‘B’desh Is to Rohingyas What India Was to Bangladeshis in 1971’

Bangladeshi author K Anis Ahmed on the Rohingya crisis, India’s role in the subcontinent, and more.

6 min read
‘B’desh Is to Rohingyas What India Was to Bangladeshis in 1971’

As the governments in India and Bangladesh gear towards facilitating the return of Rohingya Muslims to Myanmar, The Quint spoke to K Anis Ahmed, noted Bangladeshi author and publisher of English daily Dhaka Tribune, about the refugee crisis.

Excerpts from the interview.

K Anis Ahmed, author and publisher.
(Photo Courtesy: K Anis Ahmed)

On the ARSA Attacks and the Subsequent Action by the Myanmar Military

Myanmar's description of the ARSA attacks as "terrorism" is very questionable. There is a big difference between an insurgency that only targets security forces guilty of brutally attacking civilians for decades now, and terrorists who target civilians indiscriminately. This is not to say that we in Bangladesh condone even the ARSA attacks. But, there are only two major attacks by the ARSA reported in the last year or so, and both on security posts.

I think Burmese scholar Maung Zarni’s description of the ARSA attacks as similar to “Nazi victims’ uprising” may be closer to the truth.

On the Impact of Influx of Rohingya Refugees on the Socio-Economic and Political Structures of Bangladesh

It is going to put enormous pressure on the region, and the influx is likely to create concentration of Roihingyas in some areas in the near future. With a population of 160 million, Bangladesh is too big to be impacted on a national scale even by this vast influx. We have hosted around quarter million Rohingyas since the early 1990s without any structural impact at a national level.

Newly arrived Rohingya refugees sit inside a shelter at the Kutupalang registered refugee camp, in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.
(Photo: Reuters)

On the Recently-Announced Restrictions on Movement of Refugees by the Bangladesh Govt

The government is very keen to get all refugees registered so that they will have proof of status and right of return. That will be much harder if they were to rapidly disperse all over the country. I believe that's the main reason right now for restricting their movement.

On the Danger of the Rohingya Refugee Community Becoming a Breeding Ground for the Radical Islamists

As we see from around the world, grievance – both real and imaginary – often serves as a factor in terror conversions. And in this case, their grievances are very real – they have seen loved ones and neighbors killed, burned, raped. But, this is also only the latest episode in a decade-long history of such violence and repression for the Rohingyas.

We have seen little evidence in Bangladesh of earlier arrivals becoming radicalised en masse. So, while some people in this brutalised community may heed false calls of vindication, I don’t think their potential to be a new source of terror recruits should be over-estimated.

On Al Qaeda's Call for Jihad to Avenge the Rohingya Persecution

Bangladesh has faced calls for mobilisation by both Al Qaeda in South Asia and the ISIS for some years now.

While their Bangladeshi recruits or fellow travelers have carried out some ghastly killings of unarmed civilians, there is no evidence that either outfit has ever managed to muster a group numbering beyond the low hundreds.

So, while violent extremism remains a serious concern, the Awami League government has been uncompromising in its response to terrorism – and there is little reason to believe that any terrorist group gains some great new advantage due to the arrival of Rohingyas.

On the General Mood in Bangladesh, Particularly in Cox's Bazaar

In the past, Bangladeshis have been wary of Rohingyas the way most societies are often suspicious of strangers coming in their midst. But, the sheer scale and brutality of the attacks by Myanmarese forces this time evinced a totally different – and compassionate – response from most Bangladeshis. Judging by social media, Bangladeshis saw in the faces of the incoming Rohingyas the same kind of terror that was etched on refugees fleeing Pakistani terror in 1971.

Rohingya refugees being transported to a temporary shelter. 
(Photo: Reuters)
Most Bangladeshis are proud today to play the kind of role that India played for us in 1971, taking in 11 million refugees.

On Bangladesh's Plan to Deal With the Crisis

No one foresaw an influx on this scale – close to 4,00,000 people in barely three weeks. But, the government response has been very rapid, starting with the allocation of 2,000 acres of land near the border for the rapid construction of new camps. As Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said:

If we can feed 160 million people, we can feed 7,00,000 more.
Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
(Photo: IANS)

That's the spirit in which everyone is approaching this unexpected development. These first weeks will be the roughest, but every coming week things will get better as thousands of tents, toilets and tube-wells get installed, and systems to feed or give medical care become more sufficient.

But how to cope with such a large new group of refugees until they can be returned home is a question for a time when this immediate crisis becomes more settled.

On India's Approach Towards the Crisis

I think most Bangladeshis were quite surprised by India's initial and unqualified support for Myanmar. But now, India has rightly, if diplomatically, pinned the "large outflow" of refugees on "operations" by Myanmarese security forces. India has expressed deep concern and called for "restraint" on Myanmar's part, and urged expeditious end to the violence.

A Sikh volunteer from Khalsa Aid at Teknaf, on the Bangladesh-Myanmar border, helps Rohingya Muslims.
(Photo Courtesy: Twitter/ Vipul Gulahe)
To us, this is a more familiar role for India – not just as a friend of Bangladesh, but as one of the most durable democracies and as an independent actor on the world stage.

So, we hope that India's actions will continue to reflect humanitarian concern for the Rohingyas and also due concerns for a deep ally like Bangladesh.


On India's Plan to Deport the Rohingya

That is really a matter for India to decide. If India can indeed send Rohingyas back to a condition of relative peace and security, that would be a welcome development and perhaps pave the way for others to return.

But, we don’t expect India would push the Rohingyas back to Rakhine where they may be murdered imminently.

On the Bangladesh Media

Actually, while journalistic community in Bangladesh can often be sharply polarised - like rest of the society – when it comes to our national politics, this time there is rare unison. The overwhelming sentiment is for giving shelter to people fleeing imminent danger and dealing with the situation diplomatically for lasting resolution.

On Shaikh Hasina's UNGA Statement

Sheikh Hasina has been consistent in demanding that the Rohingyas be allowed to return to their home in Rakhine state of Myanmar, but safely. This is not about Bangladesh wanting to send back refugees as soon as it can; it is about respecting the right of the Rohingyas as citizens of Myanmar, about living in a world where no one is driven away from their homes due to spurious claims about their origins or identities, or indeed any other reason.

(K Anis Ahmed is a Bangladeshi writer based in Dhaka. He is the author of three works of fiction: The World in My Hands (novel), Good Night, Mr. Kissinger (stories), and Forty Steps (novella). Ahmed is the founder of the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh, the Dhaka Translation Center, and Bengal Lights, a literary journal. He is also the publisher of Dhaka Tribune, a national daily newspaper)

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