All interests in Myanmar, none in Bangladesh!

AKM Zakaria | Update:

A group of Rohingya refugee people walk in the water after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border in Teknaf. ReutersThe four-decade-old Rohingya issue has taken on such massive proportions for Bangladesh at present, that there is no alternative but to take this up on an international level. The foreign ministry started the process by briefing the foreign diplomats in the country on the influx of Rohingyas into Bangladesh. The latest development in this effort is the prime minister’s speech at the UN General Assembly and proposal for a solution to the problem.

The question at this juncture is whether adequate action is being taken to ensure a successful outcome of our endeavours in this regard.

International pressure is mounting on Myanmar, but not to the extent that it is obliged to resolve the Rohingya problem or take back the refugees. In fact, the leaders of several important countries remained silent on the Rohingya issue at the UN General Assembly. It was rather shocking to note that though Canada had been so vocal in condemning the persecution of Rohingyas, prime minister Trudeau did not utter a single word on the issue at the General Assembly. Now, in retrospect, we may ask ourselves whether our diplomatic efforts before and during the General Assembly were adequate enough.

Perhaps Bangladesh could have taken up the Rohingya issue with more vehemence.

I raised this issue with a former foreign secretary, who responded, “What is there to say? I will not comment. You figure it out yourself.” Readers, can you figure it out? What I have understood is that the UN General Assembly was a huge opportunity for us and we could have utilised the platform to a greater degree.

In a review by the United Nations news and commentary forum, UN Dispatch, it was recommended that focus be placed on five particular issues at the General Assembly. The Rohingya issue was third on this list.

However, this issue did not feature that predominantly at the session. We need to assess any deficiencies on our part in this regard because, at the request of seven member states, the UN Security Council is holding a meeting on the issue on Thursday. We hardly have any time in hand, but even then we need to step up our diplomatic efforts to the maximum.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, has said nowhere has a refugee crisis escalated so rapidly. It is not an easy matter to provide shelter to more than 400,000 refugees in just 10 to 15 days. Bangladesh is presently bearing the burden of around one million refugees. It is a massive burden for an over-populated country like Bangladesh to bear such a massive burden. Even though Bangladesh has nothing to do whatsoever with the crisis in the Arakan state, it has to bear the brunt on humanitarian grounds. It is distressing that certain countries considered to be friends of Bangladesh, are not by our side at this critical time.

India, China and Russia have clearly taken a stand in favour of Myanmar on the Rohingya issue. Japan remains silent, though they have pledged aid to both Myanmar and Bangladesh for the refugees. It has also made it clear that it will not change its policy of cooperation and assistance to Myanmar. Japan had committed US$1 million to Myanmar for the Rakhine issue.

It is important for Bangladesh to have the support from these countries on the Rakhine issue. If countries like India, China, Russia and Japan are sympathetic concerning the genocide against the Rohingyas, the refugee problem and the crisis that faces Bangladesh, then they could put pressure on Myanmar to resolve the problem. Here again we need to display our diplomatic acumen.

Analysts unanimously agree that the economy and geostrategic factors are behind the stance of these countries. India, China, Russian and Japan have interests in Myanmar. They have economic interests. Additionally, Myanmar has significant geostrategic importance. These countries have very deliberately sided with Myanmar. Prothom Alo’s Tokyo correspondent wrote that Japan’s government and private sectors have invested extensively in the country, rich in natural resources.

It is natural that everyone looks after their own interests, but then another question comes to mind. Does no one have any interests in Bangladesh? Do these countries have no investment, no business in Bangladesh? Has Bangladesh’s geostrategic position no value at all, has it no role in the regions geopolitics?

Bangladesh has strong economic and trade relations with China. China has much investment here. Chinese firms are working on several development projects and infrastructure building in Bangladesh. China is Bangladesh’s the main source of military hardware. It recently purchased two submarines from China. During the Bangladesh visit of Chinese president Xi Jinping, deals were signed for US$25 billion investment in around 30 projects. It is clear that Bangladesh is important to China. Yet Bangladesh does not find China by its side during the Rohingya crisis!

India is our neighbour and close friend. It is said that Bangladesh-India relations are presently at an all-time high. Bangladesh continues in its efforts to allay India’s security fears. Trade between the two countries is in India’s favour. India is involved in various development projects too. India is constructing the Rampal power plant. There is the matter of land and river transit between the two countries. Military cooperation has been upped as well. But the same question arises, why will India not support us on the Rohingya issue?

Japan has been considered a friend of Bangladesh right back from the days of the independence struggle. Japan tops the list of countries providing Bangladesh with financial assistance. Japan is one of Bangladesh’s major development partners. It is implementing the Dhaka metro-rail project. It is constructing the power plant in Matabari, an economic zone and a deep-sea port. Russia is making a nuclear power plant in Bangladesh. It is investing in the gas sector. Bangladesh is purchasing arms from Russia.

The economic  and geostrategic interests these countries have in Myanmar, should be no less in Bangladesh. We recall that though things had almost been finalised with China for them to construct a deep-sea port at Sonadia and an MOU was even signed in this regard. But then during prime minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to China, she ultimately did not sign the deal. Bangladesh did not want to incur the displeasure of India, the US and Japan. The Sonadia project has now vanished into thin air. China is now working on a seaport at Payra. Japan is working on a power plant and economic zone at Matabari, and it is learnt that there are plans for a deep-sea port there. All this proves that Bangladesh is no less significant when it comes to regional and international trade, investment and geostrategic considerations. So wherein lies the problem? The problem is perhaps the lack of effective diplomatic efforts where the Rohingya issue is concerned.

A certain diplomat commented on the issue, saying, “All countries look after their own interests. I do not think sending an emissary or stepping up diplomatic efforts will make a difference.” Is that the end of the matter? Is the matter so simple? Do diplomatic efforts yield no results? If Bangladesh sends representatives to certain countries as part of its ‘Rohingya diplomacy’, will this have no impact? It certainly is important for Bangladesh to inform the world about the importance of the Rohingya issue and Bangladesh’s role in this regard.

* AKM Zakaria is a senor journalist and can be reached at akmzakaria@gmail.com.

This column, originally published in Prothom Alo print edition, has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir.

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