive Myanmar governments will constitute important elements of this part.
The second part will deal with the question of treatment of refugees by the Bangladesh Government. Although Bangladesh is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention, its acceptance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 and its own experience in the liberation war, when one out of every seven Bengalis was a refugee in India, the nation has a moral responsibility to uphold the basic rights of the refugees.
Ever since the arrival of the Rohingya refugees, the Bangladesh Government has provided relief and shelter to these people. In this effort non-governmental organizations, both national and international, and UNHCR have provided crucial support to the Bangladesh authorities in coping with a crisis of such magnitude. In spite of the humanitarian assistance rendered to the refugees, a major policy consideration of the Bangladesh authorities has been their ’quick and safe return’ to Myanmar. This part will evaluate the treatment of the refugees by the Bangladeshi authorities with the aim of suggesting improvements, should there be any recurrence of such phenomena.
The third part will deal with the question of repatriation. An important consideration would be the issue of voluntariness. UNHCR has been actively engaged in organizing the repatriation of refugees. The chapter will identify issues and constraints of the Bangladesh Government-UNHCR-NGO collaboration with respect to the repatriation of these refugees. This will be followed by an examination of change in circumstances with respect to refugees under international law.
Arakan province is a long stretch of land along Myanmar’s coastline in the Bay of Bengal. The northern tip of the region adjoins Bangladesh and there is 176 miles of common border between the two countries. The Naf river separates the two countries. The Arakan Yoma mountain range separates the region from the mainland Myanmar. Historically, it had more interaction with the west, i.e. the region now comprising Bangladesh. Needless to say over the last thousand years the expanse of land that now covers Chittagong has changed hands a good number of times between the feuding warlords and kings of adjoining regions of Bengal, Tripura and Arakan. Historian Phayre (1884) was of the opinion that
Arakan has continued to remain as an independent kingdom until it was annexed by Burma in 1784 AD.
While the Arakanese scholars argue that it was the Aryans from the west who first settled in Arakan, the majority opinion of scholars is that the first settlers of Arakan were those of Kanyan tribe of Tibeto-Burman group (Maung, 1989:2). Of all the kingdoms and dynasties that ruled over parts of Burma the Arakanese have the longest history stretching back to 2666 B.C.
The Arakanese were basically animists. Over the centuries Brahmanism, Buddhism and Islam shaped and influenced their religious beliefs, as they did over the Burmans (Hall, 1950:13). As early as the first century AD the installation of the famous Image of Mahamuni in Dinnyawati, the then capital of Arakan, testifies to the influence of Buddhism. Between 788 to 957 AD the adding of suffix of Chandra to the names of the Arakanese kings, and the image of trident of Shiva on the coins issued by them, suggest dominance of Hinduism and Jainism at that time.
It was Arab merchants through whom first contacts with the Arakanese was established. These merchants on their way to China were believed to have touched the Rumri port of Arakan. The famous single-domed Bundar Mokam mosque of Akyab (Temple, 1925) and historian Harvey’s account of Arakanese women in veils (1967:137) are indicative of increased penetration of Islam in the Arakani life.
Famous historian of Chittagong Mahbubul Alam argues that around 951 Chittagong was annexed by an Arakanese king and the city was named after him. Between 10 century A.D to 1580 Chittagong, Sandwip and Ramu region was either under the control of the Muslim Sultans of Bengal or under the rule of the Arakanese Kings. For centuries the Maghs of Arakan with the help of the Portugese and the French were engaged in piracy, looting and killing in the coastal regions of Bengal.
To sum it up, Bengali’s relationship with the Arakan region can be traced to ancient times and there was constant fluctuation in that relation. When Bengal was powerful, the Arakanese accepted Bengal’s tutelage and paid taxes. When the balance of power shifted in favour of Arakan, Bengal was made its vassal state. All this led to increased interaction between the peoples of the region, including traders and religious preachers. There was constant influx of Muslims from as far away as Afghanistan, Persia and Turkey, as well as from north India and the Arabian Peninsula. They merged into the existing Muslim society and became the Rohingyas, A distinct dialect emerged as & result of the mixture of Persian, Urdu, Pushtu, Arakanese and Bengali (Nicolaus, 1995:l).