In a recent exclusive interview with the Persian-language Etemad daily newspaper, Momen has weighed in on Bangladesh’s efforts to help hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who have been forcibly displaced by the Myanmar government from their historical homeland, Rakhine state.
During the interview, the Bangladeshi diplomat regretted that the international community’s response to the ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Myanmar has been far less than expectation given the enormity and scale of the crisis.
Here is the full text of Momen’s interview with Etemad’s Sara Massoumi:
Since when was Bangladesh dragged into the Rohingya crisis?
The August 2017 episode is not the first instance of Rohingya Muslim minorities fleeing to Bangladesh being subjected to atrocities and human rights abuse by the Myanmar authorities. The systematic and exclusionary policy and denial of rights against them began in a big way since General Ne Win’s taking over of power in 1962. Rohingyas were economically and politically marginalized. They were terrorized and forced out of their centuries of settled life in 1978, 1991-92, and 2012, successively with increasing impunity. Each time, Bangladesh has been bearing the main brunt with the exodus of Rakhine Muslims (Rohingyas) ending up principally in Bangladesh. Myanmar’s failure to integrate Rohingya Muslims and denial of rights is an internal issue of Myanmar. But, their forcible displacement to Bangladesh drags Bangladesh into a crisis. The present one is no different, but significantly different in scale and magnitude.
How many refugees from the Rakhine State is Bangladesh hosting at present?
There are 32,000 residual cases of Rohingya refugees (documented) from the flow of 1991-92. Myanmar never bothered to repatriate these people since 2005. About 300,000 to 400,000 undocumented Myanmar nationals moved to Bangladesh over the past decade due to policies of persecution and denial of rights. Many fled to other countries including Malaysia. The October 2016 incident resulted in an exodus of 87,000. And from August 25 up to now, 607,000 forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals have crossed over into Bangladesh, taking the total to about one million. And the exodus is still continuing. Bangladesh is presently hosting more Rohingyas than Myanmar. The Rohingya nucleus has now shifted to Bangladesh.
Does the international community offer financial aid to Bangladesh in order to resolve the refugees’ problems?
Over the years, the international community, international organizations such as International Organization for Migration (IOM), the UN and its relevant entities such as UNHCR, WFP, and UNICEF have been providing humanitarian assistance to the Rohingya refugees and the forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals staying in Bangladesh, but the vast majority of the support is being provided by the government of Bangladesh itself despite many resource constraints. Many international NGOs have been providing assistance to Rohingyas in all these years. In view of the formidable humanitarian needs stemming from the current crisis, the UN has prepared a revised response plan to the tune of USD 434 million for a six-month period against which an offer of $335 million was made by the international community in the pledging conference held in Geneva on 23 October 2017. However, this commitment and ultimate realization of it are hardly enough to support one million Rohingyas; 22% of these people were designated as extremely vulnerable by the IOM. Bangladesh will have to commit a lot more resources for these forcibly displaced residents of Myanmar. Then, there are various kinds of insecurities that cannot be quantified in monetary terms. Please note that Bangladesh is not asking for money; all we want is repatriation of these people in a safe, secured, dignified and sustainable manner.
Has the Bangladeshi government engaged itself in talks with officials from the current or previous government of Myanmar to deal with the people of Rakhine State in order to prevent their migration to Bangladesh?
The exodus of Rohingyas into Bangladesh is not migration in the first place, it is purely a case of forced displacement as part of what the international community calls ‘ethnic cleansing’. These people were in Rakhine for generations, much before Burma became independent in 1948. Old Akyab town was a town populated by people of Indian origin even in 1931. The bordering district of Maungdaw had more than 80% Muslims even a century earlier. Therefore, calling them migrants from BANGLADESH is historically wrong. The Baxter Committee way back in 1939 concluded that “for all intent and purposes” Muslims in Rakhine were an indigenized community. They trace their history in the old Rakhine kingdom back to the 9th century that started with Arab traders, and the community flourished in the capital Mro-haung (present day Mrauk-U) during the 15-18th century.
From the very beginning of the Rohingya problem, which dates back to decades ago, Bangladesh has been persistently engaged with the Myanmar authorities at all levels, starting from highest political level to the level of officials and functionaries, to resolve the issue particularly to ensure repatriation of those who came from Myanmar. In fact, Bangladesh always took the first step. There have been numerous invitations sent from the Bangladeshi side to Myanmar for VVIP and high-level interactions/visits as well as proposals to Myanmar for repatriation and enhancing sectoral collaboration (in respect of security, road connectivity, shipping connectivity, gas-power sector etc.). There is a robust border agreement of 1980 that provides for return of illegal entrants. However, Myanmar has consistently shown indifference to this border arrangement and at times even sent negative responses to many overtures from Bangladesh to build interdependent and mutually beneficial bilateral relations. There is a clear lack of engagement on Myanmar’s part to engage on sectoral issues, not to talk about irregular movement, if any. But, Myanmar seeks to paint Rohingyas as illegal immigrants to delink them from civil and political rights. Whatever Myanmar has done recently in terms of bilateral engagements is entirely to make a show to the international community, while in reality they remain as obstinate as ever towards resolving the Rohingya issue.
Certain sources have reported that Bangladesh is closing borders or mining border areas in order to prevent entry by refugees. Do you confirm these reports?
It is wrong. There are reports of Myanmar Army planting anti-personnel landmines and Bangladesh has protested that. The fact that we are hosting more than 600,000 forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals since August 25 alone and more are crossing over each day makes a response to these reports unnecessary. Besides, Bangladesh is signatory to the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on Their Destruction. Myanmar is not a party to this Convention and is known to have been planting mines even along the Chinese and Thai borders. Hence, you should perhaps raise this with the Myanmar authorities which are laying landmines along the border to prevent return of their nationals from Bangladesh. Since 25 August, we have received a large number of forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals with mine injuries which only corroborates these reports.
