Rohingya refugee
Representative image

A classic case of Western hypocrisy is unfolding over Bangladesh’s proposed relocation of some Rohingya refugees to Bhasan Char.

Instead of pressurizing Myanmar to take back the Rohingyas and ensuring their safe repatriation, the West and its vociferous rights groups are nitpicking over assumed vulnerabilities of Bhasan Char.

The whole episode smacks of double standards and begs the question that if tens of thousands of Nepali speaking Lhotsampas fleeing Bhutan can be rehabilitated in US, why are the Rohingyas earmarked for dumping on poor Bangladesh. Just because they are Muslims!

Bangladesh has sheltered more than one million Rohingyas Muslims, victims of a vicious ethnic cleansing campaign by the ‘Tatmadaw’ (Myanmar Army) in the northern Rakhine province in 2017.

The influx of the Rohingyas dates back to 1978 when the Burmese military junta unleashed ‘Operation Ngamin’ in northern Rakhine (then Arakans) to push the Rohingyas out.

The situation worsened after a 1982 law denied most Rohingyas Burmese citizenship and non-recognition of the Rohingyas as one of 135 races recognized by Myanmar has made survival difficult for them.  One western commentator aptly describes them as ‘nobody’s people in a no-man’s land’.

Bangladesh is poor, and worse still, an over-populated country which can barely shoulder such an incessant refugee burden. But whenever the Burmese army has responded to outbursts of Rohingya insurgency with brutal and clearly disproportionate force aimed at ethnic cleansing, Bangladesh has opened its doors to the Rohingyas.

The Western countries, multilateral organisations and powerful civil rights groups have lauded Bangladesh for sheltering the Rohingyas but strangely have put very little pressure on Myanmar to take them back.

Now that it seems Myanmar is determined to deflect the issue and refuse to take back the Rohingyas under one pretext or the other,in spite of signing an agreement with Bangladesh to do so, the West and its self-appointed guardians of global conscience  have pushed Bangladesh to ‘fulfil its humanitarian responsibilities’ .

The West is reluctant to push Myanmar to take back the Rohingyas for two reasons — it fears Myanmar may turn to China all the more if pushed too hard on the Rohingya issue and more importantly the all-powerful Tatmadaw may jeopardise Myanmar’s slow transition to democracy under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi.

Western hypocrisy has now peaked with groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (with tacit backing of UN groups and Western diplomatic missions in Bangladesh)  pulling up Bangladesh’s government for trying to settle some Rohingyas in a river island called Bhasan Char, 52 kms from the port city of Chittagong  .

The once desolate island infested with robbers has now been transformed into a planned, modern township with rows of white, multi-storey buildings with round-the-clock electricity, water supply and gas connection in common kitchens, agricultural farms, modern markets, cyclone shelters, a recreation centre, hospitals and schools. It also has modern roads and proper sanitation facilities.

Mediapersons and NGOs who have visited Bhashan Char say it is a well built residential and livelihoods center for the displaced Rohingyas with all modern civic facilities.

Westerners complaining over Bhasan Char should realise it is not a replica of the Christmas Island detention center in Australia — or the temporary migrant camps in the jungles of Calais, France.

Strangely though, most Rohingyas are keen to go and try out their luck in a planned rehabilitation zone, fed up with squalid conditions in makeshift camps of Cox’s Bazar region.

But the relocation process is yet to start. The UN and some aid agencies argue that the island is isolated, flood-prone and would be hazardous for Rohingyas because of cyclones and tidal surges.

Tens of thousands of Bangladeshis live on the country’s coast and islands with similar vulnerabilities and it is strange logic to expect a poor (officially Least Developed) country like Bangladesh find space for the Rohingyas somewhere in its crowded plains, where land acquisition even for crucial infrastructure projects are often a nightmare due to resistance by landholders.

One could point to resettlement of the Rohingyas in the less crowded Chittagong Hill Tracts, but only someone unaware of the ethnic issues involving the mountain region bordering India and Myanmar would advocate such a course of action.

The predominantly Buddhist tribes people in the Chittagong Hill Tracts have fought a two decade old bush war with Bangladesh forces before Sheikh Hasina restored normalcy to the area by signing a peace deal with the organisation leading the tribal revolt in 1997.

These tribal people would fiercely resist any influx of outsiders to the area, much less Rohingya Muslims, because they have already resisted resettlement of Bengali Muslims during Bangladesh two decades of military rule, fearing sweeping demographic change.

That leaves Hasina and her government little option other than find a sparsely-populated river island like Bhasan Char to house the Rohingyas . Hasina’s advisers say around 2,500 Rohingya refugees of 500 families would be shifted to the island soon as part of the relocation.

Around 66 tonnes of food and other necessary household items have already been taken to the island in late November. Bhasan Char project director Navy Commander Md Anowerul Kabir says 120 cluster villages capable of accommodating around 100,000 people are ready.

But the global outcry spearheaded by the likes of Amnesty International and HRW has created some uncertainty in Dhaka whether to go ahead with the relocation.

The outcry over Bhasan Char is calculated to shift the focus of the Rohingya issue from repatriation that even Myanmar has accepted, to rehabilitation, which Bangladesh is best spared off.

The cause of global conscience, usually a Western monopoly, is less than well served if Myanmar is not pressed hard enough to take back the Rohingyas who have lived in its territory for centuries and are by no means ‘illegal Bingalis’ (Myanmar does not accept the Rohingyas as a people) .

It is the height of hypocrisy if the global community led by the West lets Myanmar off the hook and instead pressurises poor Bangladesh to not only shelter more than a million people in the overcrowded country and even dictate locations for settling them.

Hasina would be well within her rights to go ahead with the Bhasan Char relocations, like it went ahead with the Padma river multipurpose bridge with its own resources when the World Bank threw tantrums to delay funding over unsubstantiated corruption charges.

But Dhaka is stuck because it cannot handle the Rohingya refugees without international help. One cannot point to Bangladesh’s booming economic growth to burden it with refugees, even as Myanmar is not pushed by no major power, US or China, to take back its own people.

Indian efforts to lobby with Myanmar to take back the Rohingyas with promises for construction of Returnee Shelter have not yet worked because Delhi lacks Beijing or Washington’s heft.

Subir Bhaumik

Subir Bhaumik is a Kolkata-based senior journalist. He can be reached at: