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?”