The Rohingya Muslim people of Burma are facing what some have called genocide in their homeland, long denied citizenship rights and now under attack by both the security forces and Buddhist-chauvinist militias, who have carried out massacres and burned down their villages.
Some 500,000 Rohingya have fled across the border to Bangladesh—where they are not being welcomed.
Already confined to squalid refugee camps near the Burmese border, they now face forcible relocation to an uninhabited offshore island. Shunted from one region to another, they face the predictable propaganda—Burmese authorities have stigmatized them as Muslim terrorists, and now Bangladesh authorities increasingly stigmatize them as drug-traffickers.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) is protesting the plan to have refugees relocated from their camps in the Cox’s Bazar area, just above the Burmese border, up the coast to isolated Thengar Char island.
“The Bangladesh government is making the ridiculous claim that relocating Rohingya refugees to an island with absolutely no facilities that is deluged at high tide and submerged during the monsoon season will improve their living conditions,” said Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director. “This proposal is both cruel and unworkable and should be abandoned.”
But some are opposing the relocation for bad reasons.
Up the coast in Noakhali district, where Thengar Char is located, local officials are saying they don’t want the Rohingya because they are mixed up in drug-trafficking. Local official Minazur Rahman unsubtly told PBS News Hour: “In the past, the Rohingya were related to the drug problem. They are linked to drugs, linked to smuggling. Most of the people here, their main livelihood is fishing. The bad character and influence of the Rohingya people will impact the locals here.”
This is something of a self-fulfilling fear. Denied citizenship or the right to work in either Burma or Bangladesh, some Rohingya have indeed taken to smuggling yaba, or methamphetamine, Reuters reported from Cox’s Bazar in February.
On July 9, two Rohingya community leaders were killed when violence broke out at one of the refugee camps near Cox’s Bazar. A Rohingya youth has been arrested in the slayings, and authorities say he’s been charged with drug-trafficking and human-trafficking, as well as murder. Advocates for the refugees say they are being driven to crime and smuggling by the complete lack of any other economic opportunity.
Whatever social pathologies may exist in the camps around Cox’s Bazar, the Rohingya will certainly not fare any better completely out of public and media view on Thengar Char. With the governments of Burma and Bangladesh alike intransigent on recognizing their basic rights or citizenship, there is no easy answer to this dilemma.
Meanwhile, the world should oppose any effort to tar them with the narco-stigma—one of the oldest tricks of despots and bigots worldwide.