The Rohingya Issue: Bangladeshi Diplomat in Q and A with Ratnawalli

Darshanie Ratnawalli,  from The Island, 23 September 2017, where the title reads “The Rohingya future generations in danger of radicalization”

When the attractive and affable High Commissioner of Bangladesh to Sri Lanka, called the editor of this newspaper to discuss the Rohingya issue, he was engaging with the people of Sri Lanka in a refreshing act of non-traditional diplomacy.  He was doing for Sri Lanka what the Kofi Annan Report was urging Myanmar and Bangladesh to do, engaging in “dialogue that promotes better mutual understanding, both at the level of the country’s leaders and people-to people ties” because “Myanmar and Bangladesh have different narratives on the challenges along their shared border. Despite the large numbers who have fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh, the popular perception in Myanmar is that the problem is illegal immigration into Myanmar. There are also different historical narratives about the origin of communities and their population growth. These differences can only be narrowed by dialogue.”

 High Commissioner Riaz Hamidulla

The Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s address to the 72nd session of the UN General Assembly, which was impassioned in the cause of the Rohingya refugees, recommended that the Kofi Annan Commission report must be immediately implemented unconditionally and in its entirety. According to a well-known career SL diplomat, based in Colombo that I spoke to, the whole Myanmar Rohingya issue is a very delicate one and the best thing SL can do as a government is to keep their mouth zipped. On one hand, Bangladesh is an ally, who has stood by us and on the other, Myanmar is a Buddhist land connected to us through historical ties of emotional resonance.

Yet this writer feels, after interviewing High Commissioner Riaz Hamidulla (RH), that the answer is diplomacy and the SL Government may unzip to the extent of urging implementation of the Annan report, especially its recommendation about engagement and dialogue between Myanmar and B’desh at every level.

Q- What is your reason for deciding to talk to a Sri Lankan newspaper?

Riaz Hamidullah– Many people are saying that this is a conflict between the Rakhine Buddhists and Muslims. The Myanmar Government is saying that these are Bengali Muslims and Bengali Muslim extremists. So this is being looked at more through a religious prism. But the fact is this has now transcended everything and gone into the humanitarian domain. That is not being looked at.

Q- Where does B’desh stand? Do you accept they are of Bengali origin?

RH- Bengali? I will put it in a different way. If you look at the [upcountry] Tamils here, don’t they have Indian origin? Are there any people on earth who don’t have some sort of origin? These people have gone there centuries back. Not one century. This question of ethnicity and root has been going back and forth. But it has been long settled. These people have been there.

[From the Kofi Annan Report (p. 18): Rakhine State – separated from the rest of Myanmar by a rugged chain of mountains – has for most of its history been a distinct political entity. While there are records of independent kingdoms since antiquity, the final Rakhine kingdom was established in 1430, with its capital in Mrauk U. Situated on the border between Buddhist and Muslim Asia, the kingdom had strong economic, trade and other relations with the Sultanate of Bengal. For the next 350 years, Mrauk U thrived as a prosperous trading hub, until it came under Burmese control in 1784-85. The annexation of Rakhine was short-lived, as the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-1826) brought the area under British control and subsequent incorporation into British India.

While there has been a Muslim community in Rakhine since before the Burmese invasion, its size increased rapidly during colonial times. British colonial policies to expand rice cultivation in Rakhine required significant labour, a need which was largely filled by Muslim workers from Bengal. While many came on a seasonal basis, some settled down permanently – altering the ethnic and religious mix of the area. From the 1880s to the 1930s, the size of the Muslim community (as part of the total population of the state) seems to have doubled, increasing from about 13 to 25 percent. Since then, the relative increase of the Muslim population has slowed down significantly, and is now estimated to be around a third of the state’s total population.]

Q- Isn’t it true that Bangladesh has closed its border to the Rohingya refugees?

