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Kip Jorgensen - Blog Post 1: "Breaking the "Conspiracy of Silence": The Bihari Refugees and RMMRU

Kip Jorgensen - Blog Post 1: "Breaking the "Conspiracy of Silence": The Bihari Refugees and RMMRU

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Controversy still surrounds the events of June 14th, the Muslim festival of Shab-e-Baraat. On this night of revelry and prayer, 10 members of the Bihari refugee community were killed in the Mirpur area, Dhaka. While the smoke of fireworks and the darkness have lifted, the facts have remained obscured due to alleged misconduct by authorities and misreports by media. This blog post will briefly detail who the Biharis are, the two versions of the murders, and the implications for Bangladesh. In examining these issues, I hope to better illustrate the role that RMMRU and its members play in relation to refugee issues, and as a civil society organization here in Bangladesh.

Who are the Biharis?

To understand who the Biharis are, one has to look to the birth of Bangladesh. Bangladesh’s independence movement emerged as resistance to the domination of West Pakistan over East Pakistan, the two halves of the fractured muslim-state created during Partition in 1947. While West Pakistan dominated the East economically and politically, despite having a smaller portion of the population and the country’s resources, it was the imposition of Urdu on Bangla-speaking East Pakistan that triggered Bangladesh’s War of Independence.  When the war concluded in 1971, with East Pakistan succeeding as an independent Bangladesh, the majority of Urdu-speaking citizens returned to Pakistan. Those that were not able to make the journey applied for relocation with the International Committee for the Red Cross. While some 163,000 were successfully moved to Pakistan, another approximate 160,000 remained in Bangladesh. In 1973 the Government of Bangladesh took over management of the camps from the International Red Cross. These Urdu speakers reside in 116 ‘settlements’ in Bangladesh, where they are denied citizenship rights and treated as ‘non-Bangladeshis’. Numerous commitments have been made for both their repatriation and integration, yet progress has not been made in either direction.

Bihari Camp Conditions

There are 116 Bihari camps, mostly located in the urban centers in 13 districts across the country. While the ICRC originally set up temporary shelters for the Bihari camp dwellers, these were never maintained and the ‘slum-like conditions have worsened as the populations have grown.These camps are severely overcrowded, have problems with sanitation, and lack basic facilities. In 2004, the  already inconsistent supply of wheat was discontinued. Furthermore, camps live under the constant threat of eviction by government forces, encroachment, and frequently lose power.

Recent studies (e.g. the Abrar-Redclift)  have found that 90 percent of the camp dwellers now desire Bangladeshi citizenship. Yet despite legal pronouncements made by both the government and the courts, access to the rights entailed in citizenship remain blocked to Biharis. For example, most Biharis referred to the obstacles in obtaining employment. Camp residents are not able to produce the documentation that is required by employers, in the form of a ‘local commissioner’s certificate'. Furthermore, those that are able to find formal employment often face wage discrimination and other kinds of mistreatment in the workplace, and are therefore pushed into the informal sector. Education is also an area of concern for residents of the Bihari camps. Although there are not any formal restrictions on education, camp addresses put the admission of Bihari children at the discretion of individuals within the education system. Due to common prejudices within Bangladeshi society, Bihari children who are admitted to schools frequently experience bullying at the hands of their teachers and peers. Bihari camps have also continued to experience problems with adequate healthcare and security. Insecurity in the camps comes from both gangs within the Bihari community, as well as from encroachment, violence and inadequate police protection from outside the community. All of these barriers have left the Bihari camp dwellers ‘trapped’ within wider Bangladesh society.

The Official Story

During the night of June 14, ten Bihari camp residents were killed. Media reports told of a dispute among the residents surrounding the use of fireworks, which culminated in the arson of several households and the resulting deaths. An additional body, that of 25 year old Further Mohammad Azan, was found with bullet wounds. Subsequent reports explored the possibility that the killings were part of ongoing clashes between rival groups within the Bihari camp, as well as detailed related vandalism and violence in response to the killings. Deputy Commissioner of Dhaka Sheikh Yusuf Harun confirmed the deaths of the nine Biharis - mostly women and children - but gave no details on progress made by the authorities.

RMMRU’s Response

RMMRU has maintained a deep involvement with the Bihari refugee situation. After a fact finding mission conducted by a team of RMMRU researchers, RMMRU’s executive director, Dr. C.R. Abrar admonished both the media and the authorities for the lack of transparency, justice, or proper response in the aftermath of the killings. Firstly, Dr. Abrar criticized the nonchalant attitude displayed by government officials and authorities. He said that “the insensitive and somewhat dismissive statement of the Minister of State for Home Affairs that it was ‘merely an accident’ gave clear indication to his subordinates which route to follow in investigating the case.”

Secondly, Abrar highlighted the incongruencies between the official reports and the findings of the RMMRU fact-finding mission. The fact finding mission found that the killings started with a conflict between camp-dwellers and local Bangladeshis. Local law enforcement took the side of the Bangladeshis, firing teargas and rubber bullets. A section of the Bengalis began looting Bihari stores and homes within the presence of the police, allegedly led by supports of the ruling BNP party and their affiliated organizations. Eventually they poured kerosene on the home of the nine victims and ignited it. The tenth victim was killed in a conflict with police, as camp dwellers resisted the removal of the bodies.

The interviews and testimonies gathered by the fact finding mission differ greatly from the sparse official reports offered by the police. Furthermore, the fact finding mission found that many witnesses and community leaders had been forced to sign blank testimonies by the police. In the following press conference, Dr. Abrar stated that the reaction to the killings was not an isolated incident, but rather one example of the ongoing mistreatment of Biharis in Bangladesh. He said that there is ‘a conspiracy of silence’ on behalf of the authorities regarding the residents of the camps. Dr. Abrar stated that “this has once again laid bare not only the ineptness and inefficiency of those at the helm of law enforcement in the country but also their intent of misdirecting the enquiry and ultimately perverting the course of justice”. He placed the onus on the government to restore public support for law enforcement, calling for the government to heed civil society organizations’ demands for a independent and credible inquiry.

RMMRU’s Role in Refugee Issues

RMMRU’s response to the tragic death of 10 Bihari camp dwellers provides an excellent example of the role that RMMRU plays as a civil society organization in Bangladesh. Within a day of the reports of the killings, RMMRU, in partnership with Moulik Odhikar Shurokka Committee for the Protection of Fundamental Rights, organized a fact finding mission at the Mirpur camp. These researchers interviewed community leaders, family members of the deceased, and witnesses, as well as documenting the area with photographs. Team member Anas Ansar explained their role: “We were there to see what happened on the ground and come to know the incident from the perspective of the local peoples and the community…. it is important because there is kinds of censorship in these kinds of incidents, so to hear the truth is important in giving justice to the victims and contributing to the civil rights movement for democracy in Bangladesh”

Equipped with the facts and testimonies from the fact finding mission, RMMRU and its affiliates engaged the media. Two days after the killings, RMMRU organized a press conference regarding the issue, inviting eminent human rights Lawyer Dr. Shahdeen Malik to join in a discussion. Attendance by the media surpassed expectations, and RMMRU was pleased with the dissemination of information. Additionally, Dr. Abrar wrote three articles on the incident, which were published in Dhaka’s leading newspapers.

Furthermore, one cannot understate the importance of the research that RMMRU has conducted on the Bihari refugees. RMMRU has produced numerous policy briefs and working papers on the subject, since 1998. This academic and policy work continues to monitor the populations of Bihari camp dwellers, their condition, as well as the various forms of discrimination that they face. This research allows RMMRU conduct policy advocacy here in Bangladesh.