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Nearly 400,000 Of Myanmar's Muslim Rohingya Seek Asylum In Bangladesh


There is a massive refugee crisis in Southeast Asia. Since the end of August, hundreds of thousands of people from Myanmar's Rohingya minority have left Myanmar and gone into Bangladesh.


This crisis was set off on August 25 when a Rohingya insurgent group attacked police posts in Myanmar. That spurred a massive campaign of retaliation by Myanmar's military against the Rohingya civilian population in Myanmar's Rakhine State. Fleeing Rohingya tell stories of indiscriminate killings and villages burned down by Myanmar's soldiers. Yesterday a top U.N. official said the situation seems to be a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.

MCEVERS: This isn't the first time Rohingya refugees have fled Myanmar for Bangladesh. The Muslim minority has a long history of persecution in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar. Earlier today I talked to Zafar Sobhan. He's editor-in-chief of the Dhaka Tribune in Bangladesh. And I asked him how the people there are receiving the refugees.

ZAFAR SOBHAN: Once upon a time not long ago, there would have been much less sympathy and even a certain amount of prejudice against the Rohingyas in the minds of the average Bangladeshi. But that is changing.

MCEVERS: What changed people's minds?

SOBHAN: I think the scale of the catastrophe. When you hear the first-person testimony of people who've had their villages burned down, who've seen massacres before their eyes, children, elderly people killed, people with their legs blown up by landmines, it's very, very hard to harden your heart.

People remember back in 1971 when we were fighting a war of independence. Ten million Bangladeshis had to seek refuge across the border in India. We of all people should understand what it means to be victims of genocide and ethnic cleansing. We cannot turn away other people who are similarly in need. I think that argument has gained a lot of traction. And people - it's really sort of opened people's eyes. And I think there's been a sea change in public opinion because of that.

MCEVERS: And Bangladesh of course is one of the world's most densely populated countries, and now you've got this huge influx of people coming in there. That must cause some problems - right? - for the officials who are handling this, yeah?

SOBHAN: It's not an easy situation by any means. And right now it's in the middle of the monsoon season, so you have torrential downpours. That's not really helping the matter at all. And in fact, many parts of the country over the last month or so have been flooding. And so we have these problems to deal with. And of course it's a huge challenge.

But I think - I'd like to quote the prime minister, who said a wonderful thing actually earlier today. She said, look; we have 160 million people in Bangladesh. If we can feed 160 million, we can feed 700,000 more. And I think that's the right attitude. It's true that it is difficult. It's true that it's a challenge. If you look at it in that point of view, that, you know, yes, we are densely populated but there's 160 million of us, less than a million more - we can handle it.

MCEVERS: Wow. Do you sense that the number of people coming - of Rohingya people coming is starting to go down, or do you expect more?

SOBHAN: I have five reporters from the Dhaka Tribune down on the border area, and we're not really seeing too much of a drop-off. It's a steady stream of migrants coming through. And basically what you see is if you listen to the statements of the Myanmar government and the Myanmar army, who are essentially doing the ethnic cleansing, you know, they really have no interest in taking the Rohingya back. Their more or less stated goal is to ethnically cleanse them out of Rakhine State.

So I think this process will continue. We will continue to see Rohingya flee across the border because it's really the only way they can ensure their safety. And I think the more of them come, the less safe the few who are remaining in Rakhine State are going to be because then they become a smaller and smaller minority. They become more and more vulnerable. And so my fear is we're not going to see this end any time soon.

MCEVERS: Zafar Sobhan, editor-in-chief of the Dhaka Tribune, thank you so much.

SOBHAN: It's my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.