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Rohingya refugees wait to cross the border near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, on Sept. 19. (Photo by Yuji Kuronuma)
Rohingya crisis

Bangladesh minister rebuts Suu Kyi arguments on Rohingya

'New fires' seen as refugee flow outpaces last year's Mediterranean crossings

DHAKA -- The United Nations and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations could have -- and should have -- intervened to prevent the "absolutely unprecedented" Rohingya refugee crisis, Bangladesh's state minister of foreign affairs said in an exclusive interview on Thursday.

Shahriar Alam, the junior foreign minister, also took issue with Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi's much-discussed televised speech on Tuesday, in which she said military operations in the northern part of Rakhine State had ceased on Sept. 5.

"We took all the ambassadors who are working here in Bangladesh to visit the site a few days ago, the 14th or 15th of September," Alam said. "We have seen new fires in the villages of Myanmar across the border. We saw the fumes."

Since a militant group called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army attacked Myanmar security forces on Aug. 25, triggering a violent crackdown, some 424,000 Rohingya refugees have fled to Cox's Bazar in southern Bangladesh. The government there, together with U.N. agencies, is providing food, water and shelter.

Alam said the U.N. should have stepped in last year, when tens of villages were torched in Rakhine and 87,000 Roghingya rushed across the border.

"They must have intervened, and picked up the phone to Aung San Suu Kyi," Alam said. "They are calling her now, but they should have called her a year ago."

Not only that, but he said the world should have paid more attention before the Suu Kyi era. Noting the history of tensions between the Muslim Rohingya minority and Buddhist majority since Myanmar's independence in 1948, he said, "They should have called senior generals or the military ruler of the previous [government] before Suu Kyi," especially on occasions when Myanmar blocked humanitarian aide to Rakhine. 

Alam said the current influx of Rohingya into Bangladesh is far more intense than the recent flow of Middle Eastern refugees across the Mediterranean Sea. "Only 364,000 people crossed the Mediterranean Sea into Greece, Italy and many other countries in [all of] 2016. ... But here, in 10 days, [most of the] 424,000 arrived." All told, since 2012, the U.N. has registered more than 5 million refugees from the Syrian civil war.

ASEAN's responsibility

ASEAN shares the responsibility for the Rohingya exodus, he said. "Since [Myanmar has] good relations and dependency [on other members of the bloc], it puts onus on the ASEAN community to intervene and to resolve this crisis."

One of the founding tenets of ASEAN is that members should not interfere in one another's internal affairs. But Alam insisted the Rohingya issue is unique. "This is something ruining not only Myanmar's image but South Asia as a whole. If other neighbors are quiet and do nothing, it will not [be] well-received by the world."

Given the huge numbers Bangladesh is absorbing, Alam pushed back against international media reports of a poorly managed relief effort in Cox's Bazar. It would be "impossible for any government anywhere, no matter the economic condition or capacity of the host country," to run things smoothly during the initial inrush.

Shahriar Alam, Bangladesh's state minister of foreign affairs, speaks to the Nikkei Asian Review in Dhaka on Sept. 21.

Food and water are "somehow reaching them, though probably not enough," he said, conceding that shelter and toilet facilities are "lagging behind." While approximately 40% of total relief is being supplied by local private organizations, the rest is coming from U.N. agencies and the Bangladeshi government. Alam said he hopes the official coverage will reach 100% "within a week from today."

Diplomatic impasse 

Part of the problem is that the makeshift camps are scattered. The government has started setting up a new, single camp in the Kutupalong area of Cox's Bazar, which it hopes to complete by the end of the month. The government has also identified a river island that could hold a permanent Rohingya camp.

Asked whether his country could take in more people, he was quick to say the government is in "no way welcoming refugees."

From the 1990s to just before Aug. 25, more than 400,000 Rohingya migrated to Cox's Bazar, including the 87,000 who came toward the end of last year. So today, the total number is "well above 800,000," Alam said. Bangladesh's capacity to absorb them is "hugely stretched."

His government has been airing its grievances with Myanmar. Since the crisis erupted, Bangladesh has submitted at least three notes verbales -- a type of diplomatic document -- to Myanmar's ambassador in Dhaka. One, Alam said, urged Naypyitaw to take "proper measures" to prevent Rohingya from fleeing.

The second demanded that Myanmar refrain from calling the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army "Bengali terrorists." Historically, the government of Myanmar has refused to accept the Rohingya as citizens and calls them "Bengali," meaning people from Bangladesh.

The third protested Myanmar's alleged deployment of land mines near the border with Cox's Bazar. 

"Do 5- or 6-year-old kids lie?"

Shahriar Alam, Bangladesh's state minister of foreign affairs

Alam said Myanmar only responded to the third message, saying that any mines "were planted in the past, not recently."

"Only after all these failures [of direct diplomacy], we have decided to go the international community," Alam said. While visiting New York this week for the U.N. General Assembly, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina sought global support and understanding on the matter. 

Bangladesh's frustration was also apparent in Alam's response to another Suu Kyi statement.

Numerous refugees in Cox's Bazar have accused Myanmar's military of torching their homes in Rakhine, and of killing their families and neighbors. Suu Kyi, in an interview with the Nikkei Asian Review on Wednesday, said, "If you're going to try to work in accordance with the rule of law, you have to have proper evidence, acceptable evidence -- not just hearsay."

Again, the Bangladeshi junior minister rejected her argument. 

"Do 5- or 6-year-old kids lie?" he asked, noting how one refugee boy told a local reporter that his parents, brothers and sisters had been burned alive in front of him. "He is the only member of the family [and] left Myanmar with some people that he doesn't know."

Abu Anas in Dhaka contributed to this report.

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