Western countries like the US and European countries are sermonising Bangladesh on maintaining a humanitarian approach to the Rohingya problem but are doing very little to pressurise Myanmar to take back the Rohingya refugees, Bangladesh foreign minister AKA Momen told Easternlink’s Dhaka Correspondent Sumi Khan. In a detailed interview, Mr Momen , a former permanent representative of his country in UN, said Bangladesh’s relations with India is at an all-time high, despite occasional hiccups over contentious issues . The full transcript of the interview is produced below :
Sumi Khan– Hon’ble Minister, do you feel a regional initiative is necessary to handle the Covid-19 pandemic in South Asia ?
AKA Momen : Of course I think we should go for a regional effort and that should extend to many spheres . Because this pandemic is a huge problem of the kind we have not faced before, because handling it and recovering from it is a very expensive proposition, we have to work together in South Asia. The pandemic has struck everywhere. Currently we’re just trying to arrest it , control it. But soon we will be confronted with the bigger issue — the impact on the economy. And that for a developing country like Bangladesh is hugely difficult challenge.
Because for months , it looks like all the economic activities will remain in a limbo. That will make it a life-and-death issue for us.
Sumi Khan – Have you come up with some concrete suggestions ?
AKA Momen – Yes, I have already suggested to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC)’s foreign ministers council that we should develop a recovery program, with maximum focus on job creation. Secondly, for the next six months, we should take care of basic necessities for our people. We have to do it together. And we should come up with big scheme for economic revival and regional groupings like SAARC and trans-regional groupings like OIC should fight this together and shield the poorer nations from economic disaster. Bangladesh is the eighth largest country in the world by population. Banks have worked out a $ 2.3 billion package to fight the Covid-19 pandemic .We should get a big share out of this kitty , because we are arelatively poor country.
India took some initiative. Prime Minister Narendra Modi came up with his idea to fight Covid -19 jointly in South Asia. Bangladesh joined with the initiative. The Modi plan is not yet operational, but the Indian PM has taken a positive initiative. India came forward with $ 10 million grant and Bangladesh provided $ 1.5 million dollars to the proposed joint fund.
Sumi Khan : How would you describe the present state of India-Bangladesh relations in the wake of the NRC-CAA controversies ?
AKA Momen: Make no mistake, we have a very solid relationship with India. Never in the history before, other than in the early 1970s, did we have such a solid relationship. The two governments have developed a strong relationship built on mutual confidence and understanding of each other’s key interests.
There will be contentious issues between neighbours but India is very supportive of us.
Look at this , many Bangladeshis got stuck in India due to the sudden declaration of the lockdown. We made a request and India was so nice to us – more than a thousand Bangladeshi people have been sent back. More are coming back.
Can you believe that many Bangladeshis stuck in places like Maharastra, Punjab and other states have been provided free accommodation and free food by locals after they ran out of cash. This is definitely a great gesture at people-to-people level. Our bonding is not limited to governments, it goes down to the popular level, make no mistake.
Sumi Khan- Two Killers of ‘Bangabandhu’ Sheikh Mujibor Rahman have been handed over to Bangladesh by India in recent weeks. Your reactions !
AKA Momen- Of course it is! It is both symbolic and substantive. Prime Minister Narendra Modi developed so many projects to observe Bangabandhu’s birth centenary . Unfortunately, because of this Covid pandemic, many of our programs have been postponed .
Bangabandhu’s daughters Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her sister Sheikh Rehana follow their father, for whom the interest of the people has been uppermost. He always promoted the welfare for his people. So PM Hasina and Rehana decided not to observe the scheduled events because they would inconvenience our people who are battling Covid. We feel it is better not to celebrate now. But we observed the birth centenary digitally and Modiji sent his respects . His statement was full of emotions that our people share from the days of our violent birth. Modiji said he will support Bangladesh, come what may. We are touched.
Sumi Khan – Do you think Bangladeshis in India are facing a crisis ?
AKA Momen- There are few Indian people in Bangladesh, they have been allowed to go, and we facilitated their return to India. But we have many more Bangladeshis in India and it is not easy to bring them back in one go. Around 3000 Bangladeshis, may be more, are stuck in India, many of them patients who have gone for treatment to India. Many went there for shopping, many went there as tourists, many of our students there are also stuck. A few who went to Tabligh Jamaat congregation also. So we have a huge effort to bring them back. Some have come back by roads, some by special chartered flight. Because we have very strong relation with India, they allowed our flights to land and bring back our stranded people . There are few more left now , but much of it is done. We are working out how to bring back the rest .
