© 2017 The New York Times
Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate
In 2017, Bangladesh greeted two very types of guests. The Rohingya arrived in droves being mercilessly driven out by a murderous Myanmar military in what the United Nations has called “systematic ethnic cleansing” of these poor minorities in the country’s Rakhine state. In blatant disregard for recorded and universally known history, the Burmese army — sadly backed by once-revered democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi — calls these inhabitants of the province Bengalis, who “illegally emigrated” to the country where they have actually lived for centuries. They arrived at a speed and in numbers rarely seen in human history forcing their generous hosts Bangladesh to create the largest refugee camp in the world. Feeding the 700,000 or so, in addition to the 500,000 people already camped in the coastal districts or dispersed in parts of Bangladesh, is not easy for a country that takes pride in qualifying for graduation, in six years, from a least developed country to a developing country.
The UN with all its arms is helping or trying. Words of support or sympathy have come from all corners of the planet for this poor yet magnanimous nation and its leader Sheikh Hasina with the latter personally earning a hugely gratifying title of ‘mother of humanity’. The EU countries have been quite forthcoming, with even the US giving louder lip service, but — ironically — “friends” such China, India and Russia have not, euphemistically speaking, behaved like friends in this particular instance. A shocked Bangladesh having tried bilateral options with this bellicose neighbour is now moving the multilateral way.
In any case, these guests are not going to go “home” anytime soon. They had taken shelter in a hospitable Bangladesh in 1978 and 1991-92 in quite high numbers. How many of them go back? And, as officials in Dhaka would ask, how many acts liable for criminal punishment were committed by these guests in these 30-40 years? And how many of them ended up in those deep-forest camps used for training terrorists? It’s quite a difficult dilemma for the Bangladesh government: humanity or national security.
In an age when man and machine are competing even for jobs, a pretty-faced machine made headlines in Bangladesh. Sophia, the proud naturalised citizen of Saudi Arabia, received the kind of reception reserved only for royals. If anything, the Sophia hype only highlighted the country’s craving for anything digital. Although a Digital Bangladesh, a 2008 election promise of the ruling Awami League, is still a half done job, thanks largely to a reluctant and unrefined bureaucracy.
After Rohingya and robot in the year gone by, 2018 promises to be much more animated. Elections are due in December and the battle for ballot box superiority has never been a smooth affair in Bangladesh in its 46-year history.
(Serge Schmemann is a member of the editorial board of The New York Times.)