Rohingya focus moves to summit
EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Bangladesh says refugees from Rakhine need safety guarantees before they will return.
Bangladesh Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen is urging Thailand, as the current chair of Asean, to deepen the bloc's engagement in the creation of a conducive environment in Myanmar's Rakhine state, after the second attempt to repatriate Rohingya Muslims stalled last month.
More than a million Rohingya refugees fled persecution by Myanmar's military to Bangladesh in 2017 -- putting a strain on the densely-populated, developing South Asian country.
Myanmar's military command has repeatedly denied the allegations, saying it was fighting Rohingya insurgent groups.
Although they have lived in Myanmar for generations, many within Buddhist-majority Myanmar view Rohingya Muslims -- who have their own language and distinct cultural practices -- as "Bengalis" from Bangladesh. As a result, many Rohingya have been denied citizenship and other basic rights, and their freedom of movement restricted.
Mr Momen's plea came days after thousands of Rohingya Muslims gathered at Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox's Bazar to mark the second anniversary of their exodus from Rakhine state. It also came after a repatriation attempt sponsored by Bangladesh and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) failed, as the refugees refused to take part out of fear for their safety. A second attempt was launched on Aug 22, but to no avail.
Mr Momen commended Thailand's effort as the chair of Asean in resolving the Rohingya issue.
"Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai is active on this matter. He came to Bangladesh in April to discuss the matter with me. We also had two subsequent rounds of discussions in June and August in Jeddah and Bangkok respectively," he told the Bangkok Post.
Mr Momen encouraged Thailand to use the 35th Asean Summit, scheduled for early November, as a platform for Asean leaders to review the humanitarian situation and facilitate the creation of a conducive environment in Rakhine state for the repatriation of the displaced Rohingya.
"Asean leaders may want to visit Rakhine state to meet with representatives of the refugees to dispel mistrust and reduce the trust deficit between the refugees and the Myanmar government.
"We look forward to the commencement of the Comprehensive Needs Assessment by the Asean Emergency Response and Assessment Team (ERAT). Thailand can play an instrumental role in this regard," he said.
Despite international support, Mr Momen expressed concern about the repatriation process. "The intense bilateral engagement with Myanmar hardly produced any tangible results over one and a half years. If the issue still persists, it may seriously undermine the security and stability of the entire region," he said.
In a recent repatriation talk in late July, Mr Momen reiterated that the Rohingya demand citizenship and safety from Myanmar. "They also raised other issues, including the resettlement of returnees in their villages of origin, unhindered access to livelihood activities and basic services, and the proper closure of Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps in Rakhine state.
"Both Myanmar and ERAT agreed to engage with the Rohingya to find common grounds on these issues. The Myanmar delegation might consider addressing the citizenship issue within the frame of the existing legal provision," he said.
However, Mr Momen urged the Myanmar government to come up with proposals which address the refugees' demands, and give ERAT officials proper access to see the situation on the ground in Rakhine state. "Myanmar claims they are ready to receive them, but we don't have a clear idea about the state of basic infrastructure [in Rakhine state] because we don't have any access," he said. "Moreover, it is the Rohingya who need to be satisfied with the facilities. We have requested Myanmar to take a group of Rohingya Muslims from the refugee camps to Rakhine state, but the government has yet to respond."
The foreign minister stressed that security in Rakhine state is a precondition for the repatriation of the Rohingya. "Myanmar delegates informed us during the 4th Joint Working Group Meeting in May that they have undertaken a comprehensive approach, which includes peace talks with insurgent groups, to end the violence in Rakhine state as soon as possible.
"We want to put trust and confidence in them. It should not be difficult for Myanmar's security forces to ensure safety and security in the area where the Rohingya will be returning. Countries in the region may consider extending assistance to Myanmar in its effort to stabilise Rakhine state," he said.
Early in July, Christine Schraner-Burgener, the UN envoy for Myanmar, called for an end to the conflict in Rakhine between Myanmar's military and the Arakan Army (AA) -- a Buddhist insurgent group demanding autonomy for Rakhine state. The unrest has hindered the progress of the Rohingya repatriation process.
Mr Momen also encouraged independent international organisations to conduct thorough and impartial probes to hold the perpetrators accountable -- following the US's sanction on Myanmar's military officials for the alleged extrajudicial killings of Rohingya Muslims.
"As we all know, there is widespread allegation of massive human rights violations by Myanmar's military [against the Rohingya]. The US might have enough evidence to come up with such a decision. For a durable solution to such protracted crisis, the elimination of the culture of impunity is of paramount importance," he said.
The heavy monsoon delivers a one-two punch to Rohingya refugees, because their camps are located on sandy ground that easily washes away in a downpour. However, Mr Momen ensured that Bangladesh has relocated thousands of families and improved their shelters.
"Last year, we received a map of vulnerable areas in the camps prepared by the Asian Disaster Preparedness Centre and Dhaka University.
Based on their study, we have relocated over 11,000 families or around 49,000 individuals. We also have reinforced about 191,000 shelters that are vulnerable to cyclones," he said.
Mr Momen said Bangladesh's government is developing Bhashan Char -- an island just off the mainland -- to reduce overcrowding in existing refugee camps.
"Basic amenities are available there, and we are working to ensure they can make a living in the camp," he said.
Last year, a joint team which includes members from UN agencies assessed the site and found it safe for human habitation. "Against this backdrop, we have asked UN agencies to help us in relocating the Rohingya refugees. Relocation will be done on a voluntary basis," he said.
"We are confident that once the refugees learn about the infrastructure on Bhashan Char, many will be interested," he said.