Can Dhaka make headway on Rohingya issue during Chinese FM's visit?

With each passing year, the socio-economic toll of sheltering over a million refugees is growing, but repatriation remains elusive

Published : 6 August 2022, 08:04 AM
Updated : 6 August 2022, 08:04 AM

Bangladesh will once again emphasise the repatriation of more than one million Rohingya refugees when the foreign minister of China, a close ally of Myanmar, visits Dhaka.

Analysts believe renewed discussions on the issue will play a key role in expediting the return of the forcibly displaced people to their homeland under a tripartite initiative.

Against the backdrop of international pressure, several rounds of talks have taken place between the neighbouring countries without any real headway.

With each passing year, the socio-economic implications of sheltering such a large population in refugee camps are amplifying for Bangladesh.

As such, Dhaka will pitch for a speedy resolution during Foreign Minister Wang Yi's trip.

“The Rohingya issue is at the top of the agenda. This issue will be seriously discussed during [Wang Yi's] visit,” State Minister for Foreign Affairs Shahriar Alam said.

Foreign relations experts believe Yi's trip represents a window of opportunity for Dhaka. They stressed the need to bring other countries with stakes and interests in Myanmar to the table to reach an effective solution.

Munshi Faiz Ahmad, Bangladesh's former ambassador to China, says the situation has now "changed" quite a bit for Myanmar, which has repeatedly sidestepped the issue of repatriation.

He noted that their appeal to the International Criminal Court over the Rohingya genocide case has been rejected, with calls for their repatriation growing from the US and other powers, including Japan.

“As things currently stand, I wouldn't be too surprised if there was some progress in terms of the repatriation process. Now, the Myanmar government is under pressure from various quarters. Moreover, China would also like to improve its image on the world stage if possible."

Despite a bilateral agreement between Bangladesh and Myanmar over the return of the Rohingya, the process is yet to get off the ground. In a bid to find a breakthrough, China held a tripartite meeting with the two countries in January 2021.

In light of Beijing's apparent willingness to broker a solution, government policymakers, analysts and officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs alike are quick to highlight the importance of Wang Yi's visit on Saturday.

"We have received indications that China also has reservations about the path that Myanmar is taking," Shahriar said.

The Chinese foreign minister is to visit shortly after the fifth anniversary of the Rohingya influx in Bangladesh.

Bangladesh is currently harbouring more than 1.1 million Rohingya who escaped persecution and killings by the Myanmar army in the Rakhine state.

The UN described the Myanmar army's crackdown on the Rohingya as a "classic example of ethnic cleansing", while others have accused the country of committing genocide against the Muslim minority group.

In the face of international pressure, the government of Aung San Suu Kyi signed an agreement with Bangladesh for the repatriation of its displaced nationals. But the efforts to send them back fell flat twice in 2019, as the Rohingya outright refused to return.

They pointed to a lack of safe, dignified and sustainable environment for their return to the violence-ravaged Rakhine State, while the government of the country continued denying the Rohingya citizenship rights.

Then, the military junta led by Gen Min Aung Hlaing overthrew Suu Kyi's government and seized power in 2021.

At the time, the Bangladesh government said the process of repatriation would start on a 'trial basis' in the second half of 2021. But that did not happen.

A year after the tripartite initiative involving Beijing was taken, a meeting of the newly formed 'Ad-Hoc Task Force for Verification of the Displaced Persons from Rakhine' was held between Bangladesh and Myanmar on Jan 27, 2022.

A 'Joint Working Group' meeting between the two countries at the secretary level followed on Jun 14. Bangladesh's Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen and his Myanmar counterpart Chan Aye led their respective delegations.

According to the foreign ministry, the meetings focused on confidence-building activities to resolve the issues surrounding the verification of the Rohingya and pave the way for their voluntary return.

An official said before the JWG meeting, Bangladesh forwarded the biometric data of almost 829,000 Rohingya to Myanmar. In response, Myanmar said further checks would have to be run on more than 58,000 people.

On several occasions in the past, Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen blamed Myanmar for holding up the process. He said he had many examples of Myanmar processing a few members of a Rohingya family, but overlooking the rest.

In response to a question about the progress of the repatriation process, State Minister Shahriar said on Tuesday, "There is no progress at the moment. Myanmar only reacts when they are under fire. That's how it is.”

Shahriar also called for the exclusion of Myanmar's military government from the ASEAN Regional Forum in Phnom Penh to send out a 'strong message'. “Just two-and-a-half weeks before the Chinese state councillor's visit, the United Nations' International Criminal Court (ICJ) gave its preliminary ruling on the Rohingya issue."

“At such an important time, we will certainly convey the message and call for a stronger role from China. Whatever is happening, we will certainly seek China's cooperation for a political solution to ensure repatriation."

Although the repatriation effort under China's oversight hit a snag due to a combination of the coronavirus pandemic and the military coup in Myanmar, Munshi Faiz does not believe Dhaka should lose heart.

"China has not been able to help as much as we wanted. But only China is coming forward. We can't drive them away. We have to keep China on board and if we can get anything positive from them, it will be an achievement," said Faiz.

According to a foreign ministry official, Myanmar is typically aloof about the Rohingya. "They come for talks only when they're pressed and that's the extent of [their engagement]."

"The first thing is that the Rohingya must return voluntarily. We want to send the Rohingya to their homes or places of their choice. But in our opinion, their villages are not how they used to be."

Many analysts blame the huge investments in Rakhine state by various leading powers for the lack of meaningful pressure from the international community on the issue of repatriation.

At a recent event, Foreign Minister Momen expressed his disappointment with the international community for increasing investment and business interests in Myanmar without taking any special measures to facilitate the repatriation of the Rohingya.

He pointed out that sanctions were imposed on Myanmar when the Rohingya were taken back in the 1970s and 1980s. But after 2017, investment from Bangladesh's friends has increased.

Citing the investment from Britain as an example, Momen said, "The UK has supported Bangladesh in the last 50 years since its independence. But in these five decades, they've invested $2.5 billion here."

“But the UK's investment in Myanmar has exceeded $2.3 billion in just the last five years. This is laughable, especially when you hear about how they've sanctioned some generals.”

In this context, Lailufar Yasmin, professor of international relations at Dhaka University, pointed to the need to drum up support from other countries as well as China to repatriate the Rohingya.

“Our mindset is that if anyone can do it, it's China. But it can't just be China -- America, Russia and others should also be involved because they all have interests in Myanmar. And until all sides come to a consensus, there won't be any change on the Myanmar front."

“It will not be resolved through bilateral talks overseen by just one actor. Russia, America, China, India - they all have interests here. We have to try and hold multi-party talks.”

The analyst believes the Rohingya issue has become so 'intractable' that it will not be resolved through talks alone.

“It will take a sustained effort. I don't think it can be done by China alone.”

Also Read: What’s on the table during Chinese foreign minister’s Dhaka visit?

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher