Bangladesh and Myanmar resumed China-brokered talks on Rohingya repatriation for the first time in a year on Tuesday, with Dhaka urging the neighboring country to create conditions in which refugees would agree to return, officials said.
The two sides tentatively discussed a fresh attempt to begin repatriation in the second quarter of the new year, though it was not immediately clear what guarantees Rohingya would receive about their safety and livelihood under the plan.
“Today we again heavily emphasized on creating a conducive environment for Rohingya repatriation … The conducive environment is inextricably linked with voluntary repatriation,” Bangladeshi Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen told reporters after the 90-minute virtual meeting.
He also asked Myanmar to expedite its vetting and verifying of Rohingya refugees as a prerequisite for their return, amid recent revelations that Myanmar had approved only 42,000 names from a list of 840,000 compiled by Dhaka.
Two earlier attempts to begin repatriation to Myanmar – in November 2018 and August 2019 – failed, with Rohingya leaders saying at the time that refugees would not return until their safety, security, and rights were guaranteed in that country.
“[W]e weren’t successful in giving two dates previously. We’re taking lessons from that, and looking for ways to succeed,” Momen said Tuesday.
Myanmar shot down Bangladesh’s proposal for “village-based repatriation,” insisting instead on beginning with people from its list of 42,000 verified names, Momen said.
“I had to say two or three times, that number is not important here. It is important to see whether they know each other or not,” he said. “We want to send together people who came from the same area, so that they feel comfortable.”
After a visit to Rakhine state in August 2018 by then-Bangladeshi Foreign Minister A.H. Mahmood Ali, a ministry official who accompanied him said conditions for the sustainable return of the refugees had yet to be created.
“The houses of the Muslims were under barricade. The commercial establishments of the Muslims were completely shut. There is no livelihood opportunity for them,” Habibul Kabir Chowdhury told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service, at the time.
Bangladesh also proposed repatriations in the first three months of 2021, but Myanmar said any attempt would have to wait for the second quarter due to the need for logistical arrangements, according to Momen.
A statement about the meeting issued by Naypyidaw claimed that “Myanmar has made all necessary arrangements for the repatriation” and “reaffirmed Myanmar’s readiness to receive the verified displaced persons in line with the bilateral agreements.”
Hau Do Suan, Myanmar’s deputy minister of international cooperation, meanwhile “urged Bangladesh to address the issue of terrorist elements intimidating and posing threats to the displaced persons not to return to Myanmar,” the statement said.
He was evidently referring to members of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which claims to be fighting for the rights of the stateless and oppressed minority in Myanmar.
ARSA attacks on police posts in Myanmar’s Rakhine state in August 2017 killed nine and led to a military crackdown on the Rohingya population that led some 740,000 people to flee to Bangladesh over the following months.
“[W]e don’t allow any insurgents or terrorist groups on our soil. There are some criminal groups, but they don’t have any religious or political identities,” Momen said he told the meeting in response to this point.
The Chinese framework
China has been attempting to facilitate Rohingya repatriation since late 2017.
The last such engagement was a mid-level meeting in Dhaka on Jan. 20, 2020, a local official told BenarNews at the time. Efforts then ground to a halt due to the coronavirus pandemic.
On Tuesday, the two sides agreed to hold a joint working group meeting with bigger teams in the first week of February, Momen said.
Tuesday’s meeting was chaired by Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Luo Zhaohui via video link to the three capitals.
In a statement, the Chinese diplomat avoided the word “Rohingya” in stating China’s position that “the issue of displaced people from Rakhine is ultimately a bilateral one.” As part of its marginalization of the Rohingya, Myanmar refuses to acknowledge their ethnic identity.
“The international community, China included, should play a constructive role instead of further complicating the situation,” the statement said.
Bangladesh initially resisted this framework for negotiations, according to a foreign ministry official who spoke to BenarNews in 2017.
“The essence of the Chinese proposal is that we resolve the Rohingya problem bilaterally with Myanmar. The Chinese proposal is almost similar to Myanmar’s,” the director said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“Basically, China wants Bangladesh to stop putting international pressure on Myanmar through the U.N. and other international bodies. They [China] want to dictate the Rohingya issue,” he said.
Bhashan Char visit
In other developments Tuesday, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal traveled to the Bay of Bengal isle where Bangladesh has controversially relocated more than 3,500 Rohingya to relieve pressure on overcrowded refugee camps in the country’s southeast.
Khan, the highest ranking government official to visit Bhashan Char so far, inaugurated its first police station.
International aid agencies have expressed concern that refugees may not be safe on the low-lying island, which is vulnerable to cyclones. But Bangladesh claims it has developed the island with facilities to guard against such threats, and that Rohingya have moved there voluntarily.
From Bhasan Char, the home minister flew by helicopter to the Kutupalong refugee camp in mainland Cox’s Bazar district, where he met with Rohingya leaders and administrative officials.
There, he called up about 36 Rohingya leaders to ensure that refugees stay put in the camps and “refrain from any activities that can embarrass the government or disturb law and order,” according to one attendee, Mohammad Rafique.
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.