Under pressure from the UN, the West and also China, to go in for a deal with Bangladesh, Myanmar’s military-backed government headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, opened up to Bangladesh and invited the latter’s Interior Minister Asaduzzaman Khan for talks last month.
The talks led to a 10-point agreement which clearly included a provision for the repatriation of 600,000 Rohingyas who had fled to Bangladesh after the latest bout of violence which began on August 25.
But even before the ink on the agreement dried, Myanmar reneged on it and issued a dubious “Joint Statement” minus the crucial paragraph on repatriation.
Zaw Htay, a spokesman for State Counselor (Prime Minister) Aung San Suu Kyi, said that Myanmar is ready to take refugees but only those who have official documents to prove that they had been living in Myanmar. He said that this is as per an agreement signed with Bangladesh in September 1992. But Bangladesh is refusing to go back to the 1992, he pointed out.
Bangladesh has good reasons for not going back to the 1992 pact. The pact had failed comprehensively. Less than 2000 out of the 200, 000 refugees at that time had gone back because only that many had the required official documents. Most of the refugees had no documents to prove Myanmar residency either because Myanmar had not issued documents to them or they had lost them during the riots and the flight to Bangladesh. Bangladesh even used force to push the refugees out, but that too failed.
Myanmar has its own explanation for Bangladesh’s reluctance to accept the 1992 pact. According to Suu Kyi’s spokesman, Zaw Htay, Bangladesh wants the refugees to stay on so that it could get more and more money from the international community to help build gigantic refugee camps for the Rohingyas. According to the Myanmar spokesman, Bangladesh has already received US$ 400 million and is looking for more citing continuing refugee presence.
But Bangladesh sources trash this line, saying that the 1992 repatriation agreement cannot be implemented if official residency documentation is insisted upon. Bangladesh is actually dead against the creation of permanent Rohingya settlements on its territory and is resisting efforts by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to build permanent house or shelters for the refugees. The government may not take the advice of some foreign experts to build more camps even to relieve congestion in the existing camps in Cox’s Bazar on the Bangladesh-Myanmr border. Local officials have banned Bangladeshis marrying refugees, as such marriages may lead to permanent settlement.
After Myanmar reneged on the 10-point agreement between the Bangladesh and Myanmar Interior Ministers, Bangladesh stepped up efforts to get the international community to out pressure on Myanmar.
China, which had played a catalytic role in getting the two adversaries to talk to each other and settle the matter, had failed in its mission to find a solution through the bilateral route. But China still hopes that Myanmar will resist West-led international pressure using the concept of “national sovereignty”.
There are signs that Myanmar will use the concept of sovereignty to resist international pressure. Myanmar has said that it is still wedded to bilateralism. It has pointed out that the talks process with Bangladesh is still on, and that Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali will come to Myanmar for talks on November 16 and 17.
That Myanmar is opposed to international intervention is evident in its response to the UN Security Council’s Joint Statement on the Rohingya issue. Suu Kyi’s office said that the UNSC statement will only hamper bilateral negotiations between Myanmar and Bangladesh which “have been proceeding smoothly and expeditiously.”
The statement also lauded China and Russia for upholding “the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of sovereign countries.”
However, egged on by Bangladesh, the UN and the West will continue to put pressure on Myanmar. But this will be done without upsetting their relations with their protégé Aung San Suu kyi, who had restored democracy in Myanmar after years of hard struggle.
The West would also be careful not to step on China’s toes, as China’s goodwill is necessary to contain the emerging threat from North Korea. US President Donald Trump’s overtures to Chinese President Xi Jinping during his visit to Beijing are an indication that the US will handle China with kid gloves.
Bangladesh too will not go beyond a point to seek international intervention as it might lose the support of China which is a major investor in Bangladesh; a significant supplier of military equipment; and a bulwark against its giant neighbor, India. Bangladesh may also be wary about giving in to UNHCR’s permanent settlement plan as a result of internationalizing the problem.
The West has been treading warily. Its bid to get the UNSC to pass a strong “resolution” against China failed because of the fear of its being vetoed by China and Russia, both strong advocates of the concept of the inviolability of national sovereignties. What resulted was a mild “Joint Statement”.
The US State Department has shown reluctance to describe the events in Myanmar as “ethnic cleansing”. It remains to be seen if the US Congress would urge targeted military sanctions against Myanmar. The US has also taken the extremely charitable view that Myanmar has begun the repatriation process.
However, Foreign Ministers from 53 countries from Asia and Europe, who will assemble in Myanmar for the Asia Europe Meeting (ASEM) on November 20 and 21, will take up the issue of the Rohingyas with the Myanmar leaders. ASEM has as its members, the US, Russia, China, Japan, India, Myanmar and Bangladesh.
Prior to the summit on or around November 18, Foreign Ministers of Sweden, Germany, Japan and China will visit Dhaka for talks with Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and visit refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar.