Over the Myanmar president’s cruel and ridiculous formula — given on July 11 during the talks with the United Nation’s refugee agency chief — to get rid of the Rohingyas in his country, our government head or the foreign ministry was surprisingly unresponsive for at least one week.
Even though the Rohingyas, in a sense, Myanmar’s internal issue, but it must have concerned us since U Thein Sein in December 2011 assured Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina that the Rohingyas living in Bangladesh would be taken back, starting with those registered in two Cox’s Bazar camps. They account for around 28,000 and are assisted by the UNHCR.
What the Bangladesh government did against the Myanmar president’s aggressive remarks is holding a discussion with the newly-appointed ambassador of Myanmar in Dhaka on July 18. It was a call on by the envoy, who has more surprisingly vowed that his government was ready to take back the Rohingyas in Bangladesh — registered and undocumented — after verification. Such an abnormal statement has stunned many people and created confusion over Myanmar’s willingness to take back the Rohingyas and maintain a regular correspondence with Bangladesh.
There have been more 2,50,000 to 5,00,000 Rohingyas living in Bangladesh, especially in the Cox’s Bazar region. Besides them, a small number of Rohingyas could manage to infiltrate in Bangladesh in June during the sectarian violence when around 80 people were killed in infighting between the Rohingyas and Buddhists of Rakhine state (formerly Arakan). Other sources say some 6,000 Rohingya were slaughtered, many of them systematically by government forces. The government also reportedly snapped power and telecommunications in the state after declaring an emergency. The clash erupted after the publication of a video on the rape of a Buddhist woman by Rohingyas on the Youtube in late May. Following this, some enraged Buddhists on June 3 set afire a bus where many Rohingyas including the perpetrators were said to be onboard. On June 8, thousands of Rohingyas rioted in Maungdaw, destroying Rakhine property, burning homes, and causing an unknown number of deaths. In the aftermath, Rohingyas carried out similar attacks on Rakhines elsewhere around the state.
Throughout the month, Bangladesh government carried out tight vigil along the 270km border to stop the fresh influx of Rohingyas, by boat through the sea. Until Tuesday, the Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) personnel sent back 1,161 Rohingyas to Myanmar from June 11 while Coast Guard Bangladesh pushed back around 350 others.
The government from the beginning of the violence had been firm in not allowing any Rohingyas this time, citing own problems and elaborating how harmful and agonising the Rohingyas were for Bangladesh. All through, it was the foreign minister speaking on the issue, on a regular basis, and she fired back heavily against the UNHCR and US-based rights watchdog Human Rights Watch as they had requested the government for opening the border for Rohingyas and help them out. Foreign Minister Dipu Moni rejected those urges outright.
In none of the instances, Sheikh Hasina said anything.
However, in June, we did not find the Myanmar ambassador in Dhaka. We are not sure whether there was anyone at office. Meanwhile, our foreign ministry was not visible doing any negotiations with its counterpart. One day, the Myanmar authorities were, surprisingly, quoted by our foreign minister as saying that the Rohingyas in Bangladesh were trying to destabilise the situation in Rakhine state with the help of Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami, who were even assisting the Rohingyas in Cox’s Bazar with arms too. However, though the minister disclosed this very sensitive matter in parliament, she did not elaborate it, until now.
The Rohingyas are also unwanted in Myanmar, persecuted and denied citizenship since 1982. They are not part of the over one hundred ethnic groups recognised in Myanmar, which claims like many international media that Rohingyas are Bangalees.
Currently, Rohingyas are living in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, the Philippines, Singapore, Vietnam, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and India. Myanmar citizens usually try to enter Bangladesh before Ramadan every year to do job and income money. They travel to the other countries either by risky boats or through another country. The Myanmar government and its majority Buddhists welcome forced or voluntary deportation of the Rohingyas.
In Bangladesh, many Rohingya men have married Bangladeshi girls while women are getting married to local Bangladeshis. Most of the Rohingyas living outside the camps are said to be involved in criminal activities, including smuggling, here under the shelter of the unscrupulous locals, and many others after travelling to Middle East countries with fake Bangladeshi passports have tarnished the country’s image by their involvement in criminal activities. Our foreign minister like many other party supporters and cautious people of the country had cited this negative side of the Rohingyas while defending its strong stance against letting the “Myanmar citizens” in.
Well, then why she had been silent over the derogatory and offensive remarks by the Myanmar president, who was supposed to expedite the repatriation work now instead of forcing the existing Rohingyas out of the country? Why did she wait for the ambassador to call on her and express her government’s stance to push back all the Rohingyas?
Let’s see some straightforward facts which might help the readers realise the critical situation properly, and assess whether we with our current diplomacy style are capable of resolving this crisis with Myanmar or not. Preliminarily, it looks like we are not able to go fast with Myanmar, especially on the Rohingya issue.
But, have we identified the obstacles to maintain a regular relation with the next-door neighbour who have been going through reforms in democracy after decades of military rule? Have we sealed our loopholes? Have we started negotiating with democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi who has recently sworn in as parliament member with her party’s 43 other members to expedite the process of deporting the Rohingyas and stop influx of more?
- On July 11, Myanmar President Thein Sein told a visiting delegation from the UNHCR that his government would not recognise the Rohingyas and was considering handing over the ethnic group to the UNHCR. He also said they were also “willing to send the Rohingyas to any third country that will accept them”. Thein Sein alleged that the “Bengalis were brought into Burma to work as farmhands by the English colonialists before the [country’s] independence in 1948”. The president then asserted that in accordance with Myanmar Law, only a third generation [immigrant] descended from those who came into Burma before 1948 are recognised as a citizen. “Myanmar will take responsibility for its ethnic nationalities but it is not at all possible to recognise the illegal border-crossing Rohingyas who are not an ethnic [group] in Myanmar.”
- On July 12, The UNHCR chief told reporters: “The resettlement programs organised by UNHCR are for refugees who are fleeing a country to another, in very specific circumstances. Obviously, it’s not related to this situation.” He said the UN agency do not discriminate and would continue to provide humanitarian assistance to both Rohingyas and Buddhists of the state who have been affected by the sectarian violence. The UN refugee agency estimates that 91,000 people have been affected by the violence and says 82 temporary camps have been set up to accommodate the displaced.
- On July 13, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met Thein Sein in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Besides business talks, Clinton raised the situation with the Rohingya, and noted that the US was prepared to be supportive of help with internally displaced people (IDPs). On this, Thein Sein said the general situation with regard to the Rohingya had been very dangerous for the country and that they needed continued help and support with IDPs. He talked about how difficult it had been. It was their second meet since last year. The US has a bigger interest with Myanmar, a close aide of china, than any other country, especially for its geopolitical position, and business and investment potentials.
- On July 13, UNHCR chief Antonio Guterres termed the violence in Rakhine state “an eruption of some dramatic forms of violence”. He urged the Myanmar government to effectively grant Myanmarese nationality to all those members of the Muslim community that have the right to it according to the law. And to find for the other members of the community a legal status allowing them to enjoy fully the rights that are necessary to lead a normal life.” He, however, mentioned that the peaceful “evolution” in Myanmar was “very encouraging”‼!
- The same day, Asean Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan took “a personal interest” in the Rohingyas and had spoken directly to Bangladeshi and Myanmarese representatives during a meeting of the grouping’s foreign ministers in Phnom Penh. Both Dipu Moni and her Myanmarese counterpart U Wunna Maung Lwin agreed to cooperate and keep Asean informed on the status of the ethnic group following deadly ethnic violence.
- On July 14, the OIC secretary general called on the international community not to be indifferent to violence against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. Ihsanoglu condemned the sectarian violence sending letters to Thein Sein as well as opposition leader Suu Kyi and said that the democratic rights of Rohingyas should be preserved and violence against them must be stopped.
- On July 16, the Guardian newspaper quoting aid groups reports that an impending humanitarian catastrophe in western Myanmar might occur as authorities attempt to isolate tens of thousands of the displaced ethnic Rohingya minority in camps described by one aid worker as “open air prisons”. Rates of malnutrition among the Muslim Rohingya, who have borne the brunt of emergency measures implemented in the wake of fierce rioting in June between the minority group and the majority Arakanese, are said to be “alarming”. Most aid workers have either been evacuated or forced to flee in recent weeks,
- In the same report, Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), said it “would expect a strong international response” to any attempt to deport the Rohingya. HRW staff who recently returned from Arakan state said that while both Rohingya and Arakanese were complicit in “terrible violence” during the rioting,subsequent mass arrests “focused on Rohingya”. “Local police, the military, and border police have shot and killed Rohingya during sweep operations, those detained are being held incommunicado,” she said.
- On June 30, Myanmar President Thein Sein’s visit to Bangladesh on July 15-17 was deferred to a later date after Ramadan “as he himself is monitoring the situation created due to sectarian violence in the northern Rakhine province”. Meanwhile, the scheduled meeting between the chiefs of border forces of Bangladesh and Myanmar on July 22-26 in Dhaka was also deferred as the Nasaka chief remained busy in tackling the sectarian violence in Rakhine province, where a state of emergency has been declared following the conflict.
- On May 4, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina told outgoing Ambassador of Myanmar in Dhaka U Min Lwin that her government was keen to build vibrant relations, mainly in business, with the neighbour in the backdrop of its changing political situation. She appreciated the assurance of Myanmar president to resume repatriation of his country’s Rohingya refugees and called for expeditious action in this regard.
- On December 6 last year, Bangladesh and Myanmar signed two accords to boost their bilateral relations in the areas of trade, business and existing friendship. The accords were signed in presence of Sheikh Hasina and Thein Sein following the first-ever bilateral talks between the two leaders at the President’s Office Naypaitaw.
- During the meeting, Thein Sein agreed to take back from Bangladesh the Rohingya refugees who have been recently verified by the Myanmar authorities as per agreed criteria. Sheikh Hasina mentioned that the presence of the refugees was creating social, financial and environmental challenges to Bangladesh. She suggested that a joint working group could be set up to put an end to the refugee problem.
- On October 15 last year, Foreign Secretary Mijarul Quayes said the newly formed government of Myanmar has agreed to take back registered Rohingya refugees currently staying at two refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar but made no decision on the large number of unregistered Rohingyas living in Bangladesh. “Although they do not have refugee status, we are not forcing them out of the country on humanitarian ground.” The Myanmar authorities agreed to discuss the undocumented nationals. Bangladesh, Myanmar and the UNHCR on August 25 took a fresh initiative to return the refugees to their homeland, he stated.