'We, Too, Were Forced to Seek Refuge'

As Rohingya refugees flee to Bangladesh, the country reckons with its own bloody creation—and the world’s indifference to it.

Rohingya refugees cross a bamboo bridge.
Rohingya refugees cross a bamboo bridge as they arrive at a port after crossing from Myanmar, in Teknaf, Bangladesh, on October 25, 2017.  (Hannah Mckay / Reuters)

Since August, Burma has sharply escalated its systematic assault against a Muslim minority people there called the Rohingya, in a ravaging campaign of murder and rape which the top United Nations human rights official considers a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” On October 23, the State Department spokesperson denounced “atrocities” and “violent, traumatic abuses,” though so has so far avoided accusations of genocide or crimes against humanity. Over 200 villages have been burned and destroyed. Despite the fact they’ve lived in Burma—also known as Myanmar—for generations, the government denies citizenship to the downtrodden Rohingya and scornfully calls them “Bengalis,” with many of Burma’s Buddhist majority despising them as terrorists or illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

More than 600,000 Rohingya have fled into neighboring Bangladesh, with multitudes arriving daily. Many have gunshot wounds or burns which urgently need medical treatment. More than half of those who have fled are children; thousands of them are orphans or are braving the dangerous journey without the help of an adult. These hounded, terrified refugees now find themselves with little more than sticks and tarpaulins for makeshift shelter against the pummeling rains or blazing sun, often without adequate food, clean water, health care, or latrines. Babies, fatally vulnerable to infectious diseases, have fevers or diarrhea. The border areas thronged with refugees are ripe for lethal epidemics.

This exodus would be a nightmare for any country. But for Bangladesh, it is particularly cruel: a painful evocation of the country’s own bloody creation. Back in 1971, a military regime in Pakistan launched a crackdown on what was then East Pakistan, which split off to become a newly independent Bangladesh. Pakistan’s atrocities, which Bangladeshis consider nothing less than genocide, remain their defining national trauma. Not so long ago, they were the ones fleeing to wretched refugee camps. Bangladesh’s nationalist prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, recently said, “We, too, were forced to seek refuge in India in the face of Pakistan’s attack,” while the home minister noted, “We also took shelter in India during our Liberation War in 1971.”

Back in 1971, most of the world shrugged at the suffering in Bangladesh, siding with the Pakistani military dictatorship and providing only a pittance in relief, even as refugees died in droves. President Richard Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, backed the Pakistani military throughout the bloodbath. China and the Arab states insisted that Pakistan’s generals could do what they wanted to their own citizens. Having ignored Bangladeshi suffering four decades ago, the world has a particular obligation to make amends in today’s crisis.

Bangladesh has pledged to provide for the Rohingya, but is hardly capable of looking after vast numbers of traumatized refugees. Although Bangladesh has managed impressive economic growth and made progress against scourges such as infant mortality, it remains a poor, crowded, developing country wracked with political turmoil. Despite Bangladesh’s tradition of moderate secularism, this influx of persecuted Muslims is an obvious political opportunity to be exploited by increasingly assertive Islamists. The refugees are arriving in one of the most starkly impoverished parts of Bangladesh, driving down labor wages and driving up prices. The international aid agencies that are doing vital life-saving work, including Doctors Without Borders and UNICEF, are overwhelmed.

As in 1971, today the great powers have been largely unconcerned. Some of the loudest Rohingya supporters have been Muslim leaders, such as Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has his own sordid human-rights record. China, which jockeys with India for influence in Burma, supports the death-dealing regime. In March, when Britain tried to get the UN Security Council to make a mild statement expressing concern about humanitarian access, China and Russia blocked it.

Donald Trump has been muddled and cruel, as usual. He sets a dismal example by vilifying Mexicans and Muslims as illegal immigrants or terrorists: U Thaung Tun, Burma’s national-security adviser, recently joked that his country needed “a strong president who wants to build a wall and make the other side pay for it.” After Trump campaigned for a “complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” his administration has issued broad travel bans targeting people from several Muslim-majority countries, temporarily suspended U.S. refugee admissions, and slashed the maximum number of refugees to be admitted to the U.S. to 45,000 a year—the lowest since 1980. “Already America declared that they will not allow any refugees,” Hasina recently said after vainly buttonholing an unresponsive Trump. “What I can expect from them, and especially [the] president?”

The United States has pledged nearly $104 million for relief, which is welcome but a fraction of what’s needed. On October 24, W. Patrick Murphy, the deputy assistant secretary of state for Southeast Asia, outlined new sanctions against Burmese military leaders. While some U.S. officials have spoken up, Trump torpedoed them with his September 19 speech before the UN General Assembly. His repeated praise of “strong sovereign nations” was exactly what Burma’s military chiefs wanted to hear, allowing them to justify their slaughter as a legitimate exercise of domestic authority. Although Trump then incoherently lambasted the internal repressions of U.S. enemies including North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, and Cuba, he conspicuously omitted Burma—which the generals there could only take as a green light.

The most shameful reversal comes from India. In 1971, it temporarily took in some 10 million Bengali refugees, and over the years, it has sheltered exiles from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, and Tibet. During the 1971 atrocities, which particularly victimized the Hindu minority among the Bengalis, India’s Hindu nationalists were among the angriest voices driving their country into war. But now India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist, is scaring away these Muslim refugees. Modi’s government says it will deport some 40,000 Rohingya who are already in India, denouncing them as illegal immigrants and potential terrorists—even though an investigation by NDTV, an Indian news channel, found scant evidence of terrorist connections among the Rohingya there. In September, with the crackdown underway in Burma, Modi made a chummy official visit to its capital, boasting afterward about deepening cooperation between the two countries.

Without adequate international help, Bangladesh’s hospitality has sharp limits. Before the August explosion, Bangladesh already had some 300,000 Rohingya refugees from prior persecution. To prevent them from seeking citizenship, it has for years banned marriage between Rohingya and Bangladeshis. In June, before the current influx started, the foreign minister complained that the Rohingya were smuggling drugs and weapons and had become “a national security concern for Bangladesh.” Hasina wants Burma to take back the refugees and has suggested setting up UN-supervised safe zones inside Burma for the dispossessed—neither of which seems remotely likely.

Roughly half of the Rohingya have already been driven out of Burma. Many of them will never dare to return from Bangladesh, no matter what cheap promises might eventually be mouthed by Burma’s rulers. Back in 1971, India’s prime minister, Indira Gandhi, warned that “this suppression of human rights, the uprooting of people, and the continued homelessness of vast numbers of human beings will threaten peace.” Having failed Bangladesh once, the world has a historic duty to do better this time.