President of Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Strategic Studies (BIPSS) ANM Muniruzzaman, in an interview with Prothom Alo, spoke about India’s Citizenship Amendment Act, the state of security in the region and other geopolitical issues.
Prothom Alo: Will the case with the International Court of Justice accelerate Rohingya repatriation or retard it?
ANM Muniruzzaman: I do not think this will be of any significant help to Rohingya repatriation. But we will have to wait and see whether it will pose as an obstruction. Myanmar may decide to wait until the case is settled. An interim order may be of use in this regard. The UN and other agencies who cannot visit the Rakhine state now, may find access easier. But that may also lessen international pressure on Myanmar.
Prothom Alo: The US placed sanctions on four military generals of Myanmar. Do you think other countries may similarly change their stance?
ANM Muniruzzaman: There is no significant change visible. Canada and the Netherlands have openly taken a stance against genocide, but they had already taken this stance earlier. So this is nothing new on their part. The US had imposed sanctions before too. They simply made it a bit stricter now. This is a positive sign. But the chief of Myanmar’s armed forces was in China at the same time and China gave a lot of important to the visit and praised him. I do not see any change in the mindset of Myanmar’s allies. In fact, India for the first time has given a submarine to Myanmar. India is also closely involved in providing training to Myanmar’s armed forces. Russia is keeping up its cooperation too.
Prothom Alo: How do you view India’s Citizenship Amendment Act? Has it affected relations with Bangladesh?
ANM Muniruzzaman: I am more concerned that the citizenship of 2 million people in Assam has been snatched away. I am also seeing efforts to drive their citizens into Bangladesh. And the impact of India’s Citizenship Amendment Act will affect the entire region. So no one should take this lightly.
Prothom Alo: Do you see any link between the quick succession of events – the NRC, withdrawal of Kashmir’s special status, the Citizenship Amendment Act, the Babri Masjid verdict, etc?
ANM Muniruzzaman: All this is happening because BJP has come to power with a huge mandate. They are now fulfilling their election mandate. However, it is not just the neighbours, but many states within India that are expressing concern.
Prothom Alo: How do you see the future of Bangladesh-India relations?
ANM Muniruzzaman: They have friendly relations though tensions crop up from time to time. There is a degree of unease now on certain issues, but I see this as temporary, nothing permanent.
Prothom Alo: Myanmar took its decisions based on a certain religion and now India has done almost the same. What are the similarities and dissimilarities between the two and possible repercussions in the region?
ANM Muniruzzaman: Both countries are our neighbours. Certain situations have arisen there based on religion and they have changed their state policies accordingly. This will certainly have a negative impact on us. Extremist groups in Bangladesh can take advantage of this, use this to instigate trouble. We must be alert. We must ensure that our communal harmony is not disrupted by these events.
Prothom Alo: Should such a situation be viewed from a counter-terrorism angle or politically?
ANM Muniruzzaman: I would emphasis the political angle. We must proceed along the path of our values of national identity, that is our religious and social values.
Prothom Alo: Prime minister Sheikh Hasina has said that the Rohingya crisis is linked to regional stability. Now if relations with India deteriorate due to circumstances, what will Bangladesh do?
ANM Muniruzzaman: There seems to be no solution in the offing. Friendly countries must be approached about the Rohingya issue, they must understand that this is not Bangladesh’s problem alone. This may become an issue of regional security and the signs are already there.
Firstly, the relations between the Rohingyas here and the local populace have deteriorated drastically. Secondly, many Rohingyas have been fund to be involved in bringing yaba into the country. Thirdly, small arms have been infiltrating the country and Rohingyas may be involved. This will add a new dimension to security concerns. Fourthly, local and international trafficking rings have already involved Rohingyas in human trafficking and have been successful in doing so. This is alarming. If we fall into the US category of human trafficking, we will face all sorts of sanctions.
Prothom Alo: Will that mean trade sanctions too?
ANM Muniruzzaman: There can be all sorts of sanctions and that is why the Rohingya refugee presence is creating a security threat. It is putting pressure on stability. Also, extremist groups will try to recruit people from among these Rohingya refugees. They will spread their extremist ideology among them.
