While hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslim refugees have poured into Bangladesh from Myanmar over the past year, a few hundred impoverished tribal people have migrated in the opposite direction, lured by promises of land and citizenship, villagers and officials said.
Bangladesh officials say they have long been aware of a Myanmar government project to make Buddhists a majority in Rakhine, the rural state now largely abandoned by the Rohingya after a military crackdown caused close to 700,000 people to flee.
Those efforts intensified after September 2017, the height of the refugee outflow, a Bangladesh Home Ministry official told BenarNews, citing intelligence reports.
“After eviction of the Rohingya people, economic activities in Rakhine virtually collapsed. So, Myanmar needs people to cultivate the land and implement the development projects,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“So, they lure the Buddhists from Bangladesh,” the official said.
At least 35 families left a cluster of villages perched on ridges in remote Alikadam sub-district in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of southeastern Bangladesh, BenarNews learned in a visit to the region.
“Since October last year, 35 families have left from our nearby villages and settled in Burma. Some of the family members informed us that they would get free food, land, cattle, houses and citizenship,” Prenglung Mro, a resident of Raraipara village of Bandarban district, told BenarNews, standing outside his bamboo and wood house.
The four tribal groups that live in the hills of southeastern Bangladesh number fewer than 500,000 people and embrace Buddhist, Hindu and animist beliefs. All are ethnically related to groups found across the border in Myanmar and northeastern India.
Promises of a better life
A hardscrabble existence in the nearly inaccessible villages of the region makes such promises alluring.
Raraipara resident Limwai Mro told BenarNews that people in the area lend money to the Mro and other tribal people at exorbitant rates.
“If I take 1,000 taka [U.S. $12], I have to return 2,000 taka in six months. Besides, we the poor people do not get fair price of our agricultural products such as turmeric, mango, pineapple, ginger,” he said.
“Many people have decided to go to Burma to evade the loans of the local money lenders. Again, the production of rice and other products has come down over the years,” Limwai said.
He said businesses and the government in Myanmar support new arrivals.
“Everything is free there (in Rakhine),” he said.
That lure proved deadly for one family last month.
Songro Mro and her three children returned home after her husband died in a landmine blast in the border region on March 14. Her 8-year-old daughter also lost an eye.
“One Mro man, Aung San, lured my husband to go to Burma as we had been having very bad days here. The paddy we have here was not enough to meet our growing demand for food and other necessities,” Songro Mro said.
She said Aung San, who had once lived in Alikadam, told Pawai Mro that the Myanmar government would provide for the family in Rakhine.
“If we could reach Burma, we must live in a tent or temporary camps for two years. Then we will get a free house and land, and citizenship,” said Songro Mro, who suffered shrapnel injuries to her face.
“Poverty is here, but no violence. I was not interested in leaving Raraipara. But my husband was stubborn to go to Burma. We will never go to Burma again,” she said.
Bangladesh officials aware
K.S. Hla, chairman of Bandarban Hill District Council, said people belonging to the Mro, Marma, Modok and Tripura tribes had left for Rakhine state “in recent months” from Alikadam and the nearby sub-districts of Thanchi and Naikhangchhari. He did not specify how many.
“We have come to know that there has been some luring from the other side of the border,” Hla told BenarNews at his office in Bandarban town.
“Now, it has stopped. Our BGB and the BGP have been patrolling the border to stop such movement,” Hla said, referring to the border forces of Bangladesh and Myanmar.
Bangladesh Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal told BenarNews that he knew about tribal people departing from Bandarban district to Rakhine.
“I cannot give you the exact number, but some of them have left for Myanmar. Some of them have come back, too, as they could not move there freely,” Khan said.
Bangladesh Ambassador to Myanmar Manjurul Karim Khan Chowdhury told BenarNews he was not sure why Bangladesh nationals would want to go to Myanmar.
“There is no persecution of the Buddhists and other tribal people in Bangladesh. But we have to find out why they, though very small in number, have been crossing the border,” he said.