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RSM Malaysia History For Rohingya Live... Under the tormenting sun in Teknaf, on the southeastern tip of Bangladesh, Ahmed puts us straight: it is really all about love. His wife stands next to him in his tarpaulined shop in the unofficial Kutupalong refugee camp in southern Bangladesh. He came here, Ahmed says, to marry his childhood sweetheart, fleeing what Physicians for Human Rights, a watchdog group, describes as ‘flagrant and widespread human rights abuses’ that condemned Ahmed to having to pay an exorbitant bribe just to marry. Today, his 18-month-old baby crawls over small packets of paan and snacks on sale, mimicking his father’s voice unknowingly, describing the indescribable – how Rohingya women were told by the Burmese military that, in order to marry, they would have to have an implant rendering them infertile.

The Dhaka government has long been aware of the ethnic tensions in the Rohingya’s native Arakan state on western Burma. Indeed, by all accounts, the junta has actively fostered this situation over the years; for decades, the Rohingya community – Muslims in a Buddhist-dominated country – has been denied even the most basic of citizenship rights. But in the run-up to Burma’s national elections last November, evidently in the hopes of garnering votes, the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) promised the Rohingya the citizenship rights
they crave.

Today, Salim Ullah of the exile-based Arakan Rohingya National Organisation (ARNO) describes these as ‘lots of sweet promises’. He notes that in Maung Daw, the regional centre from where the Rohingya hail, the central mosque is still un-repaired, a symbol of the community’s difference from the majority Buddhists. While the mosque had long ago fallen into disrepair, fixing it had reportedly been forbidden by the government. Prior to the election, however, the USDP had promised the community that the mosque would be fixed, in an attempt to combat the local (allegedly anti-Rohingya) party, the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party.

Instead, the military is today busily constructing a 300 km fence between Bangladesh and Burma. Like Israel’s wall bordering the West Bank, this will be a monument to divided peoples – an electrified fence carrying current between two territories where very few houses can boast of electric lights. For the most part, Bangladeshis seem somewhat bemused by what is taking place across the border. From the Bangladeshi side, Burma seems a dark and confusing place; but the Burmese border force, known as Nasaka, is viewed with trepidation, its fence and security posts ominously overlooking the sleepy Bangladeshi villages.

Ethnic cauldron
Recently, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has been making attempts at building relations with her Burmese counterparts, new and old. This has prompted an attempt – particularly being pushed by the Bangladeshi side – at a rail link between the countries and onward, from Chittagong to Kunming, in China. For this, Prime Minister Hasina laid a foundation stone at the beginning of April near Cox’s Bazar near Chittagong – though this is a dream that many believe is not shared by the hermetic Burmese rulers next door. This has been the case with Bangladeshi pleas for natural gas from their well-endowed neighbour, a saga that has seen the Burmese stringing both India and Bangladesh along as both Dhaka and New Delhi in recent years have tried to endear themselves to the generals in Naypyidaw.

In mid-April, the new Burmese ambassador to Bangladesh, U Min Lwin, made oblique reference to the Rohingya, suggesting publicly that the two countries would need to solve the issues with ‘discussion’. The ambassador made the statement on presenting his credentials to President M Zillur Rahman. Since then, Dhaka officials have gone about ‘solving’ the problem by blocking a joint UN initiative to provide humanitarian assistance worth some USD 33 million to locals and Rohingya refugees. Purportedly, the reason for this decision is due to anxieties in Dhaka that the project would inflame ethnic tensions within Bangladesh.

The project would have seen collaboration between four UN agencies, including the High Commissioner for Refugees. In Bangladesh, some 28,000 Rohingya have been recognised as refugees, but thousands more continue to flood over the border; more than 6000 are said to have come since last fall. The state of the Rohingya in Bangladesh is not only a situation of political trauma; rather, as Physicians for Human Rights noted in a recent report, acute hunger levels in Kutupalong are around 18 percent, despite the situation being considered an ‘emergency’ for the past two decades. The report found that as upwards of 55 percent of children in Kutupalong suffer from severe diarrhoea, a life-threatening condition in such impoverished circumstances.

The new international project, then, could have played a significant role. Currently, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), the French medical group, provides a single clinic, near Khutapalong, which is mandated to treat a local Bangladeshi for every refugee. This facility is strictly out of bounds for journalists, who are referred instead to an office in Amsterdam where a spokesperson declares the situation to be ‘very delicate’. A teacher (and refugee) at the camp, Rakib, is more candid, complaining that the clinic has a habit of prescribing a single paracetamol tablet for most complaints. Nonetheless, MSF officials do corroborate that those Rohingya who have yet to be officially recognised as refugees are ‘most vulnerable’ and ‘live under terrible conditions’ with ‘acute healthcare needs.’

A Finance Ministry official in Dhaka, commenting on the blocking of the UN project while not wanting to be named, noted recently in the local press, ‘Instead of helping to cut poverty in the region, the UN project would only increase tension between the Rohingyas and the locals. No doubt, it would infuriate the local people.’ Therefore, to avoid any resentment of refugees being overly-coddled an impasse has been reached, and nothing will happen beyond, perhaps, the construction of the new fences or Dhaka’s railway dream.

Ethnic rivalry and nationalistic resentment became a political issue in early June, when Foreign Minister Dipu Moni accused the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) of giving certain members of the Rohingya community Bangladeshi passports. Indeed, one commentator accused the BNP of giving out as many as 40,000 such papers, allegedly in exchange for votes – mirroring the USDP’s use of the Rohingya in Burma. Interestingly, there is a flip side to this ethnic rivalry: some are now forecasting that Bangladeshis in countries such as Saudi Arabia will claim to be Rohingya in order to receive asylum.

Enmity already lies just beneath the surface of even those with the privilege of education in Bangladesh. Professor Mushtiaq Ahmed, based in Cox’s Bazar, is indignant at the suggestion that the Rohingya are persecuted by locals. ‘This is a downright falsehood,’ he said. ‘Rather, the Rohingya people have been creating problems in [Bangladesh’s] law-and-order situation – most of them are thieves, dacoits, killers. You can hire a Rohingya man to kill a man here!’

Such tensions surfaced publicly when a high-ranking US official, Eric P Schwartz, visited Dhaka in mid-June. Responding to Schwartz’s request for Dhaka to register to the Rohingya as refugees, Minister for Food Abdur Razzaque asked, ‘If they are registered, what will happen to those who will infiltrate later?’ Razzaque added, ‘It is not possible for a poor country like Bangladesh to take care of many Rohingya refugees for a long time … [Western countries] are asking Bangladesh to increase support to the Rohingyas, keeping the problem alive.’

Open-air prisons
Even as acute hunger stalks the Rohingya in Bangladesh, Refugees International claims that a climate of ‘impunity’ pervades the area around the camps. Women and girls are said to be victims of regular sexual harassment from Bangladeshis when they leave what Physicians for Human Rights describe as ‘open-air prisons’. This assessment is corroborated by Tin Soe, the editor of Kaladan Press, an online Rohingya news network. He claims that women and girls are harassed or raped regularly when they leave the camps to collect firewood in the nearby forests.

Still, one refugee, Fatima, who came from Maungdaw in the early 1990s, says that she is at peace. Although her mournful, distant look bellies some of her words, she says she does not want to take to the seas, as many Rohingya before have done, attempting to float to Thailand or even Australia. The beatings and harassment that her fellow residents receive for trying to leave the camp for work is insignificant compared to what she says she experienced earlier. In 1992, Fatima fled Burma after what Refugees International describes as a racial purge by the military. She claims that one morning the Nasaka border troops came to her home, where she lived with her eight-month-old son. The soldiers asked for the toddler’s identification and, because she lacked paperwork for her son or citizenship papers for herself, Fatima says the troops burned her son to death and torched her property.

In such a context, despite the difficulties faced by her community on a daily basis, Fatima sees the Bangladeshis as her saviours, and expresses her immense gratitude. Horror stories are everywhere in Khutapalong; but among the improvised huts and hungry children, Fatima has found some peace, while Ahmed’s content child is a monument to his love.

~ Joseph Allchin is a journalist working out of Southeast Asia, covering Burma and the region.

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