RH- Every point of time 2012, 2014, 2015, 2015 March, from 25 August this year to just today, we have been intensely engaged. We have been saying [to Myanmar], definitely they are your people, you have the sovereign authority to deal with them. If you think that they are someone else’s people, go somewhere and read about it. Then a lot of things will come up; whose people, wherefrom have they come. History of mobility, history of migration tells that this [calling them Bengalis] is not the way to look at it. They are not our people, so why should we open up the border? If we look at all these movements of people, basically they have forced out these people. Do you think any sensible State will open up its borders and accept them?

Q- Not open the border, but can’t you reach an agreement with Myanmar?

RH- We have been engaged. There are records. How many times have we been telling them, come, come, come. This time also, when the conflict picked up, on 25 August, we formally conveyed a non-paper, the highest form of diplomatic communication; please come back, please sit down, can we have joint operations- not patrol – but about who you were saying were our people. They rejected that. Then the UN said about demarcation of safe zones. That also they rejected. What else do you expect?

[From the Kofi Annan Report (p. 59): Addressing the challenges in Rakhine State requires a strong bilateral relationship between Myanmar and Bangladesh. Events in one country have a profound effect on the other, as demonstrated by the thousands of Muslims from northern Rakhine State who sought refuge in Bangladesh after the violence in late 2016. There are profound developmental and humanitarian needs on both sides of the border, but also opportunities for cooperation that would benefit both countries. The last year has seen some efforts to strengthen bilateral engagement. In September 2016, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina met at the UN General Assembly in New York. In June 2016, the Bangladesh Prime Minister sent her Foreign Secretary Shahidul Haque as her Envoy to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi in Naypyitaw. In January 2017, the Myanmar Minister of State for Foreign Affairs U Kyaw Tin visited Dacca, and in July 2017, Myanmar’s National Security Advisor U Thaung Tun also visited Bangladesh.]

Q- Bangladesh does feel some affinity towards these people?

RH- It’s not a question of feeling affinity. When these people were coming, our people were saying, absolutely this is a political question, but this is a time when humanity comes above everything else. That’s when we said, o.k. let the people come. We are not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention. Even then, B’desh has taken them, hosted them. Do you know the exact number of people? Over 500, 000 people were already there, gradually come during the two decades since 1992. Then 87,000 entered in 2016 October. So how much is it? 587,000. Now it’s 400,000 [arrived since 25 August this year]. 60% of these 400, 000 are children. There are 1,400 of them, who are without parents, crossed the jungle and all that. Forty ambassadors went to Cox’s Bazaar [at the Myanmar-Bangladesh border, location of refugee camps of the Rohingya]. They saw with their own eyes; the smoke coming from the other side, etc. They could not hold themselves. It’s impossible. Then another 13% [of the 400,000] are pregnant and lactating mothers. If not this, what else makes a humanitarian catastrophe? First look at it as a humanitarian crisis, then engage in politics.

Q- We don’t share a border or anything, but we have a historical religious connection with Myanmar. That’s why these Buddhist organizations are taking their side.

RH- That’s why I am saying, let’s not look at the religious angle.

Q- Isn’t the religious angle hard to avoid, due to radicalization?

They are saying, they are ISI infiltrated. RH- We have asked the people who come and they have confirmed, these are all homegrown, radicalized groups. It’s so easy and fancy these days to say, these people are ISI. At the end of the day, we can’t identify with technology, who is actually meeting up with which forms and shades of ISI or radicalization. You can’t have any answer to this question [of ISI affiliation]. But by asking this question, people are trying to condone inhuman acts. It’s a crisis of morality, of ethics. Can anyone say people are not dying, that 60% and 13% [children] are not there? So we kill people and say, justify this on ethnicity and nationality? Because of ethnicity and religion, we clear the land? Is that a right and sensible stand for the 21st Century?

Q- Why do you think Myanmar is adamant that they have to renounce the term Rohingya and call themselves Bengali, if they are to be granted citizenship? Is it a national identity issue? What is the meaning of ‘Rohingya’? Does it mean belonging to Rakhine State?