Sumi Khan –What about the repatriation agreement with Myanmar to take back the Rohingyas, this process is already delayed and not taken off , so who is responsible ?
AKA Momen-This is a very sad story. You see, Myanmar continues its persecution of Rohingyas. After repeated intimation, they are not responding positively to take back the Rohingyas, I am sorry to say. But Myanmar is our friendly country, they agreed to take back those Rohingyas, at least those recently came to Bangladesh . The total number of Rohingyas in Bangladesh now is 1.2 Million (twelve lakhs) . Myanmar agreed to take them back , they never say they will not take them. But unfortunately, they are not creating any congenial environment for repatriation after having agreed to do so. They also agreed they will guarantee the safety of the Rohingyas who go back , unfortunately that is far from reality. So, not a single Rohingya could be sent back to Myanmar .
Sumi Khan — What about the global community ?
AKA Momen – I am very upset not only with Myanmar, but with the UN and the western countries. They sermonize us to be kind to the Rohingyas but they do very little to facilitate the repatriation, they hardly put any pressure on Myanmar. The rich countries should share some of our refugee burden and shelter some Rohingyas. And now we find Myanmar military is using air power against rebels in Rakhine. You expect these Rohingyas to agree to go back , huh !
Sumi Khan : In that case , do you think more Rohingyas will enter Bangladesh ?
AKA Momen – Yes , perhaps. Many more Rohingyas have gathered on our borders .They are trying to enter Bangladesh . Myanmar’s oppression is forcing thousands of Rohingyas to try flee by sea. Thousands are stranded at sea in leaky boats in the Bay of Bengal . Last week , we rescued 396 Rohingyas, but because the boat capsized, 50 of them were drowned . We had to accept these 396 out of humanitarian considerations.
We are afraid they might have this pandemic Corona virus. Initially they are trying to settle in Malaysia or Thailand .But those countries refused and pushed them out into the ocean. We have information that two ships loaded with Rohingyas are now in the high sea. As per international law, the country whose coast touch the sea where these boats are have equal responsibility to take care of them, since this is a humanitarian disaster — and who is responsible for this , who else but Myanmar . The UN should step in to save this hapless boat people.
Sumi Khan : But has the UN played a meaningful role so far in the Rohingya issue /
AKA Momen –Unfortunately, no. UN agencies and human right organizations have continuously pushed Bangladesh to take more and more Rohingyas . They never ask Myanmar to take them back or neighbouring coastal nations like India and Sri Lanka or Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia to share the Rohingya refugee burden. They only ask Bangladesh. not anyone else to ask to take the responsibility. Why push Bangladesh only? Is it because Bangladesh has been taking responsibility of the Rohingyas since 1970s that we have to continue to shoulder this burden until Kingdom comes. Now 1.2 million Rohingyas are in Bangladesh. We are a poor country just trying to emerge out of poverty. We are a densely populated country, so where is the space ! I asked an American official , why don’t you ask your own country USA, to take all of them. USA’s density of population is 135 per sq.km and ours is around 1200 per sq.km. There is no comparison between our resources.
The UN, the western countries , these guys are pushing us too much, because we show sympathy for Rohingyas , as our country was also born amid such a huge refugee crisis. The global comnmunity must take responsibility . It is so sad, they are not doing it. Myanmar is not taking them back. Unfortunately neither USA, nor European Union has suspended any trade or any other partnership with Myanmar! There are not imposing any economic actions, all business as usual. They are providing even providing Myanmar machinery for textile factories. ( Speaks loudly in obvious anger ) My question is, is this not double standard . It can’t be business as usual with Myanmar ..And I asked the UNHCR and other UN agencies, DON’T PUSH US TOO MUCH! There is a limit. Ask other countries and let’s see how they respond. And then come back to us.
Sumi Khan- Most of the Rohingyas are trying take Bangladeshi citizenship, is that true?
AKA Momen-Yes, they are trying to became our citizen by hook or by crook. This is very sad. Our trouble is we don’t want anyone die in the ocean. But global community should be responsible and must be accountable.
I remember a story of many years ago, when Canada was under the British rule, 200 Indian migrants wanted to enter Vancouver. But the British-run Canadian government did not allow them to enter, and they stayed in Canadian part of the ocean for months and all of them died. We are not like them; we don’t want the Rohingyas to die. At the same time, we want international community to take responsibility And Myanmar must take back the Rohingyas, because they belong to that country. They cannot get away with ethnic cleansing of minorities.
I ask the USA, dont push us, you can take one million Rohingyas , so if you cant push Myanmar, please take these hapless people and spare us the burden.
Sumi Khan – So you think the UN should take initiative and take the responsibility of the Rohingyas ?
AKA Momen- Yes, I have appealed to them publicly . The UN commissioner sent me a letter. I have responded to her and asked her to take initiative, these people can be settled in other countries if they cannot be sent back to Myanmar . But we should be spared the whole burden of this vast refugee population. It is unfair, immoral and unethical to push us to shelter, feed and look after them , while the world deals with Myanmar and allows it to get away with horrible crimes.
Sumi Khan – China is accused for negligence in the spread of the Covid -19 pandemic. Many countries and organisations are threatening to sue China and seek compensation. Some are shifting their industries out of China . Many may slap a Covid duty on Chinese exports. Do you see this as a huge opportunity for Bangladesh , do you think Bangladesh will go all out to attract industries relocating or planning to relocate from China ?
AKA Momen – I was reading between the lines the announcement made by the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe to fund the relocation of Japanese industries from China. He announced a package of a few trillion dollars to help Japanese firms come out of China. If the Japanese firms come out of China, then they will relocate to other countries. We can expect some of them to come to our country. We should find out how many Japanese companies are in China, We will take this advantage, like some other countries , Vietnam for example. And Bangladesh is a very attractive place for investment. Our infrastructure, huge domestic market, cheap labour and affordable technical manpower , our location in Asia — all this and more makes us a perfect export hub. Chinese investment is higher in Bangladesh and our government is a very business friendly government, we provide all the support to the investors. And particularly the foreign investors. We plan developing 100 Special Economic Zones(SEZ), I-tech Park, they can invest here. Therefore, I think they should come and help us become a export hub, an economic tiger . If the Chinese have come, so can the Japanese and everybody else. Swagato Janai sabaike (we welcome all).
Sumi Khan- What about the furious blame game, what do you think?
AKA Momen- Yes, this is politics, we dont want to get into this and we should not take a position unless we know more about who did what. We have a very balanced foreign policy– friendship with all, enmity with none. . You see, China and India are both big friends, so is US and everybody else. We are supposed to further Bangladesh’s interests , not get into a slanging match with anyone. We want investors in our country, I dont care where they come from .
Sumi Khan- Is your government positive with the investors?
AKA Momen – Of course, very positive. Why Not? In the last decade , our GDP growth has been at the top in the Asia Pacific Region under 45 countries.As per Asian Development Bank assessment, Bangladesh topped the list of countries in GDP Growth last year. Now, we know this may be affected because ours is a working class economy built on the sweat of our very hard working people. They have been locked down by the lockdown.
Sumi Khan- Indian Union Minister Nitin Gadkari has said his government is working to shift Indian investment from China to Vietnam ?
AKA Momen- I will tell India they can move their investments into Bangladesh,if they wish to move away from China. I will invite them to Bangladesh. we will provide them with all they want. We will welcome them. We have very good security situation, political stability and other advantages. Except Holy Artisan bakery terror attack, we have no major incident in the ten years. We have very stable economy, stable government. We can invite them confidently. We want all to invest in Bangladesh. We are for a win-win policy. They will be win, we will win.
Sumi Khan- Aren’t you alarmed by the spread of the pandemic ?
AKA Momen- The Corona started here in March. Mostly throughBangladeshis who came back from Italy. Some of them possibly had the virus. All their family members lived together Now it is spreading out in the whole nation. This is really bad. Our mortality rate is high — 163 deaths of the 7103 infected so far . Globally, 3.1 million infected, 2,17,153 deaths. There is no room for complacency though if you compare our situation with US, I must say we have the virus under control.
Sumi Khan- Thank you for your time, Hon’ble Minister.
AKA Momen- Thank you, Sumi, good luck to Easternlink .