Rohingya refugees reminded of military persecution 40 years ago

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In the span of three months, over 600,000 Rohingya Muslims fled Myanmar to neighboring Bangladesh to escape what the United Nations described as a “textbook case of ethnic cleansing.” China has proposed a resolution to repatriate Rohingya refugees back to the country formerly known as Burma. 

The plan emphasizes the need for a long-term solution to the Rohingya “problem,”  a conflict with origins decades before today, according Amnesty International which released a report today, investigating the treatment of the Muslim minority.

For Ba Sein, a 74-year-old ethnic Rohingya refugee, the current crisis in Southeast Asia began well over 40 years ago. From his home in United Kingdom, where he helps run the advocacy site Rohingya Blogger, he recalls the Myanmar military’s first campaign to push the Rohingya from the country.

In 1978, in an onslaught known as Operation Nagamin, or Operation Dragon King in English, about 200,000 Rohingya made the trek to Bangladesh, along routes today’s refugees also are following, after tens of thousands of Rohingya were rounded up and taken to detention centers.

“They were herded like animals onto army trucks,” Ba Sein told WikiTribune. “Inside the jails, people were making on the ground like goats without any toilet or room. They all died here. I saw this with my eyes. I will never forget this.”

Operation Dragon King marked the military’s first organized effort to discredit the Rohingya as a people native to Myanmar. Similar to the current rhetoric, the government saw the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh who needed to be deported.

Historians characterize Operation Dragon King as a prelude to the 1982 Citizenship law. The contentious law established a list of ethnic groups eligible for citizenship. The law excluded the Rohingya, left them without access to public services and limited their freedom of movement.

The military wanted a window of time in which to register their “approved” ethnic groups, while screening out the “foreigners.” Despite evidence of the Rohingya living in Myanmar for centuries, the military deemed them Bangladeshis who arrived in Rakhine State during British colonial rule.

Under the 1982 law, the Rohingya had to provide evidence of their heritage to the country before 1823, when Britain invaded what was then known as Burma. Those suspected of arriving during British rule had their citizenship revoked, leaving them stateless.

Anwar Arkani, a 50-year-old Rohingya who experienced the Dragon King operation as a child, remembers authorities asking his father to prove his ancestry and produce a national identification card.

“[The officer] asked if you have your ID. My father said, ‘Yes.’ The police took it and tore it apart up front of him. He asked him for his ID again. [My father] said, “Are you nuts? You just tore it up, now you want to magical produce it again?” They hit him with the butt of a gun, took him to jail and he died there.”

The push to  Bangladesh

Arkani and his mother and brother joined the 200,000 Rohingya fleeing for the Bangladesh border after his father died in police detention. Other migrants reported rape and torture.

His 50-kilometer trek in 1978 was probably not that different from the experience of Rohingya who are part of the current exodus. The biggest change over the past 40 years is how the Bangladesh government and international community has responded, he said. He remembers a Bangladesh government in 1978 that made it clear that the Rohingya were unwelcome.

“That Bangladesh camp was the worst thing you can imagine. There was nowhere to toilet,” said Arkani, who now lives in Canada. “They took anything from us.”

Dealing with immense poverty among its own population in 1978, the Bangladesh government used food – or the lack of it – in an attempt to make refugees retreat on their own. In May 1978, food was tightly rationed in refugee camps in order to ensure life was not “comfortable” for the recently arrived Rohingya.

Alan Lindquist, a British humanitarian worker in Bangladesh, recalled the official in charge of the refugee camps, Secretary Syed All Khasru, as saying: “It is all very well to have fat, well-fed refugees. But I must be a politician, and we are not going to make the refugees so comfortable that they won’t go back to Burma.” 

An estimated 10,000 Rohingya died in Bangladesh refugee camps between May to December  of 1978, casualties of underfeeding and malnutrition. The tactic was effective in its purpose. Within the year, more than half of the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh voluntarily returned to Burma.

The military eventually accepted the repatriation of 187,000 Rohingya after the UN agreed to give Myanmar $7 million in aid, according to the International Boundary Research Unit of UK’s Durham University.

For the current Rohingya refugee crisis, China has emerged as the mediating force by proposal a repatriation deal between the Myanmar military and the Bangladesh government. 

Tension in Rakhine, then Arakan

The Rohingya of today, however, will return to a more hostile Myanmar. 

The military currently practices an “institutionalized system of segregation” of the Muslim minority that “constitutes apartheid” according to a report from Amnesty International released on Monday. 

Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, called the 2017 Rohingya crisis “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing,” a designation not given to the 1978 mass exodus.

According to Ba Sein, the Rohingya have a social stigma that did not exist 40 years ago, “You could find work back then…some had an education,” he said.

Ba Sein and his family worked for the government in 1978, an elite position in the socialist Myanmar. His position as an auditor and his connections allowed him to witness the atrocities in the Rohingya detention centers, but survive. Unlike most Rohingya, he also was able to keep his citizenship.

Before the 1982 Citizenship Law, ethnic Rohingya had national registration cards, which did not list the “ethnicity” like the current day citizenship cards.

That Rohingya people worked for the national government is a testament to how much the political climate has changed in Myanmar. The idea of Rohingya being accepted into mainstream society now, let alone in government, is difficult for these previous refugees to imagine.

Besides being denied citizenship and an education, Rohingya now face hostility from the majority Buddhist citizenry of Rakhine State. 

This historic tension, dating back to World War II,  has devolved back into violence over the past 10 years. The first major clashes came in 2012, following allegations that Rohingya Muslim men raped a Rakhine Buddhist woman. Dozens were killed in ethnic fighting.

The  violence between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims is something that survivors of Operation Dragon King do not recognize. For the most part, the two groups co-existed peacefully in 1978.

“There was no fighting between the [Rakhine Buddhists] and us, just army” Ba Sein said. “Until 2012, there was no problem. Now all the people are being killed without [government] security.”

Anwar Arkani largely agrees that tensions between Buddhists and Muslims were far less extreme four decades ago, though he said he is not surprised at the escalation. As a child, his parents gave him explicit instructions to never enter Buddhist villages which were largely segregated from their Muslim counterparts. The sentiment of the Rohingya as foreigners has long existed.

“All of my memories of the Rakhine are bad things to be honest,” Arkani said. “To them, it was their country, and if we don’t like it, then we can go back home. But this was my home.”  

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