Rohingya refugees from Myanmar continue to trickle into Bangladesh and are a heavy burden on a poor country, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said as she pressed Yangon to honour its promise to repatriate them.
Madam Hasina flew back to Dhaka yesterday afternoon, curtailing her first official visit by a day after a Bangladeshi passenger plane crash-landed in Kathmandu on Monday, killing 49 of 71 people on board. Singapore President Halimah Yacob and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong have expressed grief at the loss of lives in condolence letters to their Bangladeshi and Nepali counterparts.
Before her departure, the soft-spoken 70-year-old Premier made time for an exclusive interview with The Straits Times. Asked if Bangladesh, where nearly one in four citizens lives below the national poverty line of US$2 (S$2.63) per day, was feeling the strain of the Rohingya influx, she replied: "Naturally. We are 160 million people, and a million people entered our country. We have to give them shelter, food, healthcare... everything."
At least 700,000 Muslim Rohingya refugees have sought shelter in Bangladesh's Cox's Bazar. They fled after a military crackdown in Myanmar's Rakhine state last August, joining more than 200,000 who had escaped earlier waves of persecution. Myanmar sees the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Bangladesh and Myanmar agreed on a plan in January to repatriate the refugees within two years, but foot-dragging by Yangon has triggered anxiety in Dhaka. "Despite commitments by the Myanmar authorities, the flow of Rohingya into Bangladesh continues till today," Madam Hasina said. "We signed an agreement with Myanmar, but Myanmar is not acting accordingly. That is the problem."
The Prime Minister has been widely acclaimed for her humane decision in letting the refugees in, but voters may punish her party for burdening the country in parliamentary elections in December .
She has not granted the Rohingya formal refugee status, although she remains sympathetic to their plight. "I can understand the sorrow of being a refugee," she said. "I can understand it because when my family was assassinated, my younger sister and myself were abroad at that time, for six years we had to live as refugees."
Eighteen of her family members, including her father, founding president of Bangladesh Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, were killed in a coup in 1975, four years after its independence from Pakistan.
"The whole world stands behind Bangladesh, but the Myanmar government is not acting at all," said Madam Hasina.
"Creating a conducive environment in the Rakhine state in terms of ensuring safety and security, rebuilding of destroyed villages and houses, creating livelihood options and granting due rights to the returnees are crucial.
"These are primarily the responsibilities of the Myanmar authorities. Now, it depends on their sincerity," she said, adding: "We seek the support of Singapore, as chair of Asean, to engage Myanmar and convince them to fulfil their responsibilities."
Dr Charles Morrison, an expert on South-east Asian issues at the Honolulu-based East-West Centre, told The Straits Times that Asean would be constrained in acting on Madam Hasina's suggestion.
"It is basically an internal Myanmar problem. I don't think Asean is equipped to discipline Myanmar. The basic Asean ethos is not to interfere too much," he said.
Bangladesh also welcomed a gesture by the Asean foreign ministers, during their retreat in Singapore last month, to urge Myanmar to implement the Kofi Annan Commission Report, she said.
After a fact-finding mission at the invitation of Myanmar's de facto leader, Ms Aung San Suu Kyi, Mr Annan, a former United Nations secretary-general, recommended last August that steps be taken to secure the safety of people living in the Rakhine state, which houses the majority of the Rohingya.
•Excerpts from the interview with Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina at www.straitstimes.com