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Bangladesh's Rohingya crisis: no truce with India to influence 'friend' Myanmar

By Kamal Uddin Mazumder* 

No doubt, as an immediate outcome of Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's recent visit India for four-days this month, seven memorandums of understanding (MoUs) in various fields were signed.
These included the withdrawal of water from the cross-border Kushiyara river, cooperation in space technology, collaboration on IT systems used by railways in areas such as movement of freight, science and technology cooperation, training of Bangladesh Railway personnel and Bangladeshi judicial officers in India, and cooperation in broadcasting between Prasar Bharati and Bangladesh Television, aimed at boosting ties between the two countries.
While she engaged in talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on connectivity, trade, free transit, defence cooperation, flood management, counter-terrorism, food security, and nuclear energy partnerships, a crucial issue is believed to have been discussed but without any outcome -- the complex Rakhine situation and the Rohingya refugee crisis.
According to information available in Dhaka, there was no agreement, not to talk of MoUs, on Rohingyas and Myanmar, even though India’s External Affairs Minister and Foreign Secretary gave assurances to help in safe and dignified return of Rohingyas in cooperation with international community.
Indeed, in recent weeks, the Rohingya repatriation issue has grown more complex for Bangladesh with a flare-up in the Rakhine state, which borders Bangladesh, and which the Rohingya consider their home. On the recent turmoil in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, India made clear that India is keeping an eye on the Rakhine state of Myanmar that Bangladesh apprehends it might hamper the process of Rohingya repatriation.
Indian Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra also asserted that “the Government of India supports a safe, stable, and early return of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar from Bangladesh and other countries. In this connection, India will always play a constructive role and will have a constructive view”. He further assured the Bangladesh side that all possible support will be given to the Rohingyas and that India will provide all assistance for their return to Myanmar.
Over the last two months, an informal truce between the Myanmar Army and the Arakan Army (AA), an ethnic armed organisation of Rakhine Buddhists, is reported to be breaking down as the Arakan Army attempts to dominate the Rakhine state. The ceasefire that started in November 2020 has been fraying and, much to Dhaka’s chagrin, the conflict has been spilling over to the Bangladesh side.
According to reports, the AA, fighting for the self-determination of the Rakhine Buddhists, who consider themselves to be ethnically different from the majority Bamar Buddhists, now controls over half of the state and is trying to establish dominance in crucial border areas. The Myanmar army is responding with aerial bombardment, artillery, and mortar shelling.
On at least two of those occasions, the conflict has spilled over into Bangladesh. In response, for the third time in a week, the Bangladesh Foreign Ministry summoned the Myanmar envoy to Dhaka to express its “deep concern” over the incidents of “mortar shelling, indiscriminate aerial firing in the border areas, and air space violations”.
The Myanmar envoy was urged to ensure that no trespassing by newly displaced Myanmar residents takes place from Rakhine. According to the Bangladesh Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Myanmar envoy was told that such activities are of “grave threat” to the safety and security of the peace-loving people, a violation of the border agreement between Bangladesh and Myanmar, and contrary to the good neighbourly relationship.
Clearly, the conflict in the Rakhine state may complicate any repatriation effort, especially as the AA is said to be in control of many areas where Rohingyas were formerly living. The fresh conflict has also created concerns about new waves of displaced persons crossing the border into Bangladesh.
Bangladesh, which hosts over a million Rohingya refugees, however, has made it clear on several occasions that India must use its influence with the Myanmar junta to take them back. Even before the coup in Myanmar, Dhaka had tried without success to get Naypidaw to take the refugees back who has now been living in a settlement in Cox’s Bazar, now known as the “world’s largest refugee camp”.
Notably, in an interaction with ANI on the eve of the India visit, Sheikh Hasina terming the Rohingya issue as a ‘big burden’ on Bangladesh, had called for India’s support in resolving the Rohingya refugee crisis. Failure to reach any agreement on Rohingyas happened despite Bangladesh strongly believing that India could play a role in persuading Myanmar’s concerned stakeholders to take them back.
However, given the series of flare-ups in the Rakhine state, which borders Bangladesh, and which the Rohingyas consider their home, the issue has grown more complex.

Growing cooperation

Despite this setback, among the seven pacts signed on September 6, a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on withdrawal of 153 cusecs (cubic feet per second) of water from the Kushiyara by Bangladesh is most welcomed by Dhaka. It is the first such deal the two countries have inked after the Ganges river water-sharing agreement in 1996 and is seen as a breakthrough in addressing an issue that has cast a shadow on their otherwise close ties.
The agreement will benefit southern parts of Assam state in India and the Sylhet region in Bangladesh. The two leaders engaged in talks on connectivity, trade, flood management, counter-terrorism, food security, and nuclear energy partnerships.
In a bid to enhance Bangladesh’s power generation capacities and deal with the energy crisis that the country is facing in because of the growing energy prices worldwide, the two leaders unveiled the first unit of the Maitree Thermal Power Plant, a 1320 MW supercritical coal-fired thermal power plant at Rampal in the Khulna division of Bangladesh. Experts believe that the project will give citizens of Bangladesh access to affordable electricity, boosting Bangladesh’s energy security.
An important project that was inaugurated was the Rupsha bridge. The 5.13 km Rupsha rail bridge is a key part of the 64.7 km Khulna-Mongla Port single-track Broad Gauge rail project, connecting for the first time Mongla Port (Bangladesh’s second largest port) with Khulna by rail, and thereafter to the India border at Petrapole and Gede in West Bengal.
The connectivity initiatives are part of the ongoing projects in Bangladesh that are aimed at converting the country into a major connectivity hub of South and Southeast Asia. It is believed that with the expansion of connectivity, and the development of trade infrastructure on the border, the two economies will be able to connect more with each other.
To narrow the prevailing trade gap between India and Bangladesh and to further accelerate economic growth, the two sides agreed to begin negotiations on a comprehensive economic partnership agreement (CEPA) this year. It is deeply analysed that bilateral trade potential would be USD 40 billion when the CEPA is operationalized.
Bangladesh hopes that the Indo-Bangla partnership which has now got extended to more fields, including trade and commerce, power and energy, transport and connectivity, science and technology, rivers and maritime affairs, will act as a catalyst for closer coordination and cooperation in resolving outstanding bilateral issues, too.
Indeed, practical steps are needed for a safe, secure and conducive environment to ensure safe, sustainable and voluntary repatriation of Rohingyas to the place of their origin, Rakhine state.
---
*Security and strategic affairs analyst, Dhaka

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