With seemingly no end to the crisis that has displaced some 600,000 Muslim minority Rohingya from Myanmar, senior U.S. State Department officials are traveling to Myanmar and neighboring Bangladesh this week to address humanitarian and human rights concerns and explore ways to improve the delivery of aid.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will travel for the first time as the top U.S. diplomat to Naypyidaw, Myanmar, on November 15 to address the Rohingya crisis and U.S. support for Myanmar's democratic transition.
State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said Thursday she is joining the delegation led by Simon Henshaw, acting assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, to Cox's Bazar district in southeastern Bangladesh, where refugee camps serve as temporary homes to tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees. She tweeted saying:
Earlier Thursday, Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi traveled to the country's conflict-torn northern Rakhine state for the first time since August 25, the day Rohingya militants attacked Myanmar police, sparking a series of reprisals by government security forces and creating a mass exodus of Rohingya refugees to neighboring Bangladesh.
The Nobel Peace laureate has faced widespread criticism from the international community over her slow response to the crisis.
The pace of refugee repatriation is likely to be a sticking point between the governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar, which is also known as Burma.
Media reports say Myanmar has agreed to take back from 150 to 300 Rohingya refugees per day, among the estimated 600,000 refugees who have fled to Bangladesh from Myanmar's northern Rakhine state.
For its part, the United States has rushed nearly $40 million in emergency assistance since August 25, and almost $104 million overall in fiscal 2017 to help displaced Burmese, including Rohingya Muslims.
Bangladeshi Ambassador to the United States Mohammad Ziauddin sat down with VOA for a one-on-one interview on Monday, outlining his government's views on the Rohingya crisis, and how Dhaka handled the sudden arrival of tens of thousands of refugees.
Ziauddin characterized the violence against the Rohingya minority as "ethnic cleansing. "He said the Rohingya are "Myanmar nationals," and it is a mistake to call them Bangladeshis.
Ziauddin said Dhaka is registering Rohingya refugees to facilitate the repatriation process. He added both governments are in talks to solve the crisis, as reflected in a recent meeting between Bangladeshi Home Minister Asaduzzaman KhanandAung San Suu Kyi, but he stopped short of addressing if there is increasing tension between the two neighbors as a result of the crisis.
The following is an excerpt from the interview:
VOA: How would you describe the violence against the Rohingya? Would you characterize it as ethnic cleansing or genocide?
Ziauddin: "It is definitely ethnic cleansing. The program of ethnic cleansing which started on the 25th of August has been of phenomenal proportions and it tends to it [s] tantamount to actually genocide. It is possibly one of the darkest chapters in human history. And, this strategic pre-planned program has led to the deaths of thousands of people — men, women and children, [and] thousands of women raped, and dishonored, and hundreds and thousands of people fleeing bullets, batons, and bludgeons, to cross over to next door neighbor Bangladesh."
VOA: Is the Bangladesh government asking for more humanitarian assistance from the United States?
Ziauddin: "As you very well know that there are about over 600,000 Myanmar nationals who we call Rohingya, who are there in Bangladesh at this moment. And this number of people arriving in two months has created a big hit on our economy. And now, obviously, we have to look after them, to feed them. The international community has been very kind with humanitarian assistance. It has been flowing. The United States, of course, has been one of the largest contributors. In fact, the United States has contributed so far $104 million for humanitarian purposes. And we know that the U.S. will continue to do more in the coming days."
VOA: How difficult is it for Bangladesh to accommodate the refugees?
Ziauddin: "They are all there in an area called Kutupalong, in a place called Cox's Bazar. And over there, the government has started building 10 extra roads. And they are supposed to build about 20,000 shelters. The process is on, we're being assisted by the international community in this respect too.
And at the same time, what we have done is to ensure that all who have come from neighboring Myanmar are registered. There have been 85 registration booths established and they are registering 13,000 Myanmar nationals every day. So the total number, actually registered, is over 300,000, but each and every one will be registered.
So this is a big task for Bangladesh, and this has been possible because of our army, which is very well known for their peacekeeping efforts all over the world. We are one of the three largest contributors — troop contributors — in the world. And this army is well versed in looking after situations like this and they have been deployed and that have taken charge of ensuring that food and supplies reach each and every refugee.
And at the same time they are the ones who have taken charge along with our Department of Immigration for registration of all of them, so that at the time, when it comes to their [Rohingya] return, the Myanmar government will have all the records in their hand provided, so that they can it will make it easier for them to take them back to their own, and reach them to their own heart and home in Myanmar."
VOA: You call the Rohingya "Myanmar nationals. "Are you saying it is a mistake that Myanmar government calls them Bangladesh nationals?
Ambassador Ziauddin: "Yes of course. How do we you know, Bangladesh nationals, Bangladesh is a country which is doing very well, as you very well know that among the least developed countries, we are one which is on a take-off stage."
"So we are doing very well, so we don't believe our people would migrate or go off anywhere and settle in any other country, except if it is toward countries which would provide them a way of living which is far, far, far, far better than that can be provided by any other country within our region. So, what I mean is that, you understand that, you know, a lot of our people have migrated and are working in the Middle East, they're all over the Western world, they're working there and many of them have settled there and stayed there. So, this is how we feel, I don't think that our people would ever go to any countries because they are pretty well comfortable and self-sufficient and happy within their own within Bangladesh."
VOA: Is Bangladesh open to letting Rohingya be citizens of Bangladesh, if they choose to?
Ziauddin: "The thing is that the Rohingyas are Myanmar nationals. It is always preferable that they should go back to their own home from where they came. This is where they built their roots so they like to go back to their roots. For that, we need to have a proper environment. And I am sure with Myanmar, we have a really good relationship.
This, also we believe, is on the basis of this kind of relationship that we have; historically, we will be able to resolve this.I believe Myanmar is going to see sense in taking them back. And these people will definitely go back, once they get the sense of confidence of returning, once they see that the environment is very friendly now."
VOA: How serious a threat are the Rohingya militants who attacked Myanmar security posts in Rakhine in August, setting off the violence? Is Rohingya radicalism a worry for Bangladesh?
Ziauddin: "Bangladesh does not believe in violent extremism and terrorism. We stand by any country threatened by this extremism and terrorist activities. And as you very well know, we have a zero tolerance policy toward terrorism and we are completely against any, all these attacks if has taken place in Myanmar because, if there are terrorist attacks, they should be condemned."
"Now our problem is that along with the refugees, some of these militants come to Bangladesh then we have our own problems of terrorism and extremism. And it could be that these elements may join forces with those who are there in Bangladesh."
"So, we want this Rohingya problem to be resolved as soon as possible, the sooner the better. At the end of the day, if anything starts happening in Bangladesh, it's going to have its effect in the region."
VOA: Are you calling those militants terrorists?
Ziauddin: "Of course they are terrorists. Anybody who is going to attack and disrupt the law and order in a country, they are terrorists. If their attacks tend to the death of people, they are terrorists, of course."