Syed Badrul Ahsan
History generally seems to move in circles. It begins at one point and then comes back to its place of origin. The crisis over the Rohingyas appears to be a hint of this truism in our lives. No, it has nothing to do with the Rohingyas themselves. But it does have everything to do with the Myanmar government and the Chinese leadership. As we in Bangladesh mull over the ways and means by which we can cope with all this massive influx of the Rohingyas from Myanmar, we look behind our shoulder, to spot any support we can come by from some of the countries we have friendly relations with. And what we see is not very encouraging. And what we are reminded of is the tragedy we went through in the course of our War of Liberation in 1971.
Sit back and reflect on a past that is yours, solely yours. Back in 1971, it was an insensitive government in Pakistan that inaugurated a massive genocidal operation in Bangladesh. And in support of that regime forward came the leadership of communist China. For China, it did not matter that the Pakistan army was cheerfully engaged in the job of massacring Bengalis in its macabre task of upholding Pakistan’s territorial integrity. What mattered was the friendship Beijing enjoyed with Islamabad and the new friendship it was about to launch with Richard Nixon’s America. The Chinese leadership, basically Mao Zedong and Zhou En-lai, having for decades spoken of the revolutionary need to wage war against the exploiting classes and against imperialism, somehow quickly embraced the notion that the suffering Bengalis could wait awhile. What was more important was for China to stand by the military junta in Pakistan because the Pakistanis were about to bring America and China together in a colossal diplomatic development.
Moulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani, having demonstrated for years his happiness at the rise and consolidation of communism in China, dispatched urgent messages to the Chinese leadership, his goal being to bring Mao and Zhou around to the idea that the Bangladesh struggle, being an arduous war against Pakistani oppression, was a conflict which had pitted an aggressor state against a peaceful nation. The Mujibnagar government explored every avenue trying to persuade the Chinese to see light through moving away from the darkness of their support for Pakistan. Nothing worked, which of course made the Pakistanis happy. And they were thrilled that from the looks of it, the Chinese were about to come to their rescue from the north. Of course, that did not happen. The Chinese remained solidly behind Yahya Khan and his regime, though.
It is the same picture with the Rohingyas we confront today through the reluctance of China to condemn the atrocities perpetrated by the regime in Naypyitaw. In Beijing, there is a dangerous unwillingness to acknowledge the realities where the Myanmar regime’s repression of the Rohingya community is the issue. The Chinese permanent representative at the United Nations made it clear, in so many words, during the meeting of the Security Council last week that Beijing had no intention of condemning the Myanmar authorities over the persecution of the Rohingyas. Not a single word of sympathy was there from him or from his government for the more than half a million of these hapless people who have fled across the border, across the river and through the sea to safety in Bangladesh.
The images are therefore similar. The Chinese leadership shocked us in 1971 by looking away from our sufferings in the face of the Pakistan army’s genocidal acts. In 2017, it leaves us in a state of disbelief with its stubborn refusal to condemn the Myanmar military’s burn-and-kill programme against the Rohingyas.
The similarities between 1971 and 2017 are to be spotted elsewhere as well. In the Bangladesh instance, the Pakistan army went on propagating the lie, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that it had done nothing wrong in ‘East Pakistan’, that life was going on at a normal pace. In these present times, the Myanmar army happens to have taken whole passages out of the Pakistan army textbook to make the false case that life is fine and normal in the country whose politics it yet dominates. And there is yet another instance of historical repetition, or almost. When the Pakistan army went on the rampage in Bangladesh, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, as the leader of the largest party in West Pakistan, remained in denial mode about the atrocities perpetrated by the soldiers. Today, it remains the popularly-elected Aung San Suu Kyi’s task to inform the world with a straight face that all the charges against the Myanmar army in relation to the plight of the Rohingyas are false and should not be taken seriously.
History thus comes full circle. But, yes, there are the variations, discrepancies if you will, where a comparative study of the Bengali and Rohingya circumstances are concerned. Forty six years ago, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was unequivocal in her support for Bengali refugees flooding into her country to escape murder, mayhem and rape. All these years later, Narendra Modi shows little sign of his government being psychologically exercised over the Rohingya issue. In 1971, the American administration of Richard Nixon displayed utter callousness toward the Bengalis. In 2017, Nikki Haley, speaking for the Trump administration, delivered the blunt message to Myanmar that it was in serious breach of human rights in Rakhaine state.
It is all a matter of human sensibilities, of how they work or stay dormant. Take your pick.
Syed Badrul Ahsan: Associate Editor, The Asian Age. Contributing Columnist, Shottobani