In an interview with the Dhaka Tribune’s Tarek Mahmud, Professor Ali Riaz of the Politics and Government Department of Illinois State University in the US talks about the ongoing Rohingya crisis.

With Bangladesh’s diplomatic friends – India and China – siding with Myanmar, how should Bangladesh handle the Rohingya issue?
It is truly disheartening to see that these two countries, particularly India, have taken a position inimical to Bangladesh’s interests. The government in the past years cultivated close relationships with both countries, yet at a time of need, none seems to have come forward strongly.

Although India has softened its rhetoric in terms of its support for Myanmar and said it will stand by Bangladesh, this is far less than what was expected, especially considering political, economic and security cooperation between these two countries in the past seven years. The mixed message from India is unhelpful.

That is why engaging with India and trying to influence the Modi [Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi] government to reconsider its position should be a priority.

It is a glimmer of hope that China agreed to a resolution at the UN Security Council condemning Myanmar, but it also blocked a proposal from Egypt in regard to the right of return to the Rohingya who are currently in Bangladesh. Dhaka cannot wait until either of these countries change their stance.

It must engage in a robust diplomatic effort and efforts to sway global public opinion in favour of immediate steps to ameliorate the plight of the refugees.

Bangladesh needs to work closely with the multilateral bodies, the EU [European Union], OIC [Organisation of Islamic Cooperation], and the members of the Asean [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] to ensure immediate support for the refugees and a long-term solution to the problems which has triggered this situation.

How do you see the plan of setting up a safe zone for the Rohingya in Bangladesh?
On paper, it is an excellent idea. However, whether it is a feasible option is an open question. Lately, there has not been success in setting up ‘safe zones’ in conflicted areas. Yet, a concrete suggestion to address the situation is a positive step.

Bangladesh can flesh out the proposal and bring this to the attention of international community. There is a downside to the proposal too. It may be misconstrued as an attempt to curve out an autonomous region for Rohingya within Myanmar.

In the long run, what sort of economic and social burden will the Rohingya refugees create and what can Bangladesh do to handle it?
Providing food, shelter and other services to the refugees is a monumental task and is a costly endeavour. According to one account in 1992-’93, Bangladesh had to spend $2.5 million and the UNHCR, donors, and NGOs paid the remainder. I am afraid that, this time it will be much higher for Bangladesh, although international bodies have already got involved. Bangladesh may have to divert some of its development resources to address the situation, which will affect the ongoing projects. Whether this will affect the availability of food is an important issue and needs to be kept in mind.

There will be a significant environmental cost, which the country will have to bear. The refugees are being housed in camps near the border, an area that is already volatile as relationships between various segments of the inhabitants are already tensed. It is imperative that the safety of the refugees and the locals are provided in equal measure.

Equally important is to make sure that Bangladeshi militants, with or without external connections, are not infiltrating the refugee camps.

How can Bangladesh mount pressure on Myanmar using the diplomatic channels?
As we are aware, there were almost 300,000 refugees even before this influx. For years, Bangladesh has tried to address the refugee issue at the bilateral level. Despite success of bilateral efforts in 1978-’79 and between 1993 and 1997, the Myanmar government has not acted expeditiously and judiciously since.

Now with new influx of additional refugees, almost 400,000, Bangladesh must seek to involve international bodies.

The unanimous condemnation of Myanmar by the UNSC [United Nations Security Council] is a positive development; it should allow Bangladesh to push the issue further at the international level.

Bangladesh needs to seek help from Myanmar’s Asean friends. Dhaka should suggest that the UN, EU, USA and others use their economic leverages. In the past year, many countries have increased their investments in Myanmar; a message can be sent to Myanmar that these investments are at stake if the instability continues.

What strategy can Bangladesh take to repatriate the Rohingya population back to Myanmar at the earliest possible time?Repatriation will not be easy without ensuring safety of the refugees when they return home. Bangladesh must seek guarantees from international organisations such as the UNHCR and the IOM [International Organisation for Migration] that refugees will be protected when they are back at their home. Dhaka must provide UNHCR unfettered access to the refugees; ask this multilateral body to work with Bangladesh documenting every individual who has crossed the border; ensure that unscrupulous human traffickers do not get the opportunity to lure these desperate people; and remain vigilant that the refugees do not fall prey to radical groups.

What role should Bangladesh play regarding Myanmar’s problems with its insurgent groups?
Insurgency is Myanmar’s internal problem. Let us not forget that Rohingya insurgency is not the only insurgency Myanmar is facing. Numerous ethnic groups are fighting against the government for decades. There is no reason for Bangladesh to get involved with the insurgents.

Bangladesh can be neither the safe haven nor the recruiting ground for the insurgents. Bangladesh should neither be friendly nor hostile towards the insurgents unless they pose security threat to Bangladesh. Either of these will drag Bangladesh into an unnecessary and dangerous conflict.

What can the international community do to compel Myanmar to accept the Rohingya as legitimate citizens?
As I said, the UNSC discussion, particularly the unanimity in condemnation of Myanmar, is a positive step, but this is just the beginning; as of now, this is only symbolic. I hope that the UN General Assembly will deliver a stronger message. I am encouraged by the European Parliament’s resolution which not only condemned the Myanmar government but also threatened “targeted punitive sanctions.” Although the Annan Commission report has not pressed for providing citizenship to all Rohingya residing in Myanmar, it has clearly said the citizenship issue has to be addressed quickly.

This is a good beginning and the international community should use the report as a point of departure. Multilateral bodies, particularly the UN, should come forward to press the Myanmar government. After all, it is the Myanmar government which appointed the commission.

How do you see Bangladesh’s diplomatic role so far over the Rohingya issue? Is it sufficient? If not, then what’s your suggestion?
Unfortunately, till date, the diplomatic efforts of Bangladesh fell far short of what needs to be done. It took almost two weeks for Dhaka to take any steps. It initially offered Myanmar for joint security operations. The scale of the catastrophe warranted a very proactive role of Dhaka, but it was slow to begin with and still has not caught up.

It must rally various countries to press upon Myanmar and its friends that it is in their best interests to address the issue quickly. Fortunately, the UNSC decision and EP’s [European Parliament] resolution have provided an excellent opportunity.

We must also understand that diplomatic effort is not a one-time thing, it is an ongoing process; diplomatic efforts require persistence and exploration of all avenues to resolve the crisis peacefully.

Bangladesh must redouble its efforts. Dhaka needs to understand that it will have to take leadership; there is no other option here.

This article first appeared on Dhaka Tribune.