Burma's Muslims Are Reluctant to Go Home

While world community squabbles, refugees in Bangladesh seek safety before returning

AFTER languishing for nearly three years in a string of squalid camps along the Bangladeshi-Burmese border, tens of thousands of refugees are under increasing international pressure to begin an uncertain march homeward across the border and into northwestern Burma. Most will depart carrying nothing more than a few weeks' rations and dimming hopes of reclaiming their lands.

But Nabir Hossain has already resigned himself to a life of exile. Mr. Hossain is a former schoolteacher from the Maungdaw area of Burma's Arakan State. Two years ago, he fled his home in terror, carrying his month-old daughter. Today they live among the 16,000 inhabitants of Dechuapalong, one of the largest refugee camps in the Cox's Bazar district of southeastern Bangladesh.

``We had a good life in Arakan,'' he says. ``We were poor, but we had our own land and we could always grow enough rice to feed ourselves. Then, just after my daughter was born, Burmese soldiers came and kidnapped my wife.... I know I may never see her again, but we can't go back there - not now.''

Hossain and his kinsmen are members of a Muslim minority known as Rohingya who began fleeing mainly Buddhist Burma in late 1990, telling stories of rape, pillage, and murder committed by the nation's military. Many spoke of being driven off lands that their families had occupied for generations. Officials in Rangoon, Burma's capital, rejected these claims, asserting that the vast majority of the more than 250,000 that crossed the border to Bangladesh were illegal Bengali immigrants with no history of Burmese citizenship.

Now the Rohingya are the focus of a massive repatriation effort coordinated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). So far, the process has been anything but smooth. The operation has been delayed by months of contentious negotiations between Burma, Bangladesh, and the UN.

The controversy stemmed from the fact that most of the refugees were unwilling to return home unless their departure from Bangladesh and their arrival and rehabilitation in Arakan were supervised by UNHCR monitors. Initially, both Bangladesh and Burma balked at this demand, insisting that an existing bilateral agreement was sufficient to guarantee the welfare of the returnees. When the US and others accused Dhaka of forcing the refugees back across the border, Bangladesh, which receives more than $2 billion in aid from Western donors each year, was compelled to sign another agreement - this time with the UNHCR.

The April 1992 accord fulfilled some of the refugees' demands, giving UNHCR officials independent access to the camps to determine whether the Rohingyas were returning voluntarily. But in the more than two years since that agreement was signed, only 60,000 refugees have returned to Burma, leaving about 190,000 people in 18 settlements. On Nov. 5, 1993, after a year and a half of international pressure, representatives of Burma's ruling State Law and Order Restoration Council signed a Memorandum of Understanding with UNHCR acceding to the demand for inde- pendent monitoring in Arakan over a period of two dry seasons.

Some relief workers and human-rights advocates criticize the memorandum for its failure to address the ethnic and religious strife that provoked the exodus. In the wake of the Muslim flight, many mosques were razed. Local government officials have encouraged Buddhist Arakanese, known as Rakhine, to settle on much of the land that the Rohingyas abandoned, a move which may fuel communal tensions as the Muslims begin returning in larger numbers.

The terms of the memorandum require that Rangoon provide two months rations to each returnee, which may be adequate if there is a crop ready to be harvested upon arrival. If not, many families will be left without their traditional means of survival.

Rangoon's policy appears partly driven by a desire to shore up support among the nation's more militant Buddhists, analysts say. Traditionally, this has been accomplished at the expense of Burma's Muslim and Christian minorities. The tactic dates back to World War II when Muslims and Christians sided with Britain against Japanese-backed nationalists. During the war, nationalists portrayed the minorities as traitors to the cause of Burmese independence, and the Christian Karen people suffered retaliatory massacres.

Martin Smith, a British analyst of Burma, points out that in the postwar period, when the Karen began to revolt, Burma's first prime minister, U Nu, often denounced Karen leaders for instigating the insurrection. ``More recently,'' he says, ``when Karen rebels launched an offensive into the Irrawaddy Delta in 1991, there were reprisals against some Christian Karen civilians by Buddhist Burmese villagers. The Muslims, however, seem to be singled out on a larger scale.''

The tens of thousands of Muslim peasants populating the camps today are only the latest victims of a series of purges that began in the late 1930s. A Burmese military operation in 1978 resulted in the expulsion of 300,000 Muslims, analysts say.

These campaigns have included the issuance of Foreign Registration Cards to most Muslims in Arakan, even in instances where the individuals in question could show proof of Burmese citizenship. Burmese officials have maintained that Islam has never been indigenous to Burma and that the Rohingyas, therefore, have no legal claim to residency. (In fact, Islam in Arakan dates back to the 8th century.) Moreover, since their alien status precludes the freedom to travel, Muslim shop owners and farmers are routinely forced to take on Rakhine partners to safely transport goods between villages.

THE elevated status of Burma's Rakhine Buddhists - who have also been terrorized by the military - is especially apparent to relief workers in Bangladesh. Zafrullah Chowdhury is program coordinator for Gonoshasthaya Kendra, a Bangladesh-based aid organization active in the camps. ``Today,'' he says, ``there is a very prosperous Rakhine refugee population in Cox's Bazar, whereas the Burmese Muslims, I would say, are 99 percent illiterate here.''

Apart from the cultural antagonism that has long characterized relations between the Muslims and their Buddhist rulers, the Burmese government's campaign may have its origins in a broader effort to expel civilians from the coastal villages of Arakan, where Burma is believed to be providing port and basing facilities for China - its largest arms supplier. Some refugee families have attempted to make the return of their old lands a condition upon which they would cooperate with the repatriation, but UNHCR personnel contend that the reinstatement of land is a question of national sovereignty over which they have no authority.

The atmosphere in the camps has grown anxious. The day after the accord was announced, more than 500 refugees from six camps escaped into Cox's Bazar district, to live with sympathetic villagers. Stefano Severe, director of the UNHCR office in Cox's Bazar, admits that ``reports of forced labor in Arakan are still fairly commonplace,'' but also maintains that rumor in the camps is driving much of the panic.

Advocates of a swift repatriation claim that the presence of aid organizations in the camps has only encouraged the refugees to linger. Bangladesh's foreign minister, Mustafizur Rahman, has downplayed the peril of a return to Burma, and added that while ``Burma's military government cannot be called democratic,'' most of the refugees are staying on for economic reasons. ``Today they are getting free food and health care,'' he said, ``They are quite comfortable, and they don't have to work.''

In a statement delivered to the UN last December, Burma's permanent representative to the body declared, ``I categorically reject [US] allegations that the Tatmadaw [People's Army] is perpetuating human rights violations against the Myanmar [Burmese] people.'' Despite such pronouncements, camp inhabitants continue to nervously await news of the fate of the returnees.

``Every day in the camps, somebody comes to me and asks, `Can you tell me about the situation in my village - is it safe to go back?' '' says Shabir, a Bangladeshi UNHCR field assistant at the Rangikhali transit camp. ``What can I tell them? Nobody here really knows.''

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