Dhaka to press Myanmar on refugee issue

Rohingya refugee children queueing for aid in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, on Thursday. Doctors Without Borders has warned that the country's refugee camps are on the brink of a "public health disaster".
Rohingya refugee children queueing for aid in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, on Thursday. Doctors Without Borders has warned that the country's refugee camps are on the brink of a "public health disaster".PHOTO: REUTERS

Move comes after Suu Kyi says her govt ready to verify Rohingya refugees for repatriation

Bangladesh plans to increase the pressure on Myanmar to take back the 700,000 Rohingya refugees that it has been sheltering for more than a decade.

"On the one hand we are concentrating on humanitarian aid, and on the other, we are beefing up the international pressure on Myanmar, so they can take them back at the earliest (time)," Bangladesh's State Minister for Foreign Affairs Mohammed Shahriar Alam told The Straits Times on Thursday.

He was speaking in response to the declaration by Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Tuesday that her government was ready to verify the refugees for repatriation according to a bilateral agreement reached in the 1990s, after an earlier exodus from Myanmar's troubled Rakhine state.

"They didn't respect that agreement," Mr Alam said of Myanmar's previous military government.

"It was very difficult to communicate with them - almost zero response from the Myanmar side."

The Bangladesh government had "patiently" waited for Ms Suu Kyi's civilian government to take over after her victory in the 2015 election, hoping the transition would speed up the process, he said.

"We always wanted to engage meaningfully - bilaterally, not internationalising the issue," he said. "But obviously that didn't happen."

COMMUNICATION PROBLEMS

They didn't respect that agreement. It was very difficult to communicate with them - almost zero response from the Myanmar side.

BANGLADESH'S STATE MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS MOHAMMED SHAHRIAR ALAM, on waiting for Myanmar to accept the repatriation of the Rohingya from Bangladesh under an agreement reached in the 1990s.

NOT JUST MYANMAR'S ISSUE

Asean has a policy of not interfering in other member countries' internal affairs, but this is an issue which is no longer Myanmar's own.

MR ALAM, urging Asean to press Myanmar on the Rohingya issue.

Bangladesh, which sent about 230,000 Rohingya back to Myanmar in the 1990s, has waited for years for Myanmar to accept another batch of 2,415 who have had their origins verified.

But its crowded refugee camps in the south-east are now being strained by an influx of 429,000 Rohingya who have poured in since Aug 25, when a Rohingya insurgent attack triggered a scorched-earth military crackdown. On Thursday, independent humanitarian organisation Doctors Without Borders warned that Bangladesh's refugee camps are on the brink of a "public health disaster", saying filthy water and faeces are flowing through shanties bursting with refugees.

India, meanwhile, has stepped up security along its largely porous eastern border with Bangladesh.

Border forces are using "chilli and stun grenades" to block the entry of Rohingya refugees, Indian officials were quoted as saying by Reuters yesterday. The Indian government is seeking to deport around 40,000 Rohingya already living in the country, citing security risks.

The Rohingya are not considered an ethnic group in Myanmar, but as illegal "Bengali" migrants who arrived during colonial times.

Hundreds of villages in Rakhine have burnt to the ground - an act which the fleeing Rohingya blame on ethnic Rakhines working in concert with security forces. Naypyitaw has suggested the villagers are burning their own homes.

The widespread destruction of villages means new rules for refugee verification would be needed, said Mr Alam. Many of the refugees are unaccompanied children and unlikely to have documents proving their identity. The same applies for those whose homes were razed.

The minister urged Asean to press Myanmar on the Rakhine issue. "Asean countries need to come forward because Myanmar remains mindful of its relationship with the Asean countries," he said.

Ms Suu Kyi skipped this month's United Nations General Assembly in New York. Asean ministers there are expected to hold an informal meeting on its sidelines, where the Rakhine issue could be discussed.

Although Asean countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore have publicly voiced their concern over the Rakhine issue, there have been no initiatives on the ground from the 10-nation bloc on the humanitarian crisis. The grouping operates by consensus. Mr Alam said: "Asean has a policy of not interfering in other member countries' internal affairs, but this is an issue which is no longer Myanmar's own."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 23, 2017, with the headline 'Dhaka to press Myanmar on refugee issue'. Print Edition | Subscribe