September on Teknaf Road: Understanding Forced Migrations and Perspective of ‘Safe Zone’ for Rohingya Refugees
By Sowmit Chandra Chanda
Millions of babies in pain
Millions of mothers in rain
Millions of brothers in woe
Millions of children nowhere to go. – Alan Ginsberg, “September on Jessore Road”,1971)
These famous melancholic lines are from one of America’s most prolific modern poets and the founder of the ‘Beat generation’ Alan Ginsberg’s poem “September on Jessore Road”, written on the struggles and sufferings of East Bengal ‘refugees’, who sought shelter in refugee camp in West Bengal for the safety of their life during the Liberation War of 1971 against Pakistan. Ginsberg created the image of reality he had seen and it became the ‘museum of compilation’ of war-affected innocent refugee people (Islam, 28-32).
Coincidentally, it is that Bangladesh of 1971, which in recent years has been giving shelter to the Rohingya refugees of the Rakhine state [Formerly Arakan till the 1990s] of Myanmar [Formerly Burma till 1989] (Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1998). As a neighbor of Myanmar, India has provided shelter to the Rohingyas, but the country has also taken an initiative to deport 40,000 Rohingya migrant refugees to their country tagging them as illegal migrants. India is not a signatory to the UN conventions on refugees and no national law of this country covers it.
It is Bangladesh which has taken the responsibility of almost 90% of homeless Rohingya refugees and built refugee camps to save their life. These refugees are still crossing over the Naf River and walking miles towards the Teknaf Road. The river and the road are situated near the international border of Bangladesh-Myanmar and these belong to Teknaf Upozilla of Cox’s Bazar district, Bangladesh. The situation at Teknaf Road reminds one of the situation of Jessore Road in 1971 and the legacy of Alan Ginsberg’s “September on Jessore Road” turns into “September on Teknaf Road”. If we replace ‘Jessore Road’ with ‘Teknaf Road’ in the poem, the whole scenario would be almost the same with two different places, different eras and different circumstances.
Forced Migration: A Pathetic Example of Modern Exodus
The ‘Rohingya crisis’ has been one of the most prominent issues of South Asian geo-politics since 2012. Though the Rohingya infiltration into Bangladesh has been going on for years, Bangladesh has periodically mentioned that around half a million Rohingyas are staying in their territory. From 25 August, 2017, the situation became overwhelming again due to a sudden attack of the ARSA [Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army] on Myanmar security forces in the Rakhine state, as the BBC writes, “The latest exodus began on 25 August 2017 after Rohingya ARSA militants launched deadly attacks on more than 30 police posts.” The Washington Post reported the brutality by narrating the exodus of refugees to Bangladesh: “The Burmese military’s “clearance operation” in the hamlet of Maung Nu and dozens of other villages populated by Burma’s ethnic Rohingya minority has triggered an exodus of an estimated 400,000 refugees into Bangladesh.” On 2 September, 2017, The New York Times described the horrific situation Myanmar. Now around 1.3 million Rohingyas are staying in Bangladeshi refugee camps as per WHO reports, whereas the Rakhine state is home to around 1.4 million Rohingyas.
The state politics of Myanmar and its aggressive power structure have forced hundreds of thousands of innocent people into exile to the neighboring countries. Myanmar has been intentionally making these refugees ‘stateless’ and homeless. The Myanmar government has denied them citizenship under the 1982 Myanmar nationality law, whereas it has given recognition to 135 other ethnic groups by 1990 (Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, August 2017, pp. 26-32). The Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, led by the former UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, says: “Myanmar harbours the largest community of stateless people in the world, and the Commission was specifically mandated to explore this issue and provide recommendations related to citizenship and documentation and propose actions to clarify questions of citizenship.”
The Kofi Annan-led Commission was established on 23 August, 2016, instituted by Myanmar. Most of the members of the commission were also from Myanmar. This commission released its final report exactly after a year on 24 August 2017 with multiple recommendations regarding reconsideration of the citizenship law of 1982 and giving the Rohingyas their citizenship rights:
The 1982 Citizenship Law explicitly states that those who prior to its enactment were already citizens would retain their citizenship rights. But the law – and the way it was implemented – significantly narrowed the prospects of citizenship for the Muslims in Rakhine. In 1989, a citizenship inspection process was carried out across Myanmar, and those found to meet the new requirements had their National Registration Cards (NRCs) replaced with new “Citizenship Scrutiny Cards” (CSCs). The majority of Muslims in Rakhine with NRCs surrendered their documents, but were never issued with CSCs, rendering them de facto stateless. (30)
As the chair, Mr. Annan presented the report to Myanmar President U Htin Kyaw in Nay Pyi Taw. At the time the State-run Global New Light of Myanmar had reported that Htn Kyaw hoped the international community would “understand the challenges and situation being faced by the government” in dealing with the Rakhine issue. Incidentally, one of 21st Century’s most horrific explosion of humanitarian catastrophes unfolded the night after the release of the report.
Myanmar is making a minor ethnic group the ‘other’ by ignoring their foremost right to citizenship. And this ‘othering’ process has been executed shamelessly by the Myanmar army – the Tatmadaw. The United Nations Human Rights Council, which has been voicing for years for the rights of human beings (Adelman, 2001), is explicit in its condemnation of this ‘othering’ issue: “The process of “othering” the Rohingya and their discriminatory treatment began long before 2012. The extreme vulnerability of the Rohingya is a consequence of State policies and practices implemented over decades, steadily marginalizing them. The result is a continuing situation of severe, systemic and institutionalized oppression from birth to death.” This is a clear indication of marginalization of the Rohingya community every day. For years, they have moved from place to place, as if they have born to embrace and pursue the ‘boating people’ (Mathieson, 2009). Myanmar security forces have pushed the Rohingya people towards the border of Bangladesh by tagging them as ‘Bengali’ or ‘stateless Bengali Muslims’. These persecuted people face the threat of famine, physical torture, arson, gang rape, mass killing, execution, leading to a possible genocide, as we have witnessed in Rwanda, Darfur, Bosnia, and Kosovo. The United Nation too voiced the fear that “the army may have committed genocide.” On 11 September, 2017, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, slammed the Myanmar government, “the situation seems a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” On 6 March 2018, Andrew Gilmour, the UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, said after finishing his four-day visit to Bangladesh, “The ethnic cleansing of Rohingya from Myanmar continues. I don’t think we can draw any other conclusion from what I have seen and heard in Cox’s Bazar.” In addition, the Amnesty International claimed that the Myanmar government barred international aid into the country. Tirana Hassan, Amnesty International’s Director for Crisis Response, said, “Rakhine state is on the precipice of a humanitarian disaster. Nothing can justify denying life-saving aid to desperate people. By blocking access for humanitarian organizations, Myanmar’s authorities have put tens of thousands of people at risk and shown a callous disregard for human life.” The Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s address in the 72nd United Nations General Assembly also revealed the Myanmar military junta’s unwillingness to let the Rohingyas return safely: “We are horrified to see that the Myanmar authorities are laying landmines along their stretch of the border to prevent the Ronhingyas from returning to Myanmar, this people must be able to return to their homeland in safety, security and dignity.”
Who is there to persuade the Myanmar government and military to take back their own citizens?
Nearly a dozen Nobel Peace Prize laureates – Mohammed Yunus, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Malala Yousafzai, etc. – have written an open letter to Aung San Suu Kyi several times, describing the situation in Rohingya as “a human tragedy amounting to ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.” Five women Nobel Peace Prize winners, which include Mairead Maguire, Jody Williams, Shirin Ebadi, etc., writes: “The time is now for you to stand for the rights of Rohingya people, with the same vigour and conviction so many around the world stood for yours.” In another individual open letter to Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu writes, “If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep.” The letter of those 23 Nobel laureates and world leaders painfully states: “Despite repeated appeals to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi we are frustrated that she has not taken any initiative to ensure full and equal citizenship rights of the Rohingyas. Daw Suu Kyi is the leader and is the one with the primary responsibility to lead, and lead with courage, humanity and compassion.”
Meanwhile, the United Nations has considered the Rohingya community as the “most persecuted people in the world.” This claim has been denied by the Myanmar government and the government-backed biased media. On 23 July, 2013, Myanmar Times denied this claim in a news report, “A review of the ‘Collected reports to the UN General Assembly by the Special Rapporteurs on the situation of human rights in Myanmar’, compiled by the Online Burma/Myanmar Library and last updated in February 2009, found that the comprehensive collection made no mention of the Rohingya as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.” But, the irony is, on 5 December, 2017, the day of opening the ‘special session on the human rights situations of the Rohingya’ by United Nations Human Rights Council, Pramila Patten, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on sexual violence in conflict, had said, “the people and the Government of Bangladesh … had opened their borders, homes and hearts to Rohingya, the most persecuted minority in the world.” So, the UN has been using this term in its official communications for a while.
‘Safe Zone’: Searching for Sustainable Solution
The perspective of a ‘Safe Zone’ for a sustainable and permanent solution for the Rohingya community was proposed by the Bangladeshi Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, in her address to the 72nd session of the United Nations General Assembly. Hasina addressed the assembly on 21 September, 2017, when the atrocities committed on the Rohingya community were the worst. Prior to joining the assembly in New York, she visited the Rohingya refuges in Cox’s Bazaar and witnessed the struggles and sufferings of the refugees. Her address indicates that Hasina went to the assembly with necessary moral and practical homework. She proposed 5 points on the Rohingya issue in front of the United Nations, world leaders and international communities. She said:
I further call upon the United Nations and the international community to take immediate and effective measures for a permanent solution to this protracted Rohingya crisis. In this regard, I propose the following actions:
First: Myanmar must unconditionally stop the violence and the practice of ethnic cleansing in the Rakhine State immediately and forever.
Second: Secretary General of the United Nations should immediately send a Fact-Finding Mission to Myanmar.
Third: All civilians irrespective of religion and ethnicity must be protected in Myanmar. For that “safe zones” could be created inside Myanmar under UN supervision.
Fourth: Ensure sustainable return of all forcibly displaced Rohingyas in Bangladesh to their homes in Myanmar.
Fifth: The recommendations of Kofi Annan Commission Report must be immediately implemented unconditionally and in its entirety.
No doubt, Bangladesh’s proposals contain some of the most important points to consider and discuss on the Rohingya issue for the United Nations, the Security Council members, and other parties. Despite being a densely populated and poor country saddled with so many problems and resource constraints, it hasn’t refused to take care of extra 1.4 million refugees. What Bangladesh’s supreme leader has said has been echoed by other world leaders, too. From a humanitarian ground, one would say that the ‘5 points proposal’ could be the best sustainable solution for the crisis. Bangladesh has been already doing the best it could within its limitations.
Here I will focus on the third point of Bangladesh’s proposal. ‘Safe Zones’ as a phenomenon has been discussed a lot in the context of Syria War, where Russia, Iran and Turkey have agreed to a memorandum to make four safe zones within Syria initially to protect the war refugees (Bendix, 2017). As per the Article 33 [prohibition of expulsion or return (“refoulement”)] of Refugee convention 1951 and its Protocol 1967, if refugees cannot be pushed back to their homeland where they are afraid of torment and if they should be allowed to flee and cross borders to get protection, how is it possible to set ‘safe zones’ in the conflicted country? Will it contradict the right of fleeing of one’s country which is insecure? (United Nations High Commission for Refugees, 1951, p. 30). On the other hand, Bangladesh is not a signatory state party to the Refugee convention of 1951 or/and its Protocol 1967. Consequently, it depends solely on the government of the country to take decisions regarding refugees. As the UNHCR says:
Bangladesh is not a State party to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or its 1967 Protocol (hereinafter jointly referred to as the 1951 Convention). There is no provision for refugees in national legislation, although a number of national laws and provisions in the Constitution cover all persons on the territory. The regulation governing the presence of refugees is the 1946 Foreigners Act, which supersedes all other legal provisions, as it grants the Government the power and discretion to decide on the scope of the Act’s application. Against this legal landscape, protection is extended to refugees through administrative mechanisms.
Bangladesh has the right to propose and create safe zone according to law. The ‘Syria model’ might have shown examples to them on the Rohingya issue. However, all the related parties in Syria have agreed to create safe zones and most importantly the state too has agreed. On the contrary, Myanmar never responded on the crisis positively to solve the problem by creating safe zones. It almost looks certain that the Myanmar government would not consent to create safe zones for the Rohingyas in their own territory.
As it stands now, there may be only two considerations: Frist, the UN Charter Article 2(4), which has provisions for the territorial integrity of Myanmar, as in the case of Syria. The Charter Article states: “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.” Second, Chapter VII [ACTION WITH RESPECT TO THREATS TO THE PEACE, BREACHES OF THE PEACE, AND ACTS OF AGGRESSION, Article 39-52] mentions that the Security Council (in the name of its umbrella – United Nations) can establish such zones, as it did previously through resolutions on Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1993 and Rwanda in 1994. But will China give its vote on this issue and go against its good friend Myanmar? It’s a million-dollar question. ‘Veto’ probably is the answer. In the context of Myanmar, where the Myanmar Army and ARSA are already engaged in a ceaseless battle, it can be said that Bangladesh is already acting as a ‘safe zone’ for the Rohingya refugees. But the question is for how long Bangladesh will be able to act in such a way.
