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Part I: The Seeing Eye

It was a Friday, a slow day in the newsroom.

The weekend did not usually offer much to report, except a few road crashes and police raids.

But a notification popped up. It was the Reuters news agency. Security posts in Myanmar’s Rakhine state were again under attack by ‘Muslim insurgents’.

“A major escalation of violence in the troubled state,” it said as it counted the casualties, but it seemed the scarcely-armed attackers were suffering more casualties, of course.

“This is not good, for us,” I announced to a colleague, also strapped to the news desk on the weekend of Aug 25, 2017

He answered with a sigh. “More work for us.”

In case anyone is wondering, Bangladesh is Myanmar’s western neighbour. And we were seated in its capital city, Dhaka.

To be honest, we did not know enough about this neighbour.

Hardened by our daily battles, we didn’t surprise easily. But in the coming days, Bangladesh learned more about Myanmar than ever before, and it left us in shock.

***

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The Myanmar army’s counter-assault on ‘terrorists’ unleashed hell upon the townships mainly inhabited by Rohingya Muslims.

The stories of mass murder, gang rapes and all-out devilry committed by Myanmar’s army and Buddhist civilians in Rakhine is now well known to the world.

The Rohingyas dragged themselves across our southern border to live with us in Bangladesh. The Naf, a river in between, washed up dead bodies in the hundreds.

The terrified and displaced resembled us and spoke a dialect naturally understood by Bangladeshis who live in areas bordering Myanmar. But the rest of Bangladesh needed translations.

So the regular Joe in Dhaka found out that the Rohingyas are also accused by the Myanmar side of being Bangalees. What were they even talking about? How annoying!

Something like this had also happened the year before. Attacks by ‘Muslim insurgents’ on border posts had led to a smaller influx in October 2016.

Bangladesh has time and again dealt with the Rohingyas fleeing death and persecution, starting in the mid-70s.

And it is not like we did not know about the registered camp for Rohingyas in Cox’s Bazar.

We only knew them in relation to ‘fear factors’ – squalid living condition, spike in crime rate, methamphetamine mules, stealthy attempts to assimilate and pose as voters and worst of all, threats of Islamist radicalism.

For us, the café attack marked the year before the mass exodus. Despite the success of counterterror raids, terror was still on our minds.

But Bangladesh proved more pragmatic than others when it came to protecting the people no-one wanted.

It stepped into its grown-up shoes. It already had ambition. It wanted to become a donor to its own development.

But the challenge now was to save over a million people who fled ethnic cleansing. And to make sure they returned home safe. Tough, but not impossible.

***

The crisis happened uncomfortably close to the 2019 election.

Some people forgot why rice was more expensive. They blamed it on the Rohingyas. The two floods that devastated crops earlier that year had receded from memory.

Bangladeshis, who demanded the border be flung open to the refugees, were among those worried that they would never leave.

Some accused aid agencies of wanting to make their stay permanent. Opportunity controlled their loyalty to the cause.

But for the community surrounding the thousands of acres freshly allocated for the newly-arrived Rohingya had causes for worry.

The lush reserve forest was gone. Schools were taken over for relief work. The cash-strapped refugees were selling relief. They also worked for very little money.

Also, the “unrefined” Rohingya scared the locals, shocked to hear the slang of their neighbours from Myanmar in regular usage.

But members of the host communities proved themselves as brave. It is evident in how the neighbourhoods in Cox’s Bazar, also those surrounding the refugee settlements, came to be represented in the camps.

Work here was tough. Bad roads, filthy sewers, steep climbs, mind-numbing heat and the density of the air caused by tens of thousands always out and walking.

Here, men and women got jobs as teachers, social workers and health workers for the numerous charities working in the camps.

***

My turn came in the first week of October. The sky was pouring over Kutupalong, now one of the world’s largest refugee camps.

I was struggling to cross the hills that made up the mega labyrinth. I took a wrong turn and was trying to find the track that disappeared in a sea of mud.

When I looked up, I realised I was on a ridge. Naked hills that looked like massive waves of mud spreading out before me.

And there were sheds, as far as my eyes went. Those square piles of bamboo.

And inside each, there were families. At least a few hundred were within my sight.

That is when I realised something. There was barely any sound. Nothing but the rain that fell on plastic roofs and the mud.

I have never seen so many of hundreds of people sitting in serene silence. Smiling children sat at doorways, watching the rain fall on hills.

An air of resolution, was it? For a people who have always lived in fear?

***

The Rohingyas, arriving in long queues, finally vetted and released by the border guard, had features frozen and sucked dry.

Their eyes, like blank screens, did not really see me. Maybe they were revisiting moments—“murdering soldiers inside the house, the bushes where we hid.”

The faces of the newly-arrived remained this way for days.

Before going to the camps, I was glued to the photos foreign journalists were taking of the newly-arrived Rohingyas in Cox’s Bazar.

The otherwise uneventful sub-district, became a hub for the world media. Everybody was busy capturing the chaos.

The Rohingya fell on the shores of Shah Parir Dwip. Smoke rose from the hills on Myanmar’s side, across the Naf River. The soldiers were burning villages.

For photojournalists roasting in the sun, it was all worth it. After a hard day’s work, they returned to the hotels that lined the beach in Cox’s Bazar town.

At night, along with local fixers, some patrolled the marine drive, hoping a boat full of Rohingya would show up. And they sometimes did. Career bests.

I shouldn’t be too critical. Humanity and fearless journalism were also there.

But that wasn’t the case for everyone. The Rohingyas were obedient subjects. They made the job easy for journalists looking to deliver the ultimate shock.

Bangladesh restricts publication of photos and other identifiers of rape victims. The stigma and threat of more attacks aren’t imaginary.

I refuse to believe I was the only one screaming, but it still happened.

Some were extreme. They brought back English release forms signed by victims. Then a photo of the form and the clueless victim. Just to be safe.

A Rohingya woman, who never imagined she would come across white westerners, let alone discuss how the Myanmar men took turns in raping her, all the while trying to surpass any justifiable reservation she might have about describing the details to a local translator, was just happy to share her weeping face with the world.

Yes, the refugees have mobile phones. They can help each other access our reports. Border guards in Bangladesh and Myanmar also watched.

In December, a group of men who made rafts to help trapped refugees cross the Naf went into hiding. “The journalist did not blur their faces!” said a famous photographer. “Now both sides are looking for them!”

I was not surprised. A few days back, I was seeing a report from Shah Parir Dwip shot with night-vision cameras. A pair of genitals flashed on screen for several seconds.

A Rohingya man in a skirt-like lungi. In a rush to escape soldiers, he had hurriedly climbed onto a boat. The camera was on the deck.

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I do not know why it was not edited out. I was oddly conscious of this ‘lesser status’. Almost like children, who are swindled and left behind.

Part II: Maniacs

I always thought, Bangladesh and Myanmar were like two sides of a coin—forever looking away. But it may have been just us.

Even for the men of Myanmar’s medieval-style army, foolish enough to believe that burning, killing and raping so-called terror suspects, serve as effective ways of curbing insurgency, what began on Aug 25 was still an overreach.

Dhaka has dealt with unruly neighbours, Pakistan for its hostile influence on domestic politics. India, for all the promises it cannot keep. But Myanmar is something different. The recluse seemed to be holding a grudge. But why?

One wonders if the latest blow it landed on Bangladesh, was only for itself or a third party too. It really was strange.

But in the days following Aug 25, as refugees began arriving on Bangladeshi shores, its friends also started acting strange.

It is important for any Bangladesh government to appear successful in relationship to India, that giant of a neighbour.

But New Delhi snubbed Dhaka, as if it caught a contagious disease. As if to further confirm that it was indeed not taking in any Rohingya, it began the process to expel the small group of Rohingya refugees it shelters.

Narendra Modi, Hasina’s Indian counterpart, flew to Nay Pwi Daw, on the way back from Beijing, and almost basking in the reception of a government committing genocide did not utter the word Rohingya.

Dhaka also did not place first in China’s list of priorities, despite it being ‘the new strategic ally’. Beijing quite naturally shielded Myanmar because it was a necessary component of its economic and military vision of the region.

But something extraordinary happened. Bangladesh was the only country acting like a grown-up, despite the air growing thick with fear of terror and border conflict.

