Retired major general Anup Kumar Chakma was Bangladesh’s ambassador to Myanmar from 2009 to 2014. The former diplomat and army officer spoke to Prothom Alo about Myanmar’s on-going ethnic conflict, the military operation there and means of overcoming Bangladesh’s crisis of sheltering over 400,000 Rohingya refugees. Sohrab Hassan and Raheed Ejaz took the interview.
Prothom Alo: You were Bangladesh’s ambassador to Myanmar for five and a half years. Before we discuss the present predicament, tell us something about your experience there.
Anup Kumar Chakma: I joined as ambassador in Yangon in August 2009. When I was presenting my papers there, the media was reporting that Myanmar was deploying troops along the border with Bangladesh, preparing for war. The foreign minister and foreign secretary contacted me from Dhaka, wanting to know about the situation. I made inquiries and informed them that the reports were not true. Then in 2012, the rape of a Rakhine woman led to the killing of eight Muslim men of Indian origin, sparking off unrest. Many Rohingyas tried to flee into Bangladesh, but the Bangladesh government did not allow them entry. That was a correct decision. Even after the incident, we kept up diplomatic communication. During that time, there was the highest number of military and political visits between the two countries.
PA: What was the reaction of the Myanmar government at the time?
Anup Kumar: When Bangladesh went to ITLOS (International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea regarding our maritime boundary), the Myanmar authorities summoned me and asked why we had gone to court when the problem could be sorted out bilaterally. I pointed out Bangladesh’s reasoning, saying that international arbitration was better for both the countries. They accepted that. Then the day that our prime minister visited Ramu, there were reports of Rakhines and Myanmar soldiers burning down an 800-year-old mosque in Sitwe. But later it was discovered that no such incident took place. Erroneous or exaggerated news can create problems.
PA: How would you analyse the present crisis in light of your past experience? In a matter of just three weeks, 400,000 Rohingya refugees have entered.
Anup Kumar: The past incidents are pale in comparison to what is happening now. I think the Kofi Annan commission was a big step towards solving the problem. It indicated good intentions on the part of Myanmar’s leader Suu Kyi. But the day the commission submitted its report, a terrorist attacked was launched on police and military posts. The army operation began immediately. The Annan commission may not have mentioned the word ‘Rohingya’, but it said that the minority Muslims living in Arakan should be given citizenship. This still can be the start of the solution.
PA: There are speculations that rather than ethnic cleansing, the Rohingyas are being driven away in the interest of certain countries. Are the Rohingyas being driven away so that a special economic zone can be set up there, as well as gas and oil pipelines?
Anup Kumar: It is true that the Rohingyas are a minority in Rakhine, but they are a majority along the border region. And 90 per cent of the people in Mongdu are Muslim. A lot of economic activities are being carried out in Rakhine state, but I have my doubts whether much will be achieved unless the Rohingyas are granted citizenship. China is establishing a special economic zone in the Rakhine state. They are constructing a deep sea port. India has taken up the Kaladan project.
PA: You were part of the talks with representatives of the Annan Commission when it visited Dhaka.
Anup Kumar: Myanmar’s human rights commission chairman and several of its members came to Dhaka and spoke to persons of the government and the civil society. At one of the meetings, I told them that I had spoken to many ministers and officials about the Rohingya crisis when I had been in Myanmar. They said, Rohingyas had the scope to get citizenship. If that is so, then they should look into the matter seriously.
PA: How would you evaluate Myanmar’s leader, presently the state counselor, Aung San Suu Kyi? What would you say about her speech?
Anup Kumar: When she was released from jail in 2010, she met with foreign diplomats. I was among them. I found her to be progressive-minded. She wanted the best for all people of all communities. I arranged for a meeting between her and Bangladesh’s prime minister. The meeting took place at our prime minister’s behest. After her speech, I observed the reaction of the ambassadors of China, India and Russia in Myanmar. They all praised Suu Kyi’s speech. For obvious reasons, the speech was criticised in Bangladesh. Even so, I don’t think it should be rejected outright. We can take home the positives. It would not bode well either for Bangladesh or Myanmar to shut the doors on dialogue.
PA: But she had no power. The power lies with the military.
Anup Kumar: The political structure of Myanmar must be understood to reach the bottom of the problem. According to the constitution, 25 per cent of the country’s higher, lower, regional or provincial assemblies have been reserved for military officials. The army chief selects them from among the serving officers. The defence, home and border ministries are also in the military’s hands. They control the national security council. In 2012, Aung San Suu Kyi brought about a proposal to amend the constitution, but that was not passed. Even in the prevailing crisis. Aung San Suu Kyi’s office simply publicises the information handed over to them by the military and the border security forces. We must understand that she has many limitations.
PA: Western powers had imposed economic embargo in Myanmar due to its military rule. The embargo was lifted after the democratic process began. Foreign investment is increasing there. Is the military returning to its old self, using Suu Kyi as a front?
Anup Kumar: This question is based on perception. Myanmar’s political and social situation is complex. The army there is fighting with the Kachin, Shan and various ethnic communities there. The military feels they have kept Myanmar intact.
PA: Launching an operation against a rebel or terrorist group is one thing, but wiping out an entire community is quite another. The army chief called for all to unite against the Rohingyas.
Anup Kumar: I hope the war of words does not turn into a full-blown war, but we have to be careful too. We have said that we will not allow our soil to be used by terrorists of other countries. This is a good decision. But there have been news reports of Rohingya armed groups being aided and abetted in many ways. Towards the end of the seventies, one of our military attaches was declared persona non grata by the Myanmar government because he had held a meeting with an armed Rohingya group. That was never repeated. We cannot keep a wall between us and not listen to each other. The media sometimes publishes motivated reports. Some quarters speak about a separate Arakan state. The Myanmar government is aware of such reports.
PA: What could Bangladesh do other than give shelter to the flow of refugees that entered after 25 August?
Anup Kumar: As I said, the situation this time is serious. It would not be possible to obstruct the flow of people from Myanmar and send them back. Every day thousands of people are entering. Bangladesh has given them shelter on humanitarian grounds. The flow must be stopped at source. Many people have spoken in favour of Bangladesh and will continue to do so. But they do not come up with tangible held in times of need. Firstly, the political process that has begun there, must not be halted. Secondly, they do not want the flow of investment there to stop. Thirdly, they cannot fight a war for practical reasons. The Rakhine region is too remote and rugged. There are no roads there and vehicles cannot be used. Bangladesh won’t get into a war for the same reason.
Out diplomats must work at a solution along with Myanmar. China and India must be involved in our diplomatic efforts. Both the countries have ample investment there. Japan has to be brought in too. We know of America’s double standards. In 2012 when we had closed the borders with Myanmar, a senior official of the US state department, while visiting Myanmar, met me and said, Bangladesh will open the borders if you say so. I asked him instead, can you give assurance that Myanmar will take them back? He remained silent. The US is now full of praise for Bangladesh for sheltering the refugees. Yet a US senator has proposed recommended that military cooperation with Myanmar be stepped up. Actually the US has no influence over Myanmar. Their embargo led to the country’s excessive dependence on China. Myanmar has good relations with Russia and India too.
PA: How can we proceed diplomatically?
Anup Kumar: Self interests are always upheld in diplomacy. China is making a special economic zone in Myanmar, also a deep-sea port. It has projects there of three billion dollars. It is implementing the One Road, One Belt plan. India is increasing its economic activities there, with its Act East policy. Thailand takes two billion dollars of oil yearly from Myanmar. Myanmar has good relations with other ASEAN countries too. We must build up cooperation with these countries.
PA: But how can diplomatic efforts succeed as Myanmar doesn’t want to recognise Rohingyas as its citizens?
Anup Kumar: Even so, there is a way out. Myanmar’s citizenship laws include three categories of citizens - citizens, associate citizens and naturalised citizens. This law needs to be studied carefully. Myanmar has accepted the ethnic groups who have been in the country from before 1823. This does not include Rohingyas. But even so they can be citizens. Five Rohingyas became members of parliament in the 2010 election. The previous term of citizenship was of 15 years which has ended. They have to apply afresh.
PA: Is there any guarantee that Myanmar will agree to talks? They are just continuing to drive the Rohingyas away.
Anup Kumar: Just as Myanmar needs Bangladesh for peace and prosperity in the region, Bangladesh needs Myanmar too. War or conflict is not the answer. The doors to dialogue must be kept open. If China and India cooperate, a solution can be reached. But if China or Russia imposes a veto, then no initiative will work. We must step up our diplomatic efforts in this regard.
PA: If the Rohingya refugees are not sent back soon, will this have an impact of Bangladesh’s minorities?
Anup Kumar: Such a huge number of refugees taking position in the country will certainly have an impact on our environment, economy and social life. Various vested quarters will use them. And there will be psychological pressure on the minority community here. This may harm social harmony.
PA: Thank you
Anup Kumar: Thank you
*The interview originally published in Prothom Alo print edition has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir