Bangladesh government accused of crackdown on Burmese refugees

Bangladesh accused of crackdown on Burmese refugees. Obama meets the Dalai Lama despite Chinese criticism; Maoists kills ten in Bihar. Protests rock Ivory Coast as president dissolves the government. Taliban running low on ammo in sixth day of Operation Moshtarak. Rumours of a coup attempt in Niger. All this and much more in today’s briefing.
Josephine Whitaker
18 February 2010

Two separate reports this week have raised fresh concerns about the treatment of Burmese Rohingya refugees at the hands of Bangladeshi authorities. The Rohingyas, a Muslim minority from Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state, have suffered a long history of persecution in Myanmar, and have been living in their thousands in south-eastern Bangladesh for decades. Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), an international medical relief organisation, today released a report repeating previous criticisms of the treatment of Rohingyas in Bangladesh, and echoing concerns raised earlier this week in a report from the Bangok-based lobby group, the Arakan Project.

Both reports contain allegations that state security forces are intimidating Rohingya refugees in order to force them back across the border into Myanmar. MSF doctors report treating victims of severe beatings, apparently at the hands of state security forces. However, the chief of police in Kutupalong, the border town in which several Rohingya refugee camps are located, denied allegations of wrongdoing, and added that strong action is needed to prevent further mass immigration. “If we don’t stop them, the floodgates will open,” he told AFP.

Both reports also underline the unfolding humanitarian crisis in the overcrowded refugee camp in Kutupalong. Close to 30,000 unregistered refugees now reside in an unofficial camp, on the fringes of an official government refugee camp. Since October 2009, when the state crackdown is believed to have begun, 6,000 unregistered refugees have arrived at the unofficial camp. More than 2,000 are believed to have arrived in January alone. The reports highlight worrying levels of malnutrition and mortality, and the lack of adequate sanitation facilities for residents of the unofficial camp.

The openSecurity verdict: The Rohingya, an ethnic and religious minority, are denied citizenship rights in Myanmar. Not only are they unable to find work or purchase land, they must also seek state permission in order to marry or to travel outside of their villages. Described by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world, the Rohingya have been fighting for recognition as a separate ethnic group since before the Second World War. A succession of Burmese administrations has systematically attempted to force the Rohingya out of Myanmar.

Regular punitive crackdowns on Rohingyas in Myanmar have forced thousands to seek refuge in neighbouring countries over the last half century, but they have not been warmly received. In Bangladesh, for example, approximately 200,000 Rohingyas fled Myanmar in 1978 due to an intensification in state persecution. However, the hostile reception they encountered over the border saw almost all of them return to Myanmar the following year. Over the years, repeated questions have been raised about Bangladesh’s treatment of fleeing Rohingyas in its south-eastern division. In the early 1990s, the UNHCR withdrew its support for the refugee camps in protest at the government’s treatment of the refugees.

Today there are estimated to be over 220,000 Rohingyas in Bangladesh, although only 28,000 are formally registered. The government continues to view them as illegal migrants who should be returned to Myanmar immediately. During diplomatic talks between the two countries in December last year, the Burmese government gave assurances that it would take back some 9,000 Rohingya refugees “soon”.  Locally, their presence causes resentment about the strain on resources and jobs in one of the poorest regions in the country. In the past, there have been regular reports of violence against refugees perpetrated by Bangladeshi authorities, with police round-ups leading to forced repatriation or deportation. While the UNHCR works with the 28,000 registered refugees, it is not permitted to work with the vast, unregistered majority.

Rohingyas in Bangladesh are faced with an unenviable choice. Return to Myanmar and ever-increasing persecution is clearly not an option. Returning those fleeing the threat of death or persecution to their country of origin is a violation of international law. However, fleeing to another neighbouring country is also far from a desirable option for the Rohingya. Although the plight of this group regularly appears in the press releases of international rights groups, the Rohingyas meet only hostility from neighbouring governments. In early 2009, the Thai government came under fire for abandoning a boatload of Rohingya refugees on the open seas. It also refused to allow the UNHCR access to Rohingya refugees detained in Thailand, and prevented the agency from distributing food aid there. Malaysia and Indonesia, which also host large populations of Rohingyas, have also been accused of mistreating Rohingyas.

