By Kamran Reza Chowdhury
Amid tensions following a deadly brawl at a Chinese investment site in Bangladesh, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is set for meetings next week with top leaders in China on such key issues as repatriation of Rohingya refugees and funding of development projects.
Hasina is scheduled to leave Dhaka on July 1 to attend the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) at the northeast Chinese coastal city of Dalian before holding talks with President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Li Keqiang in Beijing on July 4 and 5, a Bangladeshi foreign ministry official said.
“In addition to business, trade, investment and development issues, the prime minister will discuss the issue of Rohingya repatriation with the Chinese president and the prime minister,” Faisal Ahmed, a director general at the foreign ministry, told BenarNews.
Hasina is expected to ask China in particular to prod Myanmar to take back more than 740,000 Rohingya refugees who have fled violence in Rakhine state and settled in Bangladesh since August 2017. The violence was triggered by a bloody crackdown by Myanmar security forces on the minority Muslim group that was condemned by the international community.
She warned Wednesday that Bangladesh’s security could be threatened by the Rohingya crisis.
“The displaced Rohingyas, who have been deprived of basic rights by Myanmar, are dissatisfied. If we cannot send them back soon, there is apprehension that our security and stability will be hampered,” she was quoted telling members of parliament.
Myanmar and Bangladesh have signed a reparation deal that was to begin in early 2018 but, so far, no Rohingya have expressed a willingness to return because of safety concerns.
On Tuesday, Bangladesh Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen met with Chinese Ambassador to Bangladesh Zhang Zuo who briefed him on a recent visit to a Rohingya camp in Cox’s Bazar in southeastern Bangladesh, where most of the refugees are housed in overcrowded, unsanitary living conditions.
“Momen sought China’s support to convince Myanmar to start taking back their people from Bangladesh at the earliest. He mentioned Bangladesh is ready to send back Rohingya who are on the verified list,” a Bangladesh foreign ministry statement said.
The two “shared their views on the role Myanmar should play in creating congenial atmosphere so Rohingya feel safe during their repatriation and resettlement in Rakhine state.”
The Chinese embassy did not respond to a request for comment.
Beijing has tried to facilitate talks between Myanmar and Bangladesh to secure the safe return of the Rohingya refugees but there have been no signs of progress.
China, together with Russia, has shielded Myanmar from U.N. Security Council action as an inquiry report by the world body termed the crackdown on Rohingya as genocide and called for targeted sanctions.
China is Myanmar’s largest trading partner and top investor.
“China is protecting Myanmar from the international pressure,” said Munshi Fayez Ahmed, a former Bangladesh ambassador to China. “We have to understand why China has been backing Myanmar and giving a veto at the UN against any decision that may go against Myanmar.”
“China is doing this because they have made huge investment in Rakhine state for economic and strategic interests,” he said.
While attempting to break the deadlock over the Rohingya repatriation, Hasina will also raise funding issues related to Chinese investments in Bangladesh.
“Hasina will discuss the speedy release of funds for development projects backed by Chinese loans,” a foreign ministry official told BenarNews, speaking on condition of anonymity.
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.
It was not immediately clear whether Hasina and the Chinese leaders will discuss the recent fight between Chinese and Bangladeshi workers at a site of a partly built China-funded power plant.
Much of China’s investment has been in the power sector, including the 1,320 megawatt-capacity Payra power plant being constructed by a joint consortium where the brawl occurred about a week ago.
The plant, fueled by imported coal, will begin generating power by the end of the year and be fully functional by late 2022, according to North-West Power Generation Company Ltd, a consortium partner.
The violence at the construction site of Payra plant which employs about 7,000 Bangladeshis and 2,700 Chinese broke out after a Bangladeshi worker fell to his death from a terrace. Rumors spread that he was pushed by a Chinese national.
Hundreds of police were called in to stop the fight which left a Chinese worker dead and at least seven others injured.
In an apparent bid to ease tensions, the authorities ordered all the Bangladeshi workers to go on a two-week leave pending an investigation into the unrest while the Chinese employees resumed work at the weekend.
A University of Dhaka professor of international relations said he did not expect the death of the Chinese worker to have a major impact on Bangladesh’s relations with its neighbor.
“But China may ask for reason behind the death of their citizen and definitely will demand justice,” Mohammad Ruhul Amin told BenarNews. “If justice is ensured according to Bangladeshi law, I don’t think China will have any further concerns.”
“We hope the situation will return to normal soon,” said Khaled Mahmood, the chairman of the Bangladesh Power Development Board (PDB).
Fourteen Bangladeshis had been arrested and that police expected to arrest more suspects over the violence.
North-West CEO Khurshedul Alam announced efforts to improve relations among the workers following a committee investigation of the incident.
“To stop recurrence of such incidents, the probe committee has recommended appointing interpreters who can bridge the language barrier of the groups of nationals,” he said. “The committee also proposed increasing friendship between the Chinese and the Bangladeshi workers through introducing sports and cultural programs.”
A worker who asked to remain anonymous said he and other Bangladeshis at the plant are mistreated, adding that plant and government officials are trying to downplay the incident as Hasina prepares to travel to China.
“The Chinese treat us, the Bangladeshi workers very badly. They behave as if we are not human beings,” the worker told BenarNews. “They misbehave and torture us for trifle issues and do not hesitate to beat us up.”
The worker noted the Bangladeshis have no unions to support them and their labor rights are violated.
“When we bring the matter to the notice of management, they do not pay heed to us. This is a misfortune for us that we are treated like slaves by the Chinese on our land,” he said.