The latest exodus of over half a million Rohingya from Myanmar to Bangladesh has refocused the spotlight on the much-persecuted minority.
Naypyidaw describes the mainly-Muslim Rohingya ethnic group as “Bengalis”, to imply that they are illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.
But just as Dhaka is trying to build up global pressure on Myanmar to take back its citizens, a Bangladeshi textbook for eighth graders has stirred controversy by apparently supporting Naypyidaw’s claim.
A chapter in “Sahitya Konika”, a textbook in Bangla by the National Curriculum and Textbook Board (NCTB), appears to claim that Muslims and Hindus living at Maungdaw in Rakhine state are settlers and that their country of origin is Bangladesh.
The write-up printed as a travel story – “Maungdawr Pothey” (On the way to Maungdaw) – is a compilation of “Aparup Arakan” penned by award-winning litterateur Bipradash Barua who visited many places, spoke to locals and tasted their food.
In one passage, he mentions a girl running from a kitchen: “She is a Bangali, wearing a lungi and a blouse. She was speaking in Chittagonian [Chittagong’s dialect]. She is Jhorna hailing from Raojan upazila in Chittagong. The upazila is near my native village. Another girl was also cooking like her.”
In the fifth passage, he says a rickshaw is known as “paikya” in Myanmar.
“Almost the entire trades in Maungdaw are dominated by them [Muslims] and also by Hindus. They [both Muslims and Hindus] came from Chittagong after living there for quite a long while,” he wrote.
However, the exact time period was not mentioned in the story.
Despite having lived in the country for centuries, Myanmar denies the Rohingya citizenship and forces them to live in apartheid-like conditions.
Feuds with the Buddhists in the first half of the last century continued even after Myanmar achieved independence in 1948. But matters worsened after a military coup led by Ne Win in 1962.
The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Ministry of Foreign Affairs has recently asked the ministry to work with the Ministry of Education on content for the textbook which covers the historical background and nationality of the Rohingya.
The committee also suggested the concerned ministry to check the textbooks to see if they contained any controversial content.
“We have proposed to the ministries concerned to add information on Rohingya nationalities because Myanmar has been arguing over the issue. Myanmar has always made claims against Bangladesh, even using their textbook,” said standing committee member Lt Col Muhammad Faruk Khan.
Faruk, who is also a presidium member of the ruling Awami League, said the committee felt that the nation’s children should learn the actual Rohingya history through the textbook.
“Some [Rohingya] teachers, who are refugees in Cox’s Bazar, showed us their textbook which mentioned the Rohingya as being of Bangladeshi origin and claiming that Chittagong was their native land. As a result, the children are growing up with a sense that they are not Myanmar citizens and that they should be shifted to Bangladesh,” he said.
Myanmar has long been claiming that Bangladesh is the ancestral homeland of the Rohingya, who migrated to Rakhine state, also known as Arakan.
Bangladesh has always trashed the claim as the Rohingya have been living in Rakhine for hundreds of years and they do not even own property on Bangladeshi territory.
“Arakan included the Chittagong region, but that was 500 years ago. That history should not be used after so long to brand them as Bangladeshis,” Faruk said. “We should incorporate accurate information in the textbook about Rakhine.”
Bipradash Barua - the writer of the textbook - said he travelled to Maungdaw some 17 years ago.
“I wrote the story as I saw it [during the tour]. I authored exactly what I had seen and heard then. And, the write-up is not a research-based one. Rather, it is a travel story,” he told BBC Bangla recently.
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“I did not count the number of Bangladeshis who had migrated there. I did not collect any estimate on them.”
Biprodash also claimed that he had not been made aware that his story was selected for the textbook. “Nobody contacted me over the issue while publishing the story,” he said.
Speaking to the Dhaka Tribune, Dhaka University history teacher Prof Syed Anwar Hossain said it was true that many people had gone to Arakan from Chittagong and Cox’s Bazar, but that they had left around two centuries ago.
“If the people who had come to the Chittagong Hill Tracts in the 16th century now enjoy Bangladeshi citizenship, why cannot the Rohingya be called Burmese nationals?” he said.
He pointed out that Myanmar did not raise any question in 1962 when its military government accepted the Rohingya as citizens. “They are now trying to make it an issue to kick them out of the country.”
When his attention was drawn to Bipradash’s story, the historian suggested that it be withdrawn since it may cause confusion in future.
The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Ministry of Foreign Affairs also suggested that the board remove any controversial content from the textbooks.
It appears that the NCTB did not think over the story when it was published in 2012, the same year when apparent communal violence displaced thousands of Rohingya in Rakhine state.
A NCTB official, requesting anonymity, said they were looking into the matter. “The higher authorities could rethink the story given the ongoing Rohingya crisis,” he said.
NCTB Chairman Prof Narayan Chandra Saha, attesting to the complexity in the story, told the Dhaka Tribune that “Maungdawr Pothey” was not discussed in any meeting held over the textbook.
“Anybody linked to the textbook publication process did not notice it either,” he said.
“The NCTB authorities select articles, poems or prose for textbooks as recommended by the textbook editorial panel comprising noted educationists. Without their suggestion we cannot change the text.”
Eleven educationists drafted and edited the book. One of them, Prof Syed Azizul Haque, said travel stories do not always show concrete data.
“The write-up is actually a diary-based article. We picked the story to give the students an idea of Myanmar as a neighbouring country,” he said. “But NCTB can rethink the story if we find it necessary to keep it in the textbook next year (2018).”
As many as 536,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh since August 25.
Faced with mounting pressure from human rights bodies and international agencies, Myanmar has said it will repatriate Rohingya from Bangladesh after verification in accordance with the 1992 Joint Statement, an agreement signed between Dhaka and Naypyidaw.