Kamran Reza Chowdhury and Jesmin Papri
A Bangladeshi official and political observers on Friday criticized a statement by the Chinese ambassador, who suggested this week that the Rohingya refugee crisis could be solved through economic development in neighboring Myanmar’s Rakhine state.
Linking the plight of Rohingya Muslims to trade and infrastructure investments in the sub-region would be tantamount to disregarding the human rights issues that led to a massive exodus of refugees from Myanmar, the official and analysts told BenarNews.
“Development alone could not resolve the Rohingya crisis,” Mohammad Abul Kalam, Bangladesh’s refugee relief and repatriation commissioner, told BenarNews on Friday.
“The political will of Myanmar’s government is most crucial,” he said. “Unless the rights of the Rohingya people in Rakhine are not ensured, the crisis will not be over.”
BenarNews asked Kalam and others in Bangladesh for their views on a remark made by Chinese Ambassador Zhang Zuo on the Rohingya during a news briefing the envoy gave in Dhaka on Wednesday about Beijing’s massive One Belt, One Road (OBOR) infrastructure initiative.
“The real solution of the problem lies in development,” Zuo said, referring to the 740,000 Rohingya refugees who fled their homes and crossed into Bangladesh at the height of a Myanmar military crackdown in 2017. “We hope that after the violence is stopped and the people are repatriated, the Rakhine state could be further developed.”
“We also hope that in the process of implementing the BCIM economic corridor, we could come up with a very good solution to the Rohingya problem,” the ambassador added.
BCIM is an acronym for the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Forum for Regional Cooperation, a sub-regional organization also known as the BCIM Economic Corridor. It was conceptualized in the early 1990s to improve trade between the four Asian nations.
Without elaborating, Zuo said repatriation was “only part of the overall solution proposed by China.”
As proposed, the BCIM Economic Corridor would connect Kunming, the capital and largest city of Yunnan province in southwest China, with Kolkata in the Indian state of West Bengal. The connection would run through the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka and Mandalay, the second-largest city of Myanmar.
“The Chinese ambassador tried to convey the message that the proposed BCIM corridor will cross via Rakhine state. So, resolving the Rohingya crisis was a precondition to implementing the BCIM corridor,” Retired Maj. Gen. A.N.M. Muniruzzaman, president of the nonprofit think-tank Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies, told Benar.
Muniruzzaman, who attended the Chinese envoy’s briefing, claimed China appeared to be looking at the Rohingya crisis through the lens of Beijing’s national interest.
“China has been constructing a deep seaport in Rakhine state. They are building up an energy terminal there,” he said. “[But] development is not the only strategy to resolve the Rohingya crisis.”
In November, Myanmar signed a renegotiated deal with China’s state-run CITIC Group to develop a multibillion-dollar deep sea port in Kyauk Pyu in Rakhine State, on the Bay of Bengal. The agreement came as Myanmar moved closer to Beijing.
Analysts and academics expressed agreement, alleging the Chinese diplomat made it appear that Beijing was looking at the Rohingya refugees from an economic perspective.
“In the pretext of development, China has been overlooking the human aspect of the Rohingya crisis,” Delwar Hossain, a professor of international relations at Dhaka University, told BenarNews.
U.N. human rights investigators have accused Myanmar’s military of committing ethnic cleansing against the minority group during the brutal crackdown taken in response to attacks by Rohingya insurgents on security posts.
Beijing had proposed to mediate between Bangladesh and Myanmar to resolve the Rohingya refugee exodus, which peaked between August and September 2017. Negotiations for the Rohingya repatriation have stalled.
In March this year, Bangladeshi Foreign Secretary Shahidul Haque told a U.N. Security Council meeting that the refugee crisis had gone from “bad to worse.”
Dhaka, he said, would no longer be able to take in refugees from Myanmar.
Mahmida Khatun, executive director of the private think-tank Center for Policy Dialogue, also questioned the Chinese envoy’s comments.
“China says it wants development of Bangladesh and Myanmar,” she said, “but they keep silent on Rohingya repatriation.”
Khatun said Myanmar must first guarantee the security and safety, fundamental rights, freedom of movement, education and job opportunities in the place where the refugees would be returned.
Many residents of Buddhist-majority Myanmar regard Rohingyas as “Bengalis,” implying that the minorities entered illegally from Bangladesh, even though they have lived in Myanmar for generations. Most of them have been denied citizenship and prevented from traveling outside Rakhine state.
“The Myanmar government should commit to ensure social development, in addition to economic development, in Rakhine state,” she said.