But the ‘ultimate plan’ for Rohingyas, the perfect scenario envisioned by Myanmar, has been known to researchers for years.

General Thein Sein, the country’s eighth president, mentioned a surrogate setup for the Rohingyas, very much like what was happening now.

The Yale School of Law quoted him in a speech from 2012:

“The solution to this problem is that they can be settled in refugee camps managed by UNHCR, and UNHCR provides for them.

“If there are countries that would accept them, they can be sent there.”

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In order to ceaselessly continue the treatment of the Rohingya in the six decades that passed after the group as a whole was ‘erased’, requires something beyond hate.

It needed evil, or the absence of empathy. But how do regimes maintain it?

Myanmar can to do anything it wants with the Rohingyas, but the nature and amount of punishment it handed down to countless civilian men, women and children is enough to demoralise its soldiers.

Because killing at random, raping sex slaves, forcing children into labour, constantly restricting travel, keeping away health, education services and killing those who gather to religious pray – would destroy the discipline that guides a modern army.

There is an answer. It is rooted in the extreme nationalism which began in the days when it still called itself Burma. It requires the digging up of a depressing colonial history.

***

Burma was the largest province of British-run India after its annexation in 1824. Its population was, however, paltry compared to the neighbouring province of Bengal.

In 1908, Burma only had nine million people while Bengal had 75 million, Akhilesh Pillalamarri, an international relations analyst writes in The Diplomat.

So the majority Bamar feared “demographic replacement” and criticised the British over its ‘open-door policy’ to South Asian migrants.

For anyone aware of Myanmar’s official Rohingya rhetoric, these views on unwanted aliens from the past century should ring many bells.

The racial slur ‘Kala’ dates back to colonial times. But it remains the household slang the Burmese use to refer to South Asians. It is also a slur we share today with the Rohingyas in Myanmar, even used by state-run news media.

U Ba Si was a Bamar heading one of many groups demanding separation from India. In 1933, he wrote a letter to the British Secretary of State for India, saying “destitute Indians have come over to our shores to exploit our labour and lands”.

The British eventually separated India from Burma in 1937. Among the causes was fear of more Burmese hostility.

It was Bamar retaliation to Indian migrants that gave rise to anti-immigration rhetoric and to Burmese ethno-nationalism. The modern ‘Kala’ is familiar today, noted the Myanmar Frontier on the 80th anniversary of the separation.

But as far as claims are concerned, Burma can lay none on the state of Rakhine, where it has cornered and then massacred the Rohingyas.

Arakan was an ancient sovereign state ruled by Buddhist kings, who once famously balanced the ambitions of Burmese kings and the Moghuls in Bengal.

The Rohingyas call it home, laying claim to the faith that came as early as the 8th, 12th and the 13th century, with Muslim traders and sailors who settled among Rakhine Moghs.

Muslim officials held powerful positions in the illustrious courts of Arakan, and the kings would even use Muslim titles next to their traditional Buddhist ones.

But Arakan fell when Burma finally managed to invade it in year 1784. The kingdom and its diversity were lost.

Refugees from Arakan poured into Chittagong, in a southern stretch of land, where the Rohingyas now stay. Cox’s Bazar got its name from Captain Hiram Cox, the British lieutenant who organised their relief.

Arakan’s diversity was not enshrined by any present state. The region’s common history, unlike its hate, proved less relevance for modern dwellers.

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What survived was Burma’s old, anti-immigration rhetoric. A research by the Yale School of Law, offered many examples.

It was 2012, the year of deadly riots over a Burmese woman whose alleged rape and death was blamed on Rohingya men in pamphlets circulated by Burmese groups.

In faraway Nya Pwi Daw, a lecture titled ‘Fear of Extinction of Race’ was being presented at the Myanmar military headquarters.

One of the slides said “Bengali Muslims” were stealthily spreading their religion. Their numbers could soon eclipse the Buddhists living in Yangon and Mandalay.

The speaker did not have proof. Nor did the Rakhine men who circulated the pamphlets, but sparked a mad frenzy of killing that happened over months.

The Yale research also included a testimony of a Rohingya refugee, who spoke to Fortify Rights after escaping to Malaysia.

