The Trouble With Thengar Char

Letter From Dhaka

Bangladeshi coast guards on Thengar Char, February 2017.  Mohammad Ponir Hossain / REUTERS

The island known as Thengar Char appeared in the Bay of Bengal just 11 years ago, formed by the one billion tons of silt that flow every year from the peaks of the Himalayas to the turbid waters of Bangladesh’s Meghna estuary.

At the time of its discovery, lawmakers considered the island, along with other land formations emerging on the coast, a potential answer to Bangladesh’s perennial problem of land scarcity. The country, which already has the world’s highest population density, could soon lose land—as much as 17 percent as sea levels rise, according to experts. Climatologists warned that the new islands were no solution, though, since they are prone to savage weather. During the June–September monsoon, moreover, most of Thengar Char is submerged. The area is dangerous for other reasons, too. Trafficking routes converge around the island, and criminals roam its waters.

As a result, talk of populating Thengar Char died off.  A decade later, however, the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is looking to the island to resolve another crisis. In Bangladesh’s southeast, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya, a Muslim minority from Myanmar, have carved out an uneasy existence. The Rohingya, which make up two percent of Myanmar’s population, are ethnic Bengalis, the descendants of Indian immigrants. Myanmar considers them illegal and does not recognize them as an official ethnic group; denied citizenship, they are effectively stateless. Rohingya settlements in northwestern Rakhine State are subject to security sweeps and brutal attacks by government security forces and hard-line Buddhists. Rights groups have reported summary executions, arbitrary arrests, torture, and mass rapes. Finding these conditions unbearable, Rohingyas have fled to neighboring countries, including Bangladesh, where they are considered an enormous drain on resources, including land.

Tens of thousands of Rohingya would be ferried to a muddy island to live in precarious conditions.

And so, on January 26, the government issued an order directing officials to relocate Rohingya refugees  to Thengar Char, prompting outrage from rights groups

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