How would you describe your five-year-long tenure as the Bangladesh ambassador to Myanmar?
I joined our embassy in Yangon in August 2009. Before I joined, there were all kinds of media reports about Myanmar's large-scale mobilisation of armed forces on the Bangladesh-Myanmar border; heavy tanks and artillery guns were apparently deployed with the aim to attack Bangladesh.
I believe the government’s actions taken at the time were very appropriate. I took the opportunity to visit Rakhine, including the border areas to confirm the authenticity of the reports.
I did not see any trace of armoured cavalry or artillery or for that matter any evidence of large-scale mobilization of armed forces in the area. When our former foreign minister, Dr Dipu Moni, called me on October 11, 2009 to ask for my opinion about such reports, I could straightaway respond saying these were “false and fabricated” and that there was nothing out of the ordinary. After talking to me, she briefed the media the next day and said, “I spoke to our ambassador, an army officer, in Myanmar and he told me that it was a routine movement...” I really still wonder why all such false and fabricated reports were being fed to our media!
Our relationship with Myanmar was fine until June 8, 2012 when hundreds of thousands of Rohingya attempted to flee Myanmar into Bangladesh, prompted by widespread attacks in Rakhine. There were all sorts of fake and misleading information on news and social media alike. The false reports influenced the exodus as much as the attacks themselves.
However, Bangladesh’s position was clear, the Rohingya were a Myanmar problem, and has to be solved in Myanmar by Myanmar. It is a fact that holds true even today. In 2012, we prevented the Rohingya from entering Bangladesh. The displaced Rohingya were placed in camps in Rakhine, where hundreds of thousands still live. The large numbers are a testimony to the sheer scale of the attempted exodus.
During my tenure, I visited the camps and villages in Rakhine several times for a first-hand experience.
What do you think are the root causes of the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar? Could you shed some light on its historical background?
I read in The Atlantic (dated 25 September 2017) an article titled “The Misunderstood Roots of Burma's Rohingya Crisis” where Derek Mitchell, who served as US ambassador to Myanmar from 2012-2016, concisely highlighted the focal points. Derek Mitchell and I worked closely on the Rohingya issue during my tenure in Myanmar. Regarding the root causes, I would tend to agree with him, “for the Burmese Government, the word Rohingya is particularly fraught. This is because if the government acknowledges Rakhine Muslims as members of the Rohingya ethnic group, then under the 1982 Citizenship Law – ironically, the same measure that stripped the Rohingya of their citizenship – the Muslims would be allowed an autonomous area within the country. And therein lies the crux of the problem: The Burmese fear a Rohingya autonomous area along the border with Bangladesh would come at the expense of Rakhine territory. The Burmese military, which has cracked down on the Rohingya civilians, views this as a possible staging area for terrorism for groups like ARSA.”
He says, “This fear is very deeply felt and not understood in the west – and it comes from a real place rooted in Burma's history”. From the history, we may learn that when the forebears of the Rohingyas appealed to Muhammad Ali Jinnah to make their part of the territory a part of Pakistan, he ignored it. Subsequently, the Rohingyas took up arms and fought a separatist rebellion until the 1960s and it continued in some form or the other until the 1990s. On different occasions, I have also shared with many all that he has said by referring to the Burma's history. I may, therefore, say that the root cause of the crisis is essentially political in nature.
How is the geopolitical race between India and China adding fuel to the fire in Rakhine?
I don't think India and China’s interests in Rakhine or Myanmar have any connection to the ongoing Rohingya crisis. These two countries would rather be happy to see crisis resolved immediately. It would only benefit their ventures in Rakhine.
Some are criticising Bangladesh saying there was a diplomatic failure in tackling this issue. As a former diplomat, what is your opinion?
I don't know what diplomatic failure you are hinting at. As far as I am concerned, I would strongly voice my support for diplomatic efforts. Any other means that many consider will only complicate the issue and adversely affect our relations with Myanmar, our interests in the region and our internal politics and security. Therefore, I strongly support our ongoing diplomatic campaign. For the desired outcome of our diplomatic efforts, we may have to follow the “give and take or win-win” principle. We must be patient.
Has Myanmar ever been a good neighbour?
One should note that Myanmar was one of the first five countries to have recognised Bangladesh on January 13, 1972 long before Saudi Arabia, USA, and China and so on. However, misunderstanding and mistrust involving the Rohingya developed between our two countries, especially after the killing of Bangabandhu in 1975, which finally became a crisis following a mass exodus of the Rohingyas from Myanmar into Bangladesh in 1978.
The Rohingya crisis appears to be getting more and more complicated. Many say the repatriation of the Rohingyas in accordance with the 1992 Agreement will not be easy. What is your take on this?
Well, we need to start the repatriation of the Rohingya back to Myanmar as soon as possible. It started in 1978 and again in 1991/92 but was halted in 2005 due to various reasons. To restart the repatriation, we need to have a basis to proceed with and the 1992 Agreement may serve as that basis. However, we must also agree that certain provisions of this very agreement (e.g. a provision requiring the displaced Rohingya, now living in Bangladesh, to produce written documents for necessary verification) may not be strictly applicable under the current circumstances. Therefore, both sides will need to discuss such issues to find out the most viable ways for speedy verification. These discussions may also result in yet another agreement to this end.
Do you think implementing the Kofi Annan Commission’s recommendations will lead to a lasting solution?
Yes, I do think that it will help solve this problem. I am happy to note that Aung San Suu Kyi pledged to ensure speedy verification of the recommendations of Annan Commission and our prime minister has also demanded that it happens.
What role may Aung San Suu Kyi play in resolving the Rohingya crisis? Why didn't/couldn't she do it so far?
One must first try to understand the history of Myanmar, its politics, its complex issues involving security and insurgencies. She just started her journey in politics in the truest sense of the term only two years ago. Everything she did before was from confinement. The answer lies in something she said earlier: “I am not Margaret Thatcher, nor am I Mother Teresa; I am a politician”. She has rightly hinted that she is not the Iron Lady of Myanmar, nor is she devoting her entire life for humanity and well-being like Mother Teresa. She is just a politician – a message one may well understand so far as her limitations and political ambitions are concerned.
What actions should Bangladesh take?
We must maintain the momentum of our ongoing diplomatic campaign. While we continue to retain the support that we have already won in our favour, we must extend our efforts towards winning the support of all the other countries that really matter e.g. China and Russia (permanent members of the UN Security Council), Japan (a member of the UN Security Council), India (common neighbour of both Bangladesh and Myanmar) and ASEAN countries. We must also understand that only supporting us to support the displaced Rohingyas in our country and not extending the right support at the right place and at the right time will only aggravate the crisis further.
We must also remember that better living conditions for the displaced Rohingyas from Myanmar in Bangladesh may serve as a “Pull Factor” causing more and more Rohingyas to leave Myanmar and come to Bangladesh. We must remember this as we plan and formulate the strategy to address this issue.