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The Rohingya conundrum

August 09, 2012 14:12 IST

Syed Tashfin Chowdhury reports on the growing plight of the Rohingya community, which has been forced to seek refuge in Bangladesh and India, following the two-month-old violence in Myanmar.

Last week, the Bangladesh government, in a display of near exasperation with the Rohingya influx issue into the country following violence in the Rakhine state of West Myanmar since June this year, banned the operations of three international non-government organisations in Ukhia and Teknaf districts of Cox's Bazaar.

Reportedly, around 80 people have died in Myanmar and displaced thousands following the violence over the past two months.

Hundreds of Rohingyas are still fleeing to Bangladesh seeking refuge. However, they are pushed back into Myanmar by the border forces of Bangladesh. Groups of Rohingyas also fled to Kolkata and Hyderabad of India.

On August 1, the NGO Affairs Bureau of Bangladesh banned operations of France's Doctors without Borders, Actions against Hunger, and Britain's Muslim Aidin Ukhia and Teknaf of Cox's Bazaar district of Bangladesh for 'illegally providing aid to Rohingya intruders' who are unregistered.

Joynul Bari, Deputy Commissioner of Cox's Bazaar, said to the media on August 2, "Any NGO wishing to work in border areas must obtain approval from the NGO Affairs Bureau which in this case the three organizations did not have", adding that the illegal operations had been encouraging Rohingyas to intrude into Bangladesh territory.

Bari claimed that the NGOs banned in the district had been carrying out anti-state activities and campaigning against Bangladesh to international media. "The organisations will close their office and leave the area within two to three days," he added.

However, officials of the NGOs told the Bangladesh media that they were providing food, life-saving items like drinking water and medicines to both Bangladeshis and Rohingyas.

Muslim Aid UK has also established a technical school at Teknaf for Rohingya students and locals.

Till August 3, Muslim Aid UK suspended its activities after receiving the NGO Bureau's letter while ACF and MSF were yet to close their tasks as they did not receive the letters till the afternoon of August 3.

After the news sent ripples across the international media, on the issue France said on August 3, "France regrets the Bangladeshi authorities' decision to prohibit three non-governmental organisations (Medicins sans Frontieres, Action contre la Faim and Muslim Aid UK) from working with Rohingya refugees in the Cox's Bazaar district."

France urged Dhaka "not to turn back people whose lives are threatened at the Bangladeshi border until peace has been definitively restored in Arakan State in Burma."

Besides France, other countries and international organizations have pressed Bangladesh to let the fleeing Rohingyas into the country since the beginning of June when the violence began.

By mid-June, the USA and Canada along with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Human Rights Watch had requested Bangladesh to not push back the refugees.

In reply, Bangladesh's foreign minister DipuMoni said at the national parliament on June 14, "Considering our national security interest, Bangladesh will not allow any Myanmar refugees in its territory".

She added that Bangladesh is not bound by any international law to open its border as there was "no war-like situation" in Myanmar and that its government is not forcing its citizens into exile.

Moni also observed that international organisations and other non-governmental entities would better go to Myanmar and extend their support and aid to Rohingyas instead of pressing Bangladesh.

Historically, Bangladesh has been burdened with Rohingya influx a number of times right after Bangladesh's independence. Over the last four decades, persecution of the Rohingyas, mostly at the hands of the military junta in Myanmar led to Rohingyas crossing the Nafriver that falls in the border between Myamar and Bangladesh, into Bangladesh.

According to Bangladesh government, around 30,000 registered Rohingyas are staying at two camps in Cox's Bazaar while around five lakh unregistered Rohingyas live in Cox's Bazaar and adjacent districts.

About the current spate of violence in Myanmar, Human Rights Watch published a 56-page report on August 1 titled, "'The Government Could Have Stopped This': Sectarian Violence and Ensuing Abuses in Burma's Arakan State".

In the report HRW mentioned that Burmese security forces "committed killings, rape, and mass arrests against Rohingya Muslims after failing to protect both them and Arakan Buddhists during deadly sectarian violence in western Burma in June 2012".

"Government restrictions on humanitarian access to the Rohingya community have left many of the over 100,000 people displaced and in dire need of food, shelter, and medical care", said the report.

Syed Tashfin Chowdhury in Dhaka