[From the Kofi Annan Report (p. 26-27): The process was first introduced in the shape of a pilot project in Myebon Township in 2014, where Temporary Resident Card (TRC)-holders were allowed to apply for citizenship on the condition that they listed their ethnicity as “Bengali”. … After announcing the cancellation of the TRCs in February 2015, the Government started issuing its replacement – Identity Cards of National Verification (ICNV) – in June 2015. To obtain this card, applicants were again required to register as “Bengali” in the application form. A year later, the NLD Government restarted the process, issuing National Verification Cards (a renaming of the ICNV), which no longer required applicants to indicate their ethnicity or religion in the application form (although the Commission has received complaints that ethnic references have still been included on some occasions).]

RH- There is an etymological root. And it’s not our invention. It’s reported in British times. So let’s not go into ‘Rohingya’ and all that. These things are long settled.

Q- Do you think, it is [this terminology is objected to] because they are demanding autonomy based on the ‘Rohingya’ identity?

RH- Who is demanding autonomy? [From the Kofi Annan Report (p. 19): Shortly after Myanmar’s independence in 1948, a Muslim “mujahidin” rebellion erupted in Rakhine, demanding equal rights and an autonomous Muslim area in the north of the state.]

Q- I am trying to understand why Myanmar is against the term ‘Rohingya’. Maybe they feel, if they concede that identity, they will have to…

RH- Let me tell you one thing, I don’t care about term. Are you ready to engage and consent that they are people of that land? If you accept that, change the term to something else. The term is not the issue. The issue is giving them security, dignity and wellbeing.

Q- I am raising these questions from a Sri Lankan stand point. What if Sri Lankan Indian Tamils were to deny that they are recent immigrants and claim that they were in the central highlands from pre-history? That would create an identity issue?

RH- That’s based on a hypothetical scenario, let’s not talk about it. I as a foreigner, as an ambassador of a country, know that they have been here for a long time and SL has been a very responsible and responsive State, aware of the role and responsibilities of a modern State. They have done the perfect thing in terms of accepting it. There has been history in this part of the world, where people have moved from one place to another, 40/50 years back. Population movement is a different ball game. Countries have accepted that.

Q- With population movement come identity, this drive to create identity. May be Myanmar is worried about that?

RH- I do not know that. Suppose, there is a people settled in B’desh, I have to deal with that, as a responsible State. I can’t push them out to the sea or to land somewhere else. I am talking as a citizen of the world, as a human being. What is resonating is, out of 471 ethnic Rohingya villages, 176 villages are empty. Can anyone not respond knowing 230,000 of these people [fleeing as refugees] are children, maximum seven years of age? Does anyone realize, when these people grow up, who they will become? There is danger for the future. Some years down the line, these people who are growing up with the kind of trauma, hopelessness, one person will be enough to radicalize them.

****   ****


  • James Bennett at the Kutupalong refugee camp: “Rohingya Muslims fleeing violence in Myanmar fight for survival in Bangladesh refugee camps,” 9 Sep 2017, …  A dire humanitarian situation is unfolding inside overcrowded Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh after the number fleeing violence in Myanmar reached more than a quarter-of-a-million.

    Key points:

    • An estimated 270,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees have fled Myanmar to neighbouring Bangladesh
    • Refugees safe from violence but now scrambling for scarce space, food, water and shelter
    • UNHCR says ‘huge financial resources’ needed for ‘unprecedented’ situation

    The UN has confirmed the refugee count is now estimated at 270,000, since Myanmar’s military launched a brutal crackdown on Rohingya insurgents in late August.But while they are welcome for now in Bangladesh, beleaguered authorities there simply cannot cope with the influx, and many are without food, water and shelter.

    Look in any direction around the sprawling Kutupalong refugee camp and misery stares back. Here, a few kilometres inside Bangladesh, Rohingya Muslims are safe from the violence they fled, but must fight for survival anew. Whole families, sick people, injured people, the aged and parents with newborn children are scrambling for scarce space, food, water and shelter.

