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How an international humanitarian disaster could be fertile ground for al-Qaeda

By Ronan Lee - posted Monday, 3 September 2012

Racing to disaster zones the way fire fighters rush to fires, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) are about saving lives, offering medical care when others cannot. They have projects in more than 60 countries including Bangladesh, where much of their efforts focus on assisting those refugees who gather near the eastern city of Cox's Bazar close to Bangladesh's border with Burma (also known as Myanmar). Persecution by the Burmese government and inter-ethnic conflict between Arakan Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims has created a steady flow of refugees leaving Burma for camps in Bangladesh.

Action Against Hunger (known as ACF) has been working in the Cox's Bazar area too. ACF aims to end world hunger and 'save the lives of malnourished children while providing communities with access to safe water'. Quite simply, without the work of these and other aid agencies in this area, many people will needlessly die.

The Rohingya are a Muslin people living mainly in the western Burmese state of Arakan (also known as Rakhine), they have been a consistent victim of Burmese government persecution but the latest crisis is because of conflict between the Rohingya and Arakan Buddhists. MSF estimates Cox's Bazar and its surrounds now are now home to around 400,000 Rohingya refugees. Of these, just 28,000 are recognised as official refugees by the Bangladesh government and entitled to assistance from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The remainder are 'unrecognised' and face a daily struggle for survival against malnutrition, illness, exposure and increasingly, sectarian violence in the region.


These numbers look set to dramatically rise following the most recent outbreak of sectarian violence inside Arakan state. Religious and ethnic tensions are long-standing in Burma but the military junta that ruled the country for much of the time since independence often manipulated these tensions, fanning the flames of sectarian conflict, to bolster its own position. In June, the reported gang rape of an Arakan girl by three Muslim men resulted in violence, rioting involving both groups and revenge killings against Muslims. Human Rights Watch's (HRW) recent report "The Government Could Have Stopped This" documents the sectarian violence and its humanitarian consequences.

Serious criticism is made of Burma's security forces for "killings, rape and mass arrest against Rohingya Muslims". HRW's report explains how security forces failed to protect the Arakan and Rohingya from each other and unleashed a campaign of violence and mass roundups against the Rohingya. Restrictions too on humanitarian assistance for the now 100,000 Rohingya displaced by this latest unrest is blamed for leaving them vulnerable and in "dire need of food, shelter, and medical care".

The Bangladesh government sees things differently however. Agency France Presse report local administrators, following a directive from Bangladesh's NGO Affairs Bureau, instructed MSF, ACF and Britain's Muslim Aid UK to suspend services in the Cox's Bazar area. These humanitarian groups are ordered to stop providing food, medicine and other relief services to Rohingya fleeing persecution in Burma. Bangladesh believes the availability of food and medicine, rather than escape from the sectarian violence which has left 77 dead, is encouraging Rohingya to cross the officially closed border.

This decision is rightfully criticised by aid groups. It violates accepted standards for dealing with people fleeing persecution and danger and makes the perspective of the Bangladesh government appear to be little different from that of Burma's rulers.
Sadly, this kind of violence has historic precedence in a region with porous borders and frequently changing political control. While the history of the region and the background of the Rohingya themselves is contested, more often than not, changes of political control have involved significant bloodshed.

The Burmese conquest of the Arakhan kingdom in the Eighteenth Century saw forebears of the current Rohingya flee to British Bengal. When Burma came under the control of the British Colonial administration in India, settlers were encouraged back to the Arakan area. Many analysts see this as a crucial part of the historic development of the Rohingya as a 'stateless' people as families returned to towns and villages their forebears had fled generations before only to face resentment, and often violence, from the current inhabitants. But by most accounts the periodic violent outbreaks in the region were not one-sided.

By the time World War II came to Burma, the British were yet to resolve the Rohingya's migration status and they suffered considerably under the Japanese occupation. British co-operation during the war with Arakan Muslim fighters hardly seems to have helped their cause when Burma gained independence from the British after the defeat of Japan. Since then, the Burmese government, in particular the junta, used nationalism and religious difference to scapegoat the Rohingya who have been consistently denied citizenship.


Regional Muslim calls for an independent Muslim state hardly helped the Rohingya cause, but certainly do not justify their treatment since Burmese independence. Burma's new, notionally civilian, government shows no signs of changing policy direction where the Rohingya are concerned. Immigration Minister Khin Yi announced the Rohingya are not to be included in the 2012 nationwide Census and neither did the government rush to investigate alleged unfair treatment of the Rohingya by security forces waiting months before starting an official investigation

Actions like these by Burma's government and security forces are far from unusual and increasingly common in parts of the country rich in natural resources. Arakan state has tens of billions of dollars of verified natural gas deposits waiting to be exploited. This wealth should be an opportunity to lift all people of Arakan state out of the poverty that has so characterised life in Burma since the junta came to power. But the latest unrest fits into a familiar pattern of life in Burma whenever large scale economic projects are on the horizon. These are frequently accompanied by the involuntary removal of locals, killings and forced labour. The junta grew fat by exploiting Burma's natural wealth while simultaneously impoverishing their people and, despite this, they stayed in power through shrewd manipulation of local people, attitudes and concerns. In the past, the junta maligned both the Rohingya and the Arakan, whose strong ethnic nationalism was seen as a threat to the central government. Now, the 'civilian' government appears to be supporting the Arakan against the Rohingya.

The situation for the Rohingya in Bangladesh is increasingly bleak, and in Burma increasingly dangerous. The UN describes the Rohingya as one of the world's most persecuted minorities. The immediate challenge for the international community and especially countries like Australia, who is an aid donor to Bangladesh and recently relaxed trade sanctions against Burma, is to ensure they work with both countries' governments to make certain these displaced people are safe and have access to humanitarian assistance including water, food, shelter and medical care.

Sadly, the actions of the Bangladeshi and Burmese governments make their position clear to the Muslim Rohingya – look elsewhere for help. This has not gone unnoticed in the region with al-Qaeda known to be operating in the camps and Pakistani Taliban group Tehreek-e-Taliban recently making a threat against Burma announcing "we will take revenge of your blood" because of the treatment of the Rohingya. This is the first time the Taliban publicly threatened terrorism in Burma.

The Rohingya are facing a humanitarian disaster, increasingly alienated from the administrations of Burma and Bangladesh; if the international community, including Australia, is unwilling to take immediate action to assist them, we can hardly be surprised if they feel forced to turn elsewhere for help. It looks likely that the people who may be most prepared to assist the Rohingya will be far less benign in intent than the humanitarian workers of MSF or ACF.

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About the Author

Ronan Lee is a political consultant and former Greens MP and adviser. He has traveled extensively in Burma, observing the 2010 elections and meeting Aung San Suu Kyi in the days following her release from house arrest.

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