Washington, DC: Today, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D, HI-02) a member of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, introduced a bipartisan resolution calling on the government of Bangladesh to increase human rights protections, strengthen democratic institutions, and prevent the growth of extremist groups in the country. The resolution comes as ISIS and other trans-national radical Islamic groups continue to grow their influence in areas like South Asia. Co-sponsors include Asia and the Pacific Subcommittee Chairman Matt Salmon (R, AZ-05) and Rep. Bob Dold (R, IL-10).
In a speech on the House floor introducing the resolution, Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard stated, “Bangladesh is a country in turmoil. There are many concerns about the stability of the country, particularly since flawed elections were held last year, and the political violence that has ensued. I am particularly concerned over issues of religious freedom, and specifically, attacks against minority Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, and others, in Bangladesh. All too often perpetrators of crimes against minorities go unpunished. It’s up to the government of Bangladesh to take action to stop those who incite and commit violence and protect the rights of these minorities. [This resolution] calls on the government of Bangladesh to protect the human rights of all its citizens, particularly its vulnerable minorities, strengthen democratic institutions and rule of law, and prevent the growth of extremist groups.”
“It was an honor to work on this resolution with Rep. Gabbard,” said Congressman Matt Salmon. “In Bangladesh, there is great potential. Through this resolution, we have encouraged Bangladesh to embrace non-violent democratic competition and rule of law, and to shirk political violence and religious extremism. We expect Bangladesh to respect human dignity, honor commitments to freedom of expression and religion, and protect the human rights of all citizens, no matter one’s political disposition, creed, or religion. This resolution reaffirms our dedication to these principles.”
“Religious persecution is on the rise around the world, with 77% of the world’s population now living in countries with high restrictions on religious freedom,” said Congressman Bob Dold. “As the greatest force for human dignity in the world, the United States has an obligation to send the unequivocal message that we will not tolerate countries that fail to protect the fundamental freedoms of all citizens, especially minorities. I am pleased to join with my colleagues from both sides of the aisle calling on the government of Bangladesh to protect the rights of minorities, eliminate violent extremist groups and restore the rule of law.”
Bangladesh, a Muslim-majority nation in South Asia, is the world’s eighth most populous country in the world. The country’s faltering democratic system has been subjected to an array of pressures in recent years, including a combination of political violence, corruption, poverty, and increasingly, Islamist militancy. Religious minorities, including Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, and Ahmadiyya Muslims, in Bangladesh face high levels of persecution, including the destruction of temples, homes and businesses.
The failed attempt to send thousands of Rohingya back to Myanmar starting this month has drawn attention to alleged violence and intimidation by security forces against members of the Muslim minority living in Bangladesh’s sprawling refugee camps.
Bangladesh has boosted its international reputation by hosting more than 730,000 Rohingya who fled a vicious campaign by Myanmar’s military last year that U.N. investigators have labelled genocide – an accusation Myanmar has consistently denied.
But Bangladesh appears keen to demonstrate that Rohingya refugees will not be welcome there indefinitely. The planned repatriations sparked fear and chaos last week as Rohingya went into hiding – and in a handful of reported cases attempted suicide – to avoid being sent back.
Meanwhile, allegations of sporadic beatings, looting and intimidation by Bangladeshi soldiers, police and camp officials have underscored the bleak conditions faced by Rohingya in their host country, where most are denied official refugee status and face restrictions on freedom of movement.
The repatriation of some 2,000 refugees was scheduled to begin last Thursday, but Bangladesh has now put the plans on hold until next year after failing to find any Rohingya willing to go back.
Rohingya in the camps have told VOA that soldiers were stationed near the homes of those who were told they would be sent back last week, fueling fears of forced repatriation and adding to widespread distress in communities already suffering extreme trauma after last year’s violence.
One Rohingya man told VOA anonymously that block leaders in the camps were also “announcing with loudspeakers… that it’s essential for everyone to carry ID with them whenever and wherever they go if they leave their homes.”
Late last month, security forces looted property from Rohingya shopkeepers at the Balukhali camp, said John Quinley, a human rights specialist with the non-profit organization Fortify Rights.
“Right now the security forces are operating in the camps with total impunity,” he said.
In another case earlier this month, Fortify Rights reported that security forces rounded up 18 Rohingya leaders and slapped and hit some of them while telling them to instruct other refugees to cooperate with a new U.N.-backed project to provide them with “smart cards.”
Many Rohingya oppose the identity cards because they fear the information on them will be shared with the Myanmar government.
Bangladesh’s refugee, relief and repatriation commissioner, Abul Kalam, told VOA he was unaware of the allegations of violence but would follow up. “Generally, it is not acceptable that someone would apply force on or beat someone to do or not to do something,” he said.
Quinley called on the U.N.’s refugee agency to “do everything in their power to make sure that the Bangladeshi authorities are respecting human rights.”
Spokesperson Caroline Gluck said the agency has notified the authorities of a “small number” of reports of violence related to the smart card project. The agency has “been following up with them to ascertain the circumstances of what happened,” she told VOA.
Officials have responded that the incidents were “not linked” to the smart card project, she said.
She added, “The new ID card will enable refugees to be better protected and will streamline access to assistance and services.”
Mohammed Sheikh Anwar, a Rohingya activist, told VOA the Bangladeshi government “needs to keep the lower-level authorities in check. There should be an accountability measure.”
“Committing violence against genocide survivors to make them agree to the authorities’ terms is not the solution,” he added.
Last week a Rohingya man named Ata Ullah said he was beaten at the office of an official at the Chakmarkul camp, the Guardian reported, after he failed to provide the official with a list of refugees.
Ata Ullah said in a video circulated on social media that when he couldn’t provide the official with a list he “was beaten with a large stick… they stepped on my neck, I could not stand it.”
Human Rights Watch warned in a report in August that the Bangladeshi government was restricting access to basic services by resisting attempts by aid agencies and Rohingya refugees to “create any structures, infrastructure, or policies that suggest permanency.”
As a result, the report said, “refugee children do not go to school, but rather to ‘temporary learning centers,’ where ‘facilitators,’ not ‘teachers,’ preside over the classrooms. The learning centers are inadequate, only providing about two hours of instruction a day,” the report said. (VOA)