    Among them are Ali Johar and his wife Khuthija. Exhausted and speechless, she holds a two-day old baby girl, whom she gave birth to unaided in the jungle.

     Photo: A Rohingya woman breaks down after a fight during food distribution at Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh. (AP: Bernat Armangue) Her mother-in-law pulls back a swaddle cloth to reveal a remarkably healthy-looking infant. But this girl, as yet unnamed, begins life without clean water, sanitation, or much of anything to survive. Her father Ali Johar said he could not bring anything when they fled. “I came to Bangladesh two days ago, because some Buddhists came and stabbed people and set fire to the houses in our village. My house was burned down,” he said.

     Rohingya Muslim refugees Ali Johar and his wife Khuthija in Bangladesh with their two-day-old baby girl. (ABC News: James Bennett

  • Nearby, Hafizullah Muhammad and his wife Senwara Begum have claimed a patch of scrubby hillside for them and their five children.She said she witnessed Buddhist vigilantes beheading people near the border, but could not say how many. Haifizullah explains that his village of Andan was surrounded by the army. “The army fired on our house, we all came out and surrendered,” he said. “The army said to us, ‘OK, run away’. We went one side, my parents went the other. “We still don’t know where they are.”Photo: Kutupalong camp in Bangladesh is home to more than 270,000 refugees fleeing violence in Myanmar. (ABC News: Som Patidar)

    Desperation evident when aid trucks stop

    Alongside that anguish, this family and thousands more like them now face dire circumstances. A report several days ago by the UN’s International Agency for Migration said that groundwater in the area was lacking, and although more borewells were being drilled, they were unable to meet demand. Thousands of new arrivals each day set up deeper into the jungle, hacking at the scrub and hoeing terraces into the hillside to clear space for bamboo frames on which they hang tarpaulins.

    The crowds’ desperation is evident when trucks delivering aid dare stop. Those handing out packages must beat back desperate crowds with sticks. Exhausted and destitute arrivals sit by the roadside. The makeshift camp’s secretary Noor Mohammad is pleading for more supplies.

    “The new arrivals, some of them are two days without food, some three days without food,” he said.”They don’t have anything to cook with, nothing to put on the ground, some children have no clothes, they’re coming naked.”

    Photo: Noor Mohammad, Kutupalong’s camp secretary, calls for more supplies. (ABC News: Som Patidar)

    The UN yesterday said, counting newly-discovered camps on the border, 270,000 Rohingya have now fled Myanmar since the army’s offensive began on August 25. “We need to prepare for many more to come, I am afraid,” said Shinni Kubo, Bangladesh country manager for UNHCR. We need huge financial resources. This is unprecedented. This is dramatic. It will continue for weeks and weeks.”

    Long denied citizenship and basic rights, Rohingya insurgents’ attacks on police last month triggered the military crackdown in Rakhine state. Buddhist-majority Myanmar said its security forces were fighting a legitimate campaign in response to the attacks on the security forces.

    Who are the Rohingya?

    The plight of Myanmar’s Rohingya refugees, a Muslim ethnic minority group rendered stateless in their homeland and detained in transit nations, is desperately bleak.

    Several world leaders have suggested the offensive, which has been aided by Buddhist vigilantes, may amount to ethnic-cleansing. Myanmar’s Nobel Peace prize winning democracy figurehead and state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi has been heavily criticised internationally for failing to openly acknowledge the Rohingyas’ plight.

    Overnight the United States called the recent developments “troubling”, but asked about the possibility of sanctions, State Department official Patrick Murphy said the US wanted to work with Myanmar to improve the situation.

    However, there appears to be little let-up. Overnight there were reports of eight more Rohingya villages in Rakhine state being set alight, and smoke was visible from the border. Hardly surprising then, that despite the squalid conditions refugees like Hafizullah Muhammad insist there’s nothing that could convince them to return.


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