The situation of the Rohingya in Bangladesh and other south and south-east Asian countries requires a more proactive approach from international agencies in host countries, to ensure that host governments abide by their obligations under international treaties and do not put this community in an even more vulnerable position.

Obama to meet the Dalai Lama despite Chinese pressure

US President Barack Obama is to meet with the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, despite warnings from the Chinese government that this will undermine already strained Sino-US relations. The Dalai Lama arrived in the US on Wednesday, and Obama will receive him in the White House today. The Chinese government has warned that the meeting may undermine diplomatic and trade ties between the two countries. The Obama administration has tried to keep the meeting low-key, while defending its decision. White House spokesperson Robert Gibbs said that he believed the Sino-US relationship was “mature” enough that the two could disagree in some areas, while agreeing in others.

However, Obama’s decision to meet with the Dalai Lama comes after a series of tests for this relationship that are putting it under considerable strain. A recent arms sale to Taiwan worth $6.4bn has angered Beijing, whilst China is suspected of being behind a recent cyber attack against US search engine giant Google.

Maoists kill ten in revenge attack

Maoist gunmen killed at least ten villagers and abducted an unknown number, in Jamui district, Bihar state, late on Wednesday night, local police said. Approximately 150 gunmen attacked the village, setting fire to houses and killing and abducting residents. Local authorities believe that the attack was in revenge for the alleged killing of eight Maoists earlier in February. The killings coincide with a strike called by local Maoists on Wednesday in protest against the killings.

Protests rock Ivory Coast as president dissolves government

Thousands of protestors blockaded parts of the Ivorian capital and other key towns on Wednesday, in protest against President Laurent Gbagbo’s recent decision to dissolve the government and electoral commission. Local witnesses say that roughly 1,000 people were on the streets of central towns, while protestors in Abidjan, the country’s chief city, set fire to a state owned bus and burned tires in the street.

The protests come after a spat between the president and the electoral commission, which saw Gbagbo accusing the electoral commission of illegally registering voters loyal to the opposition. Opposition party spokesmen have called for large protests in response, and have said they will refuse to recognise the new government expected to be formed in the next few days.

The president’s decision to dissolve both the government and the electoral commission, widely seen as unlawful, will almost definitely delay presidential polls scheduled for early March, which have been repeatedly relayed since 2005. President Blaise Compaore, of neighbouring Burkina Faso, who has acted as a mediator since the civil war in Ivory Coast between 2002 and 2003, and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), urged Gbagbo to re-schedule the poll urgently.

Taliban running low on ammunition as Operation Moshtarak enters sixth day

NATO intercepts suggest that Taliban fighters pitted against Afghan and NATO forces in the Afghan city of Marjah, Helmand province, have called for reinforcements, indicating that they may already be running low on supplies. Today is the sixth day in the Operation Moshtarak, the biggest offensive launched by coalition forces since the invasion of 2001.

This report comes as Afghan commander General Mohiudin Ghori reported that eyewitness evidence suggests the Taliban are using women and children as human shields in their attacks on his forces. Commentators believe that this is an act of provocation aimed at destroying public support for the much-touted offensive. NATO has made much of its measures to reduce dangers to civilians during the operation, and has encouraged residents of Marjah who are unable to flee to remain in their homes.

Rumoured coup attempt in Niger

Several news agencies are reporting that gunfire has been heard inside the presidential palace in Niamey, the capital of Niger. According to the BBC, heavy firing lasting for half an hour was reported by eyewitnesses near the presidential palace, although no troop movements have been reported in the city.

Reuters reports that machine and heavy weapons fire was heard, and smoke rising from the palace seen by eyewitnesses. The agency also quotes an unnamed intelligence officer who suggested that the presidential guard was working to put down the attempted coup. President Mamdou Tandja changed the constitution last year to allow himself to run for a third term in office, and the rumoured coup may be an attempt to foreshorten his extended premiership.

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