It was an event from October 2012, that catastrophic year. The village where it happened was Mrauk-U, ironically the name of last Arakan dynasty.

In a meeting called by the military, the villagers “were asked to accept that they were Bengali and did not belong in Rakhine. The villagers refused.”

“Twenty days later, the village was burned down.”

***

Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi was always more suited to be the West’s favourite. But in keeping with inevitability, the spot again fell vacant.

After decades of fighting for democracy in Myanmar, living under dictators since independence, she had warmed up to the generals she replaced as ‘de-facto’ leader.

The democracy activists who struggled with her, but served long terms in actual prison were disgusted. Speaking to the Associated Press, they claimed to have sensed in her an authoritarian streak.

But it was the Bangladesh prime minister who was chastised as being too authoritarian.

It started when death sentences were ordered for many self-proclaimed war criminals, whose judgment Bangladesh had anticipated since independence.

Suu Kyi and Hasina, they were similar yet different. Their fathers led independence movements, but were assassinated before fully realising their achievements.

After which, their daughters both spent years away from homeland. Upon return they led mass movements and eventually became elected leaders.

“Suu Kyi… we thought she was with us, but she was always with her own kind. But your Hasina, she is the king,” said a Rohingya man in a green shirt.

The sun was blazing over Balukhali makeshift settlement camp and I did not realise the men sitting under the shop were Majhis, or block leaders, holding their meeting.

The men didn’t mind the interruption. They asked me to sit with them.

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Everyone spoke, but among them one, a Majhi in a green shirt stood out. His dialect was less convoluted and closer to Bangla proper. I understood him clearly.

An ‘old refugee’, meaning someone who crossed over before Aug 25. He said he had been living in Chittagong before moving to the Balukhali camp.

“If you did not let us in, our people would have been dead on that river. Your country saved us because we are humans, not because we were Muslims,” said one of the refugees.

I smiled. But then I thought of those who did not want him here. I see them trolling newspaper posts and charity organisations.

Pushback could have been resumed and coupled with a tougher stance towards Suu Kyi and General Min Aung Hlaing, some boldly asserted.

Dhaka just has to get Nay Pwi Daw’s respect.

Is that what happened in 1978, when the then Bangladesh government, according to the Human Rights Watch, withheld food from the refugee camps?

Facing condemnation, Myanmar did take back the Rohingya, but by then 12,000 died of starvation, reports the HRW.

I hope that is no longer in our character. I asked the Majhis whether they want to go home. I already knew the answer.

Anyone I had spoken to so far, be it child or adult, said something like this: I want to go home, but I can’t. Not unless we are given citizenship.

There were some exceptions. The most memorable response came from a young woman I interviewed last year. She was gang-raped and, in the mad frenzy of leaving Rakhine, separated from her elderly parents.

“I will die here. I will starve here, but I will never, ever go back.”

The thoughts of home brought instant glows to the faces of the Majhis, ignoring their meeting in my honour.

Then it was again the man in green, who said, “But here my children go to school. You see… people don’t respect us, because we are smaller. We are uneducated.

“I don’t want my children to miss the opportunity of becoming a real person. But here we have no work, we just feel useless.

So if I go back I will only do so because I miss working in my home. But only if they make us citizens.”

I told him I doubt Myanmar would change easily. Or else why would it commit to ethnic cleansing only to agree to take them back in a few months?

The truth is, I was afraid for so many I had met. “How will you ever trust them, the soldiers and the police? Are you not afraid that they will do this again?”

The Rohingya Majhis spoke in unison: “That’s why we have to be citizens!”

I didn’t understand how that provided any assurance. Anything allowance from Myanmar to the Rohingyas seems highly suspect.

“Our children will be police one day. If we are citizens, they will do jobs in the government. Like old times. They will protect us,” the man explained.

“But how on earth…” I started, before trailing off with a simple ‘okay’.

Soft light filled the shop. The Rohingya Majhis stood in a semicircle before me. Big smiles and eyes that never closed surrounded me like planets in a galaxy.

“I really hope you are right,” I said.

Samin Sababa is a journalist and currently a Senior Sub Editor at bdnews24.com