Prothom Alo: How far can Bangladesh proceed with its diplomatic efforts and abilities?
ANM Muniruzzaman: It must be admitted that we have arrived at this situation because of our diplomatic isolation. None of the bigger countries have come forward directly to assist us. They have all been working on the side of Myanmar. Another litmus test is, you will notice, though the Arakan army is involved in an armed struggle there, those countries are still investing in Myanmar. India has increased its military cooperation with them. The US recently led a multinational naval exercise in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean area. Myanmar was not supposed to have joined, but it did. All the countries are proceeding in their own interests, which do not tally with ours. You can assess whether this is our diplomatic weakness or failure. Now that a case has been taken up in court, we should put this momentum to use and adopt certain fresh diplomatic initiatives.
Prothom Alo: What about the Indian stance?
ANM Muniruzzaman: India has taken up a double-standard policy. It leans towards the US strategic policies and it is likely to be at the forefront of all the US strategies in the region. It will act as a manager in implementing US strategies in the region. Then again there is the rise of China, and India is dealing with this pragmatically. They will not enter into any direct conflict. India is looking to a workable relationship with China. It will not turn directly against China.
Prothom Alo: Will Bangladesh be sandwiched between these two big power equations? Won’t this make it more difficult for Bangladesh to deal with the Rohingya problem?
ANM Muniruzzaman: Bangladesh has been successful in creating a diplomatic balance. We have ‘strategic ties’ with China and ‘deep ties’ with India. We also have ‘good relations’ with the US. Then on one hand there is China’s massive Belt and Road Initiative and on the other the US Indo-Pacific Strategy. We have been successful in not siding with one particular country, but maintaining good ties with all. Geopolitically speaking, Bangladesh has gained much importance. We need to use this clout correctly.
Prothom Alo: What has Bangladesh been able to gain from this advantageous position?
ANM Muniruzzaman: We received a 40 billion dollar commitment from China for joining the Belt and Road Initiative. This is a significant achievement. We have good investment opportunities with China. China is building a massive economic zone in Chattogram where Chinese industries will be located. China continues its military cooperation with Bangladesh.
We have managed to create grounds for strong bilateral trade with India. We have managed to ensure duty free and quota free access of our readymade garments. We have gained other advantages and there is likely to be more to come.
We have a lot of support from the US too and not only in the economic field. We have various types of military cooperation with the US. The US is providing us with financial and technical support to counter terrorism.
So we have received all sorts of support from these big countries. But we can gradually increase this support.
Prothom Alo: But we are certainly not receiving support from two big countries where the Rohingya issue is concerned.
ANM Munirizzaman: No, we are not. The US is extending support, but not our two closest neighbours. They are helping in a humanitarian way, but have not supported our stance. We have to think of ways to involve them afresh.
Prothom Alo: Let me wind up with the Rohingya issue. Canadian professor John Packer has said that the non-Muslim countries should come forward with a fresh appeal to the International Court of Justice.
ANM Muniruzzaman: I don’t envisage this any time soon. I do not even see more cases with the ICJ will necessarily be successful. No individual can be accused in this court. And the court does not have the scope to enforce the verdict. If Myanmar does not implement the verdict, it will go to the Security Council. So the issue all depends on international politics. If anyone vetoes the matter, it all ends there.
Prothom Alo: China and Russia already issued their vetoes. Do you foresee any change in their positions?
ANM Muniruzzaman: I do not foresee any change in their positions so far. But if there is a vast change in public opinion on an international scale, then it is a different matter. Now what is transpiring may be a moral victory. And if there is an interim decision, then perhaps there may be some temporary relief. Internationally, there has been a momentum created in favour of the Rohingyas. Intentionally or unintentionally, Myanmar has admitted in court to many of their transgressions. They have said that war crimes may have taken place, but no genocide. I expect that the hearing will begin in ICC too. The head of state has admitted that war crimes took place and this is an achievement.
Prothom Alo: Thank you.
ANM Muniruzzman: Thank you.
* This interview, originally published in Prothom Alo print edition, has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir.