Rohingya refugees shout slogan during a protest against the repatriation process at Unchiprang refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, in Bangladesh, Nov. 15, 2018.
Rohingya refugees shout slogan during a protest against the repatriation process at Unchiprang refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, in Bangladesh, Nov. 15, 2018.

WASHINGTON - Bangladesh wants Myanmar to repatriate the nearly 1 million Rohingya refugees who have fled genocide, and a top Bangladeshi official wants international financial sanctions to back it up.

Much of the Muslim-majority ethnic group has fled to Bangladesh after Myanmar’s latest brutal crackdown in 2017, which included mass killings, sexual assaults and arson. The military has justified its crackdown, which involved mass killings, gang rapes and widespread arson, as a way of eradicating Rohingya insurgents.

Foreign Minister Abul Kalam Abdul Momen called Wednesday for the international community to place concerted financial pressure on Myanmar in an interview with VOA Bangla. More than 900,000 Rohingya live in camps in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district, straining local facilities and services. Refugees are vulnerable to monsoon-induced flooding and landslides. 

FILE - A young Rohingya refugee stands in her house which has been destroyed by Cyclone Mora at Balukhali Refugee Camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has begun calling for repatriation, telling a French ambassador Wednesday, “How long will we bear the burden? The sooner the Rohingyas are repatriated, the better it will be for all.” 

Momen said that in the past, Myanmar had fulfilled agreements to repatriate Rohingya refugees, taking back “most of” the 250,000 that fled in 1992.

“We believed this time they would take them back, because they assured us [they would],” the Bangladeshi foreign minister said. “But, they have not created a conducive environment in Myanmar, so that these people feel secure if they go back.”

Despite his acknowledgement of still-dangerous conditions in Myanmar, Momen told VOA the pressure to repatriate should be backed up by international financial sanctions.

The U.S. sanctioned Myanmar’s commander-in-chief and three of its highest generals for “gross human rights violations” Tuesday, but the measure only blocked them from entering the U.S.

As targets, Momen pointed to the Myanmar military junta’s involvement in the sale of precious gemstones, Singapore’s administration of the country’s main banking system and heavy Japanese investment.

“If [the] United States takes the lead and asks all its friends and followers to put some restrictions on Myanmar, put pressure on Myanmar, they have the muscle. They have the leverage,” he said.

The minister told VOA that Bangladesh would “definitely welcome” a meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump.

FILE - Rohingya refugees collect drinking water at the Shalbagan refugee camp in Teknaf, Bangladesh, March 5, 2019.

China and Russia, two of Myanmar’s more powerful allies, also could hold some sway, Momen suggested.

Both countries, however, have boycotted U.N. talks on the Rohingya crisis. In 2018, China advocated slashing the proposed budget for addressing the refugee crisis, reducing by half the original number of nearly $30 million. China’s proposal didn’t go through, but the country continues resisting talk of sanctioning Myanmar for its treatment of Rohingya people.

Could that change? Bangladesh asked China to encourage Myanmar’s repatriation of the Rohingya refugees, said Momen, and China “assured us they’ll do it.”

The Rohingya have faced decades of systemic violence and discrimination in Myanmar, which sees the group as illegal migrants from Bangladesh. A 1982 citizenship law didn’t include them as one of 135 recognized indigenous groups, effectively rendering the population of 1.1 million Rohingya stateless — one of the largest such communities in the world.

In addition to periodic violent ethnic cleansing campaigns, Myanmar’s government has denied the Rohingya access to everyday services such as education, healthcare and freedom of movement.