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Year-end review: Diplomatic front remains gripped with Rohingya crisis

  • Published at 11:33 pm December 30th, 2019
ROHINGYA
File photo: A group of Rohingya refugee people walk after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border in Teknaf, Bangladesh Mahmud Hossain Opu/Dhaka Tribune

Now, even the most optimistic diplomat in the country cannot predict a date of commencement of the repatriation

Similar to the previous year, Bangladesh’s diplomatic front remained gripped by the Rohingya crisis in 2019, with no tangible progress in regard to the repatriation of the displaced people who have taken refuge in Cox’s Bazar, fleeing persecution in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.

Throughout the year, Bangladesh’s diplomacy claimed to have tried its best, at least, to begin the process to solve the protracted crisis through starting the repatriation. But Myanmar was successful, yet again, in frustrating the repatriation efforts, repviolating its obligations under the bilateral instruments signed between Dhaka and Naypyidaw, and ignoring the will of the international community. 

According to the deal signed between the two countries on November 23, 2017, the repatriation was supposed to begin by January 22, 2018 and be completed within two years of the commencement. But not a single Rohingya has gone home.ga

Without being a party to the ongoing Rohingya crisis, most of the diplomatic time of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its missions abroad appeared to have been dedicated to project the severity of the problem and justify the rationale for the international community to act in order to make Myanmar nothing more than taking back its own people. 

But it can be safely said that Dhaka has not achieved what it wanted, thanks to the lack of adequate support from China, the staunchest ally of Myanmar, as well as Russia and India. Despite significant political and economic engagements with these countries, Bangladesh’s diplomacy failed to garner their support.


The outgoing year saw a botched repatriation attempt because of Myanmar’s failure to create favourable conditions for the return of the Rohingyas, two unproductive meetings between Myanmar and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) officials and the Rohingya community leaders in Cox’s Bazar, and a limbo in relation to the government’s plan to relocate part of the Rohingya populace to Bhashan Char to decongest the overcrowded refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar.

Now, even the most optimistic diplomat in the country cannot predict a date of commencement of the repatriation. The same applies to the case of relocation.

A new dimension, however, has been added to the process to begin the repatriation. China has become directly involved with the process by forming a tripartite Dhaka-Naypyidaw-Beijing mechanism on September 23, on the sidelines of the 74th Session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).

A silver lining?

Though no apparent progress in terms of repatriation, the month of November provided a ray of hope among the Rohingyas in regard to the accountability of the perpetrators of heinous crimes committed against them by the Myanmar security forces and their civilian allies.

On November 11, the Gambia filed a case against Myanmar under the Genocide Convention with the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the principal judicial organ of the United Nations, alleging that Rohingyas were subjected to genocide. The Gambia also requested the court to order some provisional measures to protect the Rohingya people still living in Rakhine. 

File Photo: In this handout aerial photo taken on June 19, 2019 and released on October 21 by Mukta Dinwiddie MacLaren Architects shows buildings intended to accomodate members of the Rohingya refugee community on the silt islet Bhashan Char in the Bay of Bengal | AFPThe hearings on provisional measures took place on December 10-12 in The Hague, a city in the Netherlands.

On November 14, the International Criminal Court (ICC) approved a long-awaited full investigation into Myanmar's alleged abuse of Rohingya Muslims, including crimes against humanity and persecution. The investigation is yet to begin.

Aside from facing the Rohingya crisis, the country’s diplomacy, under a new foreign minister, faced criticism from most of the developed nations for a controversial general election on December 30, 2018, resulting in the re-election of the present government that assumed the office on January 7. But criticism this time around was less harsh than that of the election in 2014 – mainly due to the Rohingya crisis.

Proactive diplomacy

Bangladesh remained engaged with the world, especially India, the US, the European Union and China. Dhaka also tried to play a proactive role in the international forums, including the United Nations.

With regards to India, the general belief among people is that the neighbour always gets more than it gives. And 2019 was no exception.

Among other things, India was given the go-ahead to use Chittagong and Mongla seaports, allowed to withdraw water from Feni River, and an MoU was signed to set up radar systems on Bangladesh’s coastal belt. 

All of these were formalized during Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India in October, which was the first of her two visits to India in 2019. She visited Kolkata at the end of November to watch the second cricket Test match between Bangladesh and India.

On the other hand, Bangladesh is yet to get the long-pending Teesta water sharing agreement signed. 

Meanwhile, more Bangladeshis were killed by the Indian Border Security Force along the border, compared to 2018.

For quite a while now, Bangladesh has been familiar with “more giving, less receiving” equation. But the development during the first half of December appeared to be too much for Bangladesh, when Indian Home Minister Amit Shah, speaking in parliament on the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, now an act, brought allegations of persecution of religious minorities in Bangladesh. Though nothing was said officially, it is believed that the visits of the foreign minister and the home minister to India were cancelled and a meeting on joint river issues were postponed due to Amit Shah’s remarks.

Bangladesh has successfully dealt with India’s eagerness for its neighbour to purchase firearms from it under the $500 million credit line, on which a memorandum of understanding was signed during Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India in April 2017.

As for China, Bangladesh maintained good relations with the most powerful country in the region, albeit Dhaka hoped for more effort from Beijing to persuade Myanmar in relation to the Rohingya repatriation.

File photo: Gambia's Justice Minister Abubacarr Tambadou and Myanmar's leader Aung San Suu Kyi attend a hearing in a case filed by Gambia against Myanmar alleging genocide against the minority Rohingya population, at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague on December 10, 2019 | ReutersThe engagements with the US appeared to have increased with the opening of a new window: Washington’s desire to sell high-end weapons to Bangladesh, including combat fighter jets, missile systems and Apache helicopters.  Bangladesh has adopted a “go slow” policy in this regard.

While China has tried to pull Bangladesh to its flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the US made endeavour to get Bangladesh involved in its Indo-Pacific Strategy. Bangladesh has played a balanced act without antagonizing either of them.

In relation to the EU, the trade and commerce were as usual in spite of the fact that the powerful bloc has more than once voiced concerns about the labour rights and working conditions in RMG factories. 

Bangladesh’s pro-Saudi Arabia position in regards to the war in Yemen did not change, and there have been some military-to-military engagements between Dhaka and Riyadh.

The country’s relationship with other countries appeared to have remained the same.

During the year, the Foreign Ministry faced criticism for failing to ensure the rights of Bangladeshi migrants living in the Middle East, especially in Saudi Arabia.

The prime minister had quite a hectic foreign schedule in 2019.