Indian relief for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh as Delhi readies to play 'due' role

Sadiq Naqvi 13 September 2017, 21:00 IST

Indian relief for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh as Delhi readies to play 'due' role

Even as the Home Ministry continues to talk tough on the Rohingya refugees in the country, the Indian government is contemplating sending relief for Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh.

Syed Muazzem Ali, Bangladesh’s High Commissioner to New Delhi, says, “India is also contemplating sending relief supplies to Bangladesh by both air as well as by ship. But the details of the relief supplies have not yet been finalised.”

Other Bangladeshi diplomatic sources say two Indian officials from the High Commission are in Cox’s Bazar, where most of these camps are located, to assess the needs and that a decision could take another two days.

Meanwhile, as the exodus of refugees from Northern Rakhine to Bangladesh continues, High Commissioner Ali, in this interview with Catch, says he expects India to be the moderating influence on Myanmar; that it support various measures at the United Nations to put pressure on Myanmar to ensure the return and rehabilitation of Rohingyas in Rakhine.

High Commissioner Ali says India’s response has been good, as the revised statement by the Ministry of External Affairs on 9 September showed, which called for restraint.

Excerpts from the interview...

How do you look at the situation in Northern Rakhine at the moment?

We look at the situation in Northern Rakhine with deep concern because during the past 10 days, 3,70,000 Rohingya refugees have come and taken shelter in Bangladesh.

As you know, we already have 4,00,000 Rohingya refugees who have come to Bangladesh from time to time on various occasions. We have a very serious problem in hand. My country is reeling under pressure caused by the worst floods in decades during the recent times and when 35% of land was under water.

On top of that, we now face this crisis. What we have seen so far from the international news media and those who are covering the developments in Rakhine, is that there is a reign of terror in that particular area, forcing the Rohingya people to take shelter in our country. They are not only Muslims, there are a good number of Hindu Rohingya people who have also taken shelter in Bangladesh.

We have been telling the Myanmar authorities that Bangladesh certainly condemns any act of terrorism that was committed on 25 August.

In fact, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is very categorical on the question of terrorism as she has not shown any tolerance for terrorism in the past. With India, it is she who actually established the foundation for increased cooperation between the two countries based on security concerns. So it is one thing to undertake anti-terror campaign in one's own country, but another thing to impose a reign of terror or ethnic cleansing or mass genocide which forces 4,00,000 people to flee.

What do you make of the Myanmar authorities bringing up Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army's violence as the reason for their unprecedented actions in Rakhine. Is there some exaggeration there?

I do not know. I never heard of ARSA acquiring this kind of capability in the past. So it came to us as a surprise. There are various reports in the international media and none of them could be verified because they said the faces of the people who attacked villages and police stations were covered. So it could not be ascertained exactly whether they were ARSA or somebody else. Whatever may be the case, whoever might have committed terrorism, I am not supporting them. We are condemning all acts of terror.

But anti-terror campaigns must be separated from this mass genocide so that ordinary, innocent people are not subjected to this kind of torture and persecution. We are urging Myanmar to make conditions conducive for the return of these refugees to their own country so that they can live in peace, harmony, security and with their democratic rights on the basis of the Kofi Annan Commission's recommendations which Myanmar has also accepted, and which we believe is a good framework for undertaking an operation for the rehabilitation of these Rohingya refugees.

But till that happens, how do you plan to deal with this massive influx?

In the short term, the Prime Minister has said despite our difficulties, we will try to provide them with all the available help that we have. Nevertheless, we will also welcome relief and assistance from international community for the rescue of these people.

Have you requested India, and also other Muslim countries for any specific assistance?

We have already received sizeable degree of assistance from other countries and relief is being distributed to these victims of genocide. In fact, India is also contemplating sending relief supplies to Bangladesh by both air as well as by ship. But the details of the relief supplies to be sent by India have not yet been finalised.

