By Kamran Reza Chowdhury
Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said Monday that Chinese leaders assured her that Beijing would prod Myanmar to hasten the repatriation of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees languishing in camps in the South Asian nation.
During her first news conference after coming home from an official visit to China, a visibly irked Hasina also slammed a U.S. congressman’s proposal that Myanmar’s Rakhine state, home to the Rohingya minority, be brought under Bangladeshi territory to resolve the refugee crisis. The prime minister described it as an effort “to ignite fire” in the region.
Hasina held bilateral talks in Beijing with Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang on July 4 and President Xi Jinping the following day, during which they talked about the Rohingya refugees, according to officials.
“It is true that China has always been with Myanmar, but they have realized that the stay of the Rohingya in Bangladesh is a big problem for Bangladesh,” she told reporters in Dhaka, referring to her talks last week with the Chinese premier and president after attending a World Economic Forum meeting.
“They now think, the issue should be resolved expeditiously, and they have assured me of doing whatever necessary in this regard,” Hasina said.
She said Bangladesh had always been in favor of resolving issues peacefully in line with the nation’s foreign policy: “friendship to all, malice to none.”
“Myanmar has put a huge burden on us. But we have not opted for quarrelling. Instead, we have been negotiating with them. We are still holding talks with them,” Hasina said, as she underscored Dhaka’s financial burden for hosting as many as 1.1 million Rohingya refugees, including more than 740,000 who fled a brutal crackdown by the military in Rakhine, beginning in August 2017.
During Hasina’s visit, Bangladesh and China signed nine pacts related to aid for the Rohingya as well as economic and technical cooperation, investment, power sector, and culture and tourism.
Since 2016, China has massively expanded its investment in Bangladesh – its U.S. $1.03 billion overall investment in 2018 is 16 times greater than its $61 million investment two years earlier, according to official government figures.
At the news conference, Hasina also expressed displeasure over a statement issued by U.S. Rep. Bradley Sherman, who suggested during a June 13 hearing on the U.S. State Department’s budget for South Asia that Washington should consider bringing Myanmar’s Rakhine state under Bangladesh.
“We strongly oppose occupying another nation’s territory or annexing the province of another country,” she said, emphasizing that Bangladesh was happy with its land area of 54,000 square miles (about 147,000 square km).
“All independent countries must have their sovereign rights. Myanmar has its sovereign rights,” she said. “Making such a statement is reprehensible and unfair, I think.”
Sherman, a Democrat who chairs the House sub-committee on Asia-Pacific, was among senior members of the House foreign affairs committee who sent a letter to U.S. Secretary Mike Pompeo in February, urging President Donald Trump’s government to “protect democracy” in Bangladesh.
The committee members, in a press statement, highlighted allegations of election fraud and vote rigging during Bangladesh’s general election on Dec. 30 last year. Hasina has rejected those allegations and took her oath in January for a record fourth term.
“If Myanmar or Burma is unwilling or unable to be a good government for the Rohingya people that live in North Rakhine state, then we should transfer and the United States should support the transfer of the portion of that state to Bangladesh, which is willing to accommodate the people,” Sherman told the budget hearing in Washington.
“The Rohingya people of north Rakhine state deserves a government that tries to protect them, not destroy them,” he said.
Bangladesh merely offered shelter to the Rohingya from neighboring Myanmar on humanitarian grounds, according to Hasina.
“This does not mean that we will slash a portion of their territory,” she said. “There are problems in Rakhine, and why should we bring those problems to our country? We will never do it.”
Instead of making such a proposal, Hasina said, the American lawmaker should push for Myanmar to take back its nationals from Bangladesh.
“Their efforts to ignite fire in this region aren’t accepted,” Hasina said, referring to Sherman’s statements.
Myanmar and Bangladesh have traded blame over stalled efforts to repatriate the Muslim Rohingya refugees, who fled a 2017 Myanmar military campaign that the United States and U.N. authorities had described as “ethnic cleansing.”
Last month, Hasina told reporters in Dhaka that Myanmar was reluctant to take back the Rohingya Muslims despite a signed agreement to repatriate them.
U.N. investigators called for the prosecution of top Myanmar generals for “genocide” after the extent of the violence was revealed. Naypyidaw rejected the criticism, saying the violence took place when its soldiers was clearing the area of militants.
Rights groups said Myanmar security forces responded to the attack on border guard posts with a campaign of violence that killed thousands of Rohingya Muslims and subjected women to sexual assaults.
Munshi Faiz Ahmad, a former Bangladesh ambassador to China, said Hasina’s China visit would be expected to usher in positive developments related to the Rohingya repatriation.
“Bangladesh and China maintain very strong bilateral relations. China has been protecting Myanmar from all international pressures. So, they can make Myanmar agree to take the Rohingya back,” he told BenarNews.
He also said that the United State or China would not seek any action that would disrupt Myanmar’s territorial integrity.
“I think annexing Rakhine with Bangladesh is not the U.S. policy,” he said. “This is simply a proposal from a congressman.”