The Rohingya issue should not become an impediment to the growth of Bangladesh-Myanmar relationship which must move forward under all circumstances, former diplomats and experts said at a roundtable yesterday.
The resolution to the maritime boundary dispute with Myanmar has removed a major obstacle to improving the bilateral ties and opened up a grand opportunity to expand the relationship, they said. The relations must be kept above all conflicts.
The speakers supported the government steps on the recent influx bid by Rohingyas and said the country should bilaterally and internationally try to sensitise Myanmar to the issue and persuade it to treat Rohingyas fairly.
The Rohingya intrusion is only one among other issues in bilateral relations, they said.
The roundtable titled "Rohingya issue and Bangladesh-Myanmar relations" was jointly organised by The Daily Star and Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies (CFAS).
Former foreign secretary CM Shafi Sami said the relationship should not be contingent upon resolution to the Rohingya problem. Formidable issues should be kept on one side and relationship on the other.
"We should get Myanmar into a constructive engagement the way China, India and Singapore are doing." Dhaka should also try to sensitise Yangon to basic rights of all of Myanmarese citizens, he said.
At the same time, he noted, Bangladesh needs to mobilise the diplomatic community all over the world, especially the US, EU and international agencies, to help the Myanmar government to discharge its responsibilities.
Saida Muna Tasneem, director general (UN) of foreign ministry, said official visits between the two countries from 2009 onwards are taking the trajectory of relationship to a new level and Dhaka wants to keep it up.
"We acted responsibly towards Myanmarese nationals and lived up to human rights obligations," she said. "We have not violated any international law by not accepting them [Rohingyas]. Bangladesh gave Myanmarese refugees sovereign land for the past three decades."
Mentioning that security remains a top priority of Bangladesh, Saida said the country needs to consolidate its borders since Myanmar nationals are intruding now and then.
Myanmarese refugees have been transiting through Bangladesh in their attempts to go to other countries, she said. Many of them with false Bangladeshi passports have disappeared into Saudi Arabia, throwing bilateral relations into question.
"We have been hosting them for the last three decades but we can't afford that anymore," she said. According to the foreign ministry report, around 600 Rohingyas were pushed back this time.
Former election commissioner Brig Gen (retd) Shakhawat Hossain said the Rohingya issue has become complicated due to political use of refugees.
Every time, as the voter list was prepared, the Myanmarese refugees were included to be used as vote bank, he said. It is the unscrupulous Bangladeshi politicians who are inviting trouble.
Another dangerous thing is that the Arakanese Buddhists who are coming to Bandarban are carrying out disruptive activities, he said, also urging the home ministry not to allow any Rohingya organisation either.
"Unless the Myanmar government is made to recognise Rohingyas as its citizens, we will have to face this problem time and again," said Shakhawat.
Air Commodore (retd) Ishfaq Elahi Choudhury, registrar of Brac University, said refusing a person seeking help and sending him/her back to the sea is something that harms Bangladesh's image throughout the world. It also goes against the traditional Bangalee culture.
It is alleged that Rohingyas hide among local population but that's the problem of governance, he added.
Former ambassador to Myanmar Kazi Anwarul Masud said, "Bangladesh should request the international agencies and key players to tell the Myanmar government that 'You cannot commit such persecution or ethnic cleansing'."
Dhaka University Professor Akmal Hussain said democratisation of Myanmar is a positive aspect and all major international actors are interested in the country.
"Why can't we ask the international bodies to influence Myanmar to solve the Rohingya issue? This problem has to be solved once and for all, otherwise the influx will recur."
Former ambassador Chowdhury Khalequzzaman said the international community should deal with the issue diplomatically instead of putting much pressure on Myanmar.
"It would be absolutely wrong if we think of solving the Rohingya issue first and then developing relations."
Lt Gen (retd) Mahbubur Rahman, a member of BNP standing committee, said if someone is persecuted, he/she has the right to seek refuge and be treated as a person, not just a number.
The Daily Star Editor and Publisher Mahfuz Anam said, "We want Bangladesh-Myanmar relationship to go ahead under all circumstances. Even if the Rohingya issue becomes more complex, our bilateral relationship should progress."
Also, the refugees must be treated on humanitarian grounds, he said.
Mahfuz Anam added Myanmar is gaining more importance in global and regional scenes, and as a close neighbour, the country means a lot to Bangladesh in terms of economic relationship.
CFAS Chairman Ashfaqur Rahman moderated the roundtable, held at The Daily Star Centre in the city.
Chief Information Commissioner Muhammad Zamir, lawmaker Mostofa Faruk Mohammad, former IGP Muhammad Nurul Huda, Maj Gen (retd) Azizur Rahman, CFAS Director Shamim Ahmed, former principal of Foreign Service Academy Shahed Akhtar, former ambassador Mahmood Hasan and Brig Gen (retd) Shahedul Anam Khan, editor, op-ed and strategic issues of The Daily Star, spoke at the discussion.