What about Muslim countries who are talking a lot about the plight of the Rohingyas, what are they doing?

A number of Muslim countries have already visited these areas. The Turkish President’s wife came, the Indonesian foreign minister visited, the Malaysian delegation came and Azerbaijan has sent relief goods. There is no dearth of it.

What I am trying to say is that (the adequacy of) relief goods is not the primary objective. The objective is to send these refugees back to their own country so that they can settle and they don't have to move from place to place. The exodus of such a large number of Rohingya people can also cause a security problem for our region and beyond. Recently some of them were detected in Jammu and Kashmir area of India and obviously the Indian government took serious note of it.

Now if 4,00,000 more refugees are coming to our region obviously lot of them will move around from one place to another. So instead of dispersing them all over the world, it is better that they should be allowed to live in their own country with full dignity and honour.

You have been in touch with Myanmar. What has been their response?

The Myanmar side has been non-committal.

What do you expect India to do?

One, I expect Indians to exercise their good offices with Myanmar to emphasise the point that for their own sake and for our sake they should take back these people, settle them in their own areas on the basis of the Kofi Annan Commission so that the security concerns of everybody can be taken care of.

Two, the Rohingyas are also allowed to live as free citizens in their own country. If you are deprived of the basic civic rights and facilities, then those people have recourse to all kinds of things. In our area, there are number of very vulnerable spots. We all know there are countries in our region who would like to destabilise the situation. For the sake of our stability and peace we should try to control the situation jointly with India as soon as we can.

After PM Hasina came to power, peace and stability was established in the entire Northeast. Why do you want to again reignite a new fire and I have no idea what it might lead to. The Rohingyas are spread all over the world. About 2,00,000 in Saudi Arabia, 57,000 in Pakistan, 8,00,000 in Bangladesh and 40,000 in India. If you are spreading them all over the world, you are taking a major security risk.

What has been India’s response? Are you happy with how India distanced itself from the resolution in World Parliamentary Forum in Bali?

Bali was a different matter. Let me dissect it.

The Indian Prime Minister visited Myanmar on a bilateral visit, his first. When he undertook the visit, the exodus had not started in this manner. So the joint declaration which was issued focussed only on the security issues, about which I have no problem. I fully endorse the position of Myanmar on the security concerns issue. But I would like to emphasise what my Prime Minister said - - that they must make a distinction between an anti-terrorist campaign and a reign of terror within the area - the ethnic cleansing, as the UNHCR representative termed it.

We are requesting India to adopt a positive stance and to support various measures that will be taken at the UN to put pressure on Myanmar for the return of these refugees. There will be resolutions at the General Assembly perhaps. The UN Security Council will be meeting today. Myanmar is under global pressure right now because 70% of the people of that land have already been driven out.

We are facing an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. We expect India to play its due role because India is a regional power as well as our closest neighbour. Also as a close neighbour of Myanmar, India should play a positive and constructive role. We are not trying to push Myanmar into a corner. We are merely asking India to be the moderating influence on Myanmar for the return of these refugees.

Has India been receptive?

So far, so good. I met Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar on Saturday and India issued a revised statement which is more balanced and more comprehensive. It is now time for action at the UN General Assembly. I do hope India will play a constructive role.

Before the PM’s visit to Myanmar, or even before the 25 August attacks, there were reports that India was in touch with both Bangladesh and Myanmar on plans to deport the Rohingyas. What kind of conversation was taking place?

India never discussed with us their plans for deportation of Rohingya refugees. That decision was essentially taken by the Ministry of Home Affairs. In the past, the Indian government has not taken any measures for the repatriation of the Rohingya refugees. India never said a word about their deportation until the reports came out of their presence in Jammu and Kashmir. Deportation will have to be done with the country of origin, that is Myanmar. And it has to be done in conjunction with UNHCR, which has issued documents to the refugees.

On the basis of that, they will have to persuade the Myanmar government to take them back.