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OP-ED: Rohingya exodus in 1978: A history of systematic eviction

  • Published at 08:38 pm August 30th, 2021

Bangladesh has historically given shelter to Rohingya refugees and attempted to initiate quick repatriation

Forty-three years back, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya people had crossed the border to Bangladesh following a spate of torture and rape in the Arakan (now Rakhine) State of Myanmar.

The situation in the makeshift camps of Cox’s Bazar was so grave that the Bangladesh authorities had to request for assistance from the international voluntary agencies.

Both English and Bangla language dailies and a wide range of weeklies continued to carry stories about the influx of refugees with numbers, claimed to be no less than 100,000 as of May 9, 1978. 

The then World Islamic League based in Mecca supported the Bangladeshi position and called for similar support from Islamic countries.

In a state of severe shock

According to UNDP Resident Representative in Bangladesh Bernard Zagorin, the refugees were in a state of severe shock and had left Myanmar as a result of a "mass hysteria" which caused virtually whole villages to flee. 

Some refugees said that male family members had been "taken away" by the authorities, their houses looted and torched; and they had heard accounts of torture and rape in other areas.

Zagorin expressed concern about the possible repercussions within Bangladesh of the refugee migration -- the possibility of Muslims retaliating against the Buddhist Magh residents in Cox's Bazar area and adjoining parts of the hill tracts for the alleged wrongdoings of their fellow Magh tribesmen in Rakhine State. 

Meanwhile, the Rohingya Patriotic Front (RPF) circulated two pamphlets widely among diplomatic missions in Dhaka that set forth Muslim positions and described atrocities and misdeeds of the Myanmar government, according to the Dhaka’s US embassy documents.

In a press conference on May 6, then foreign secretary Tabarak Husain said that the issue had caused "a situation of great strain" between Bangladesh and Myanmar, and that the two countries had been fully informed of the situation. 

He added that negotiations were continuing but that no progress had been made. He also noted that Bangladesh had asked for international assistance. 

In the two townships of Buthidaung and Maungdaw of Rakhine, the population was 80% Muslim. Only a quarter of them fled to Bangladesh, according to the UNDP in Myanmar. 

According to the then foreign secretary of Bangladesh, as learnt from a US diplomatic cable sent from its Dhaka embassy, the Myanmar government wished Rakhine State to be settled by the Buddhist Maungs and its operation had been designed to achieve this objective. 

How it began

Bangladesh started providing food, shelter, and medical care to some 20,000 refugees in temporary camps within the border as soon as the influx had begun in April.

But the government was concerned about the serious state of the larger numbers which remained on the other side of the border. 

In February, the Myanmar government initiated a program entitled "Operation Dragon" designed to check on registration cards possessed by the Muslims in Rakhine State. 

Many of those approached did not possess cards despite being long-time residents of the region (some cards had earlier been confiscated; some Muslims had been afraid to register), according to the US embassy cables.

At that time, the Bangladesh government had asked its Myanmar counterpart to take a "humanitarian attitude." 

During his visit to Yangon in 1977, then president General Ziaur Rahman had been assured that the people genuinely settled for several generations would be treated fairly even if they had no certificates. 

Following the initiation of "Operation Dragon," the flow of refugees into Bangladesh increased. The Bangladesh Rifles or BDR (now Border Guard Bangladesh) carried out instructions to forbid illegal traffic across the border in either direction. 

In early April, when president Zia’s advisor Kazi Anwarul Haque visited Yangon, he had been categorically assured that the Myanmar government would inquire into the causes of the population movement and take steps to prevent persecution of the Muslims. 

On April 13, then the foreign minister of Myanmar visited Dhaka and had detailed discussions of the issue, although the refugee flow at that time had not been so large as to cause alarm.

Immediately after the minister's visit, the Bangladesh government learned of "large-scale" Myanmar troop movements to the Rakhine State and there was a major build-up of refugees on the border. 

On April 23, the Myanmar Army opened fire at the refugees, wounding a number of them and causing panic, during which many of them broke through the border. 

The BDR personnel sought to push back able-bodied men but admitted women and children.

In late April, there had been three instances of exchanges of fire between the Myanmar Army and the BDR. 

The agreement 

The Bangladesh authorities had suggested that Myanmar stop temporarily checking on certificates, and take immediate action to care for refugees. They also proposed that local civil and paramilitary officials meet on the ground, and that the central government representatives consult.

The two governments finally reached a consensus and signed an agreement on July 9, 1978 for the repatriation of the Rohingya to Rakhine State after bilateral negotiations conducted in Dhaka. 

The agreement describes how the two countries will repatriate each other's residents, including legal and illegal immigrants crossing the border. 

It also deals with agreed methods for resolving other border issues between the two countries, such as setting markers and redrawing official border maps, border ground rules, land and maritime borders, etc. 

The agreement can be accessed here: https://dataspace.princeton.edu/bitstream/88435/dsp01th83kz538/1/1978%20Repatriation%20Agreement.pdf

Repatriation progress

By the end of November 1978, Rohingya refugees continued to return to Myanmar at a rate of 2,000 every three days, and the total number of returnees -- having national registration cards -- stood at 12,644 as of November 26. 

At that time, the UNHCR projected that the number of refugees in Bangladesh would be reduced to 160,000 by the end of 1978 and to about 60,000 by June 1979.

The Myanmar government had cleared an entire list of 105,025 persons transmitted to Yangon on October 19, but not formally agreed to the clearance of the remaining 28,775 Rohingya, who had no foreign registration cards or other documentary evidence, and those who present oral evidence of residence in Rakhine State.

Even though the Bangladesh government had pressed Myanmar to accept a heavier flow of refugees, Yangon refused to comply, saying it could not provide for the needs of larger numbers.

Although some refugees were reluctant to return, most wished to go back as soon as possible, in the belief that those who returned first would be best treated. 

Moreover, feedback from those who had already returned to Myanmar had been a major factor in the refugees' new willingness to be repatriated.

UNHRC session in 1979

In response to a communication by the Rohingya Patriotic Front (RPF) regarding the mass exodus, the UN Human Rights Commission placed the matter for discussion at its 35th meeting in March 1979.

The Subcommission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities examined the communication by the RPF, when France, Colombia, and Ivory Coast proposed the appointment of an investigatory committee. 

On the other hand, Jordan proposed consideration of the situation in public session if the Myanmar government had refused to consent to an investigation.

The communication was considered by the Subcommission to have met the criterion stated in ECOSOC Resolution 1503 since it revealed a consistent pattern of gross and reliably attested violations of human rights.

The US opposed the proposals stating that the repatriation agreement signed by the governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar would solve this problem. The US delegation believed that no further action had been required of the HRC except to keep the situation under review.

Probir Kumar Sarker is Senior Assistant News Editor, Dhaka Tribune.

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