A question from 1971 is still relevant in 2019
“Can the refugees ever go home” was a headline in The Guardian newspaper on October 29, 1971, related to Bangladeshi refugees in India at that time, and this is the same question being asked in October 2019 related to the Rohingya from Myanmar.
By September and October 1971, those of us who were working with international NGOs in some of the over 900 refugee camps in India had become frustrated with the United Nations and the international community who were still, then, referring to the crisis in Bengal as an “internal problem of Pakistan.” With the Rohingya situation, the Bangladesh government is experiencing the same indifference that there was in 1971. In an excerpt from The Guardian of September 18, 1971, the following was written:
“Reaction abroad to so much suffering and so many corpses is more or less subdued. World public opinion, only mildly concerned, feels powerless to help in events that are taking place so far away. Governments are determined not to interfere.
In this year of grace 1971, it is apparently ‘normal’ for any state to be allowed to torture to death those of its citizens whom it objects to without provoking any outside reaction other than commiseration. The chancelleries of the world say what is happening in Bengal is an internal Pakistani problem. And a country’s domestic policies are strictly its own business.
“It so happens that their argument is false. It could, even if with difficulty, be accepted if the Islamabad government had been able to maltreat its citizens without letting any of them to escape.
But 8 million have fled to another state, which could not prevent them from entering and would dearly love to see them go back. These unfortunate people are too terror-stricken even to think of it.”
Later in this article of September 18, 1971, which was written by a former French ambassador to India, Jean Daridan, the following is written:
“In West Bengal, as in the other Indian states where camps have been set up, the sympathy of the local population today will turn into hostility when the refugees throng the already crowded labour market and the cost of living begins to soar. The pressure of public opinion which demands recognition of Bangladesh will one day force Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s hand.”
And the article concludes with this paragraph:
“Also involved is a question of international morality. Morality is probably not a major consideration for most world powers, which too often refuse to apply ethical standards to their own conduct. However, in this case, political expediency would be a short-sighted policy to follow.”
History repeating itself
Seeing the similarities between 1971 and 2019 in regards to the lack of action of the international community and the effect on the local communities, there are other similarities as well. Both Indira Gandhi in 1971, and Sheikh Hasina from 2017 to 2019, have been extremely patient.
In 1971, after a world information-sharing trip by the Gandhian leader, Jayaprakash Narayan, in July 1971 on behalf of the Government of India, Indira Gandhi herself visited Moscow -- and undertook a 21-day tour in October of Germany, France, Britain, Belgium, and the US. She tried to arouse the world’s conscience over the merciless butchering of the civilian population in East Pakistan and the savagery of General Tikka Khan.
Sheikh Hasina, at the UN, recently highlighted the urgency of the Rohingya refugee situation and placed a four-point proposal. This was voted on at the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC). The 47-member UNHRC adopted the resolution by 37 votes in favour, two against, and with seven abstentions. The two countries who voted against the resolution were China and the Philippines, while the abstentions were India, Nepal, Japan, Brazil, Ukraine, Angola, and Cameroon.
It is most disappointing and surprising that countries that have close connections with Bangladesh such as India, China, and Japan chose to either abstain from or vote against the resolution. It is hoped and expected that the PM will be able to have more success during her state visit to India.
There are other issues being raised by some observers when looking at the Rohingya crisis and recalling the experiences of 1971, and it most surprising that the UN organizations and international NGOs have not shown any interest to benefit from the lessons learned from 1971.
What is even more astonishing is the number of non-Bangladesh nationals deemed necessary to run the relief operations.
There are many hundreds of Bangladeshis trained and experienced in all aspects of work related to disaster mitigation, relief, and rehabilitation.
Regardless of the way in which you look at the needs of the Rohingya refugees and the host communities in Cox’s Bazar, the involvement of such a large number of foreigners is unnecessary, inefficient, and a shameful waste of money which, it is known, is in very short supply.
It is worth noting that while supporting the needs of 600,000 Bangladeshi refugees in India in 1971 in camps spread out over Tripura, Meghalaya, Assam, Cooch Behar, Jalpaiguri, West Dinajpur, Balughat, Bongaon, and Barasat, Oxfam-UK never needed more than four foreign nationals during the nine-month relief operation.
Surely, this should give some food for thought to some people.
Julian Francis has been associated with relief and development activities of Bangladesh since the War of Liberation. In 2012, the Government of Bangladesh awarded him the ‘Friends of Liberation War Honour’ in recognition of his work among the refugees in India in 1971 and in 2018 honoured him with full Bangladesh citizenship.