How useful do you find steps taken by the international community in resolving problems of Rakhine residents in the short and long run?
The international community’s response has been far less than our expectation given the enormity and scale of the crisis particularly in the immediate term. Mere condemnation, exhortation, demands and engagements of international community with Myanmar have proved futile in stopping the exodus. Providing humanitarian assistance to Rohingyas in the Bangladesh side of the border must not absolve them of their responsibility. They must apply moral and diplomatic pressure on Myanmar to accept them and treat them with safety, security and dignity.
Yet, we have the Kofi Annan Commission recommendations which have been endorsed by the international community. We have the UN Secretary-General’s three action points (de-escalation of the situation, return of the Rohingyas and implementation of the Kofi Annan Commission report) on which there is broad understanding within the Security Council which resonate our Hon’ble Prime Minister’s five-point proposals. All these provide the road-map to a medium and long-term solution given that Myanmar implements them fully and with all sincerity. Here the international community has a huge responsibility to prevail upon Myanmar to do so.
Given the intensity of the conflicts between Muslims and Buddhists in Myanmar, how likely do you think it is to find a solution inside the borders of Myanmar?
The hatred and divisiveness are very deep-rooted. Myanmar majority is swayed by an extreme form of nationalism, where intolerance to religious and ethnic minorities are being accepted as the norm. Today it is targeted against the Rohingyas in particular and Muslims in general, tomorrow it could be targeted against another community. Christian communities in Kachin and Kayin are also being impacted by these negative forces. Hence any solution with equality of treatment for minorities would be difficult. But it is possible and it has to be.
As for the Rohingya crisis and atrocities, our Hon’ble Prime Minister has said ‘The crisis has its root in Myanmar and its solution has to be found in Myanmar’. This would require political good will of Myanmar authorities and sincere efforts of all stakeholders, most importantly a spirit of reconciliation and tolerance in the people of Myanmar. A whole of society approach would be crucial. And international community needs to get involved in this.
Despite the fact that the crisis in Rakhine started a few years ago, Islamic states have failed in practice to force Myanmar governments to undertake serious measures. What are the reasons for this failure?
We see it as an inherent problem as exemplified in dealing with other cases of persecution of Muslims taking place in various parts of the world. In other cases, concerned states stop at some point and situation gets somewhat addressed. In this case, sheer stubbornness, denial and non-receptiveness of Myanmar authorities is also to blame. Rather, one can see a clear pattern, that indicate a practice of ethnic cleaning in play.
Don’t you think that the international community should take more serious steps like sanctions against Myanmar military officials?
We feel that the international community must take more serious and binding measures in this regard. We believe much more result oriented, specific and time bound pressure on Myanmar would create conducive environment for fruitful bilateral engagements which would pave the way for resolving the crisis. Moral and diplomatic pressure should be the beginning and need to be sustained to send a message to Myanmar that every wrong policy must come to an end and remedial measures must be taken.
Some historians claim the Rohingya people are immigrants who fled from Bangladesh to Myanmar largely under the British government in Burma and to a lesser extent after Burma independence in 1948 and the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971. How is this historical claim applicable to Rohingya people?
The made-up narrative and claims of the Rohingyas as immigrants from Bangladesh is devoid of any economic and other rationales. In the past, Myanmar never complained about illegal immigration from Bangladesh. The majority of the historians narrate otherwise.
Rohingyas of Arakan are not a race group per se developed from one tribal group or a single racial stock. They are a mixed people from various races and cultures. Available historical records suggest that many centuries of human migration and settlement helped evolve Rohingya ethnicity in Arakan, presently called Rakhine. British historical and other past records account that Muslims in Rakhine existed long before its annexation by the British (1824). During 7th – 8th century Arab traders travelled to Arakan for business. During that period, they preached Islam to the locals. Rohingyas, who settled in Arakan/Rakhine after 1825 were indigenized well before independence of Burma in 1948. According to Baxter Committee Report, the percentage of Muslim population born in Arakan/ Rakhine was 77% in 1931. The Report also concluded that, all historical records suggest that the Rohingyas were indigenous to Arakan/Rakhine.
Insecurity and persecution as well as lack of economic rationale of movement to an impoverished land like the Rakhine State squarely contradict theory of illegal immigration from Bangladesh. Myanmar and Bangladesh have about similar GDP per capita. But Rakhine is much backward (with $750) in relation to neighbouring Chittagong (over $1800). Socio-political situation in Rakhine has been discriminatory and replete with persecution since 1948.
Given the economic deprivation, developmental challenges, lack of security, continued persecution, various kinds of dispossession, restriction on movement, and disenfranchisement in Rakhine State, illegal immigration from Bangladesh to Rakhine is unimaginable. Migration into such a land is absurd, when Rohingyas have been taking refuge elsewhere in hundreds of thousands such as in Saudi Arabia, India, UAE, Pakistan as well as Bangladesh. Censuses conducted by the British and recent ones by the Myanmar Government clearly contradict any claim of illegal immigration to Rakhine State, rather indicate net outflow of people from the State.
As a responsible country, Bangladesh would take back people who, if it is proven, entered Rakhine after 1971. We cannot be held responsible for any movement of people before Bangladesh was born. But this should not be taken out of context to term this Rohingya community illegal immigrants when they have a recorded history of a several generations and even centuries in Rakhine.