Burma and Bangladesh at Odds Over Muslim Refugees

TWO of the world's poorest and most turbulent nations, Ban-gladesh and Burma (now officially called Myanmar), are in a frontier standoff after tens of thousands of Muslims fled a Burmese military offensive.

Officials of the two countries hold a border meeting today, seeking to defuse a confrontation that has escalated since the Burmese Army raided Bangladesh last December in pursuit of Muslim guerrillas who were resisting the junta in Rangoon (now called Yangon).

Two previous attempts to resolve the crisis broke off in stalemate over the issue of returning the 30,000 to 60,000 Muslims, known as Rohingyas, from Burma's western Arakan state.

In the last month, refugees have flooded into Bangladesh with horrifying accounts of killings, torture, and mass arrests of Muslims who refuse to act as porters for the Burmese Army.

Officials in Ban-gladesh express hope for progress in the negotiations. But another breakdown could force the impoverished country to seek international assistance for the Rohingyas.

"The refugees are living in terrible conditions and tell horrible stories about what happened to them," says an observer in the squalid border camps.

The militaries are on alert and troops are dug in on both sides of the 170-mile land and river border near the Bangladeshi town of Cox's Bazar. The escalating border conflict comes as the two countries struggle to confront a daunting array of political and economic problems at home.

In recent months, the ruling generals in Rangoon have moved to quiet Burma's numerous ethnic rebellions, smoldering since independence from Britain in 1947, and to further entrench their control. At the same time, the government faces a dismal economic outlook and international isolation because of its poor human rights record.

Last year, the military government was widely condemned as detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in absentia. The junta refused to relinquish power after Aung San Suu Kyi and the opposition swept a May 1990 election.

Even as Burma rings up enormous arms deals with China and some eastern European countries, the economy is reeling from rampant degradation of once-bountiful resources.

Since the early 1950s, Burmese Muslims (related to the Bengalis of Bangladesh) have waged periodic guerrilla warfare on the Rangoon government, whom they accuse of trying to annihilate the Muslim minority and create a pure Buddhist state. The Rohingya refugees first fled to Bangladesh 15 years ago when Burmese military persecution Bforced tens of thousands of people across the border in 1976. Most of the Muslims later returned to Burma under an agreement between the two governments.

Rangoon accuses Bangladesh of sheltering the rebels who, it says, want a separate homeland in Arakan state. The Burmese junta also fears that the Rohingya guerrillas, who backed a 1988 pro-democracy uprising in which hundreds of people were killed by the government, will link up with other ethnic insurgents.

The military government launched a major offensive against ethnic Karen rebels headquartered near the eastern border with Thailand. That was in retaliation for Karen guerrilla attacks last month in areas just southwest of Rangoon.

Rangoon "has been dealing with a lot of tension along both borders in recent weeks," says a Western diplomat.

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