In a liberal humanitarian world, no state can commit an inhuman act like killing without judiciary, irrespective of the fact if it is ‘ethnic cleansing’ or ‘state terrorism’ or ‘genocide’. As numerous studies have suggested, Myanmar inflicts such acts on an illegal ground by tagging the Rohingyas as ‘Bengali Muslims’, who are supposedly outsiders in Burmese territory. Myanmar must know that the former Arakan and Arakan Royal Court had been for years a ground for Bengali literature, culture and customs. There must be a debate on how Arakan became a Burmese land. The Bengal presidency in the British colonial period was the biggest area among all the zones. Burma was also a part of this. It is obvious that the Bengalis lived there but this doesn’t mean that they are Bangladeshis. If this is the logic, people from West Bengal are supposed to be Bangladeshis now; or vice versa, people who migrated to West Bengal from East Bengal during the partition and in its aftermath cannot be treated as Indian citizens now. In that case, we may need to correct the error of the British, resurrect the border map between three countries and create an exclusive land for Bengalis. But the bitter reality is that this is just an illusion of the modern nation-state and nationalism (Christie, 1996).
Myanmar should stop the human rights violations of the Rohingyas. It is doing what Pakistan had done to East Pakistan from 1947 to 1971. The Myanmar government’s project to delegitimize the Rohingyas could encourage this oppressed ethnic group to create their own independent territory one day by following the ‘Bangladesh Model’ of 1971. Though ‘partition’ is almost synonyms with ‘tragedy’ in the region, the story of 1971 is different from that of 1947. The Rakhine state has both options before them – either 1947 or 1971 or anything else which may be a permanent solution to this tragedy.
Photo: Waseem Hussain
 ‘September on Teknaf Road!’ was the top headline, published in a Bangladeshi Bengali Newspaper Daily Samakal on 7 September 2017, reported by Rajib Noor and Abdur Rahman. On a different note, this researcher would have preferred to write ‘September on Naf River’ rather than ‘September on Teknaf Road’ in the title. Coincidentally, on 29 August 2017, this researcher on his Facebook page had urged the Bangladeshi writers’ community to write something by superscripting the term ‘September on Naf River’ on the line of Ginsberg’s ‘September on Jessore Road’. Since Ginsberg’s poetry has been the emotional hallmark of a worldwide refugee struggle for years, it is better to stick with ‘September on Teknaf Road’ to show the refugee tragedy.
Adelman, H. (2001). From Refugees to Forced Migration: The UNHCR and Human Security. The International Migration Review, 35(1 Special Issue: UNHCR at 50: Past, Present and Future of Refugee Assistance (Spring, 2001)), 7-32. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/2676049?newaccount=true&read-now=1&seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents
Advisory Commission on Rakhine State. (August 2017). Towards a Peaceful, Fair and Prosperous Future for the People of Rakhine: Final Report of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State. rakhinecommission.org. Retrieved from http://www.rakhinecommission.org/the-final-report/
Christie, C. J. (1996). At the Frontier of the Islamic World: the Arakanese Muslims . In A Modern History of Southeast Asia: Decolonization, Nationalism and Separatism (pp. 161-171). London and New York: I.B Tauris Publishers.
Islam, M. M. (Apr. 2016). September on Jessore Road: A Museum of Sufferings. IOSR Journal Of Humanities And Social Science (IOSR-JHSS), 21(4), 28-32. Retrieved 10 12, 2018, from http://www.iosrjournals.org/iosr-jhss/papers/Vol.%2021%20Issue4/Version-2/E2104022832.pdf
Mathieson, D. (2009). Perilous Plight: Burma’s Rohingya Take to the Seas. New York: Human Rights Watch.
Mondriaan String Quartet – September on Jessore Road. (2011, 11 7). Retrieved 10 13, 2018, from The Allan Ginsberg Project: https://allenginsberg.org/2011/11/mondriaan-string-quartet-september-on-jessore-road/
Sowmit Chandra Chanda is an ICCR Ph.D. Fellow from Bangladesh, pursuing his doctorate at the Diaspora & Migration Research Centre, Gujarat University, Ahmedabad, India. He acquired Honours and Masters from Jahangirnagar University, Dhaka, Bangladesh. He is passionate to be a committed writer and researcher for human welfare. He has published two books, the latter is a research one. He can be reached at email@example.com
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