Understanding the Rohingya Crisis: A View From Bangladesh

Friday, February 26, 2021
Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bangladesh


Former Chief Operating Officer, GiveDirectly; Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations for Management, Reform and Special Political Affairs

Foreign Minister Dr. A. K. Abdul Momen of Bangladesh discusses the Rohingya crisis in neighboring Myanmar, its implications for Bangladesh, and the future of Bangladesh-U.S. relations.

COLEMAN: Thank you. Hello, everyone. Welcome to today's Council on Foreign Relations meeting, "Understanding the Rohingya Crisis: A View From Bangladesh." I'm Isobel Coleman and I will be presiding today over today's discussion. We have with us Foreign Minister Momen, who I had the pleasure of meeting several years ago when we both served at the United Nations. Ambassador Momen was then his country's permanent representative and now, of course, he is the country's foreign minister. So the crisis today with the Rohingya, as everyone, I think, on this call well knows, has been going on for many, many years. For decades the Rohingya have suffered persecution in Myanmar and then in 2017 that spiked enormously in the summer when hundreds of thousands fled the country after just terrible violence at the hands of the military. Thousands fled by any means they could—boat, foot, and across the region to countries such as Thailand and Indonesia. But the vast majority went across the border to Bangladesh, swelling the existing camp that was there and quickly into the largest refugee settlement in the world. Bangladesh is itself a poor country and has been hosting almost a million Rohingya refugees since then. So Foreign Minister, could we just start with your perspectives on what the situation in the camps today is like? I believe you've visited there and could share your perspectives on what you've seen.

MOMEN: Thank you, Ambassador Coleman. I'm humbled to attend today's virtual event organized by the Council on Foreign Relations. At the outset, let me convey to all of you the warm greetings from the government and the people of Bangladesh. In this global pandemic situation the people of our friendly countries—the U.S. and Bangladesh—are fighting the virus in their respective ways and also cooperating with each other and the rest of the world. In this connection, I shall recall with pleasure that we have supplied 6.5 million high-standard PPEs to the U.S. in the shortest possible time. We're happy to see the massive vaccination campaign going on here and also due to the fact that deaths and infections are gradually reducing. We are ready to provide quality vaccination and manufacturing in Bangladesh. In Bangladesh, the pandemic has already been tamed down with the single-digit death rates and less than 3 percent infection rate. Our vaccination is also going on in full swing with a huge response from people.

Ladies and gentlemen, Bangladesh's bilateral ties with the United States are wide-ranging, time-tested, and based on a strong foundation of our shared values of democratic principles, peace, prosperity and personal freedom. In my recent discussion with the secretary of state, Anthony Blinken, last Tuesday here, we have agreed to take our relations further forward towards the strategic level. I have also spoken with the special envoy for climate change, John Kerry, a couple of times. The new U.S. administration appears to be more supportive to the causes of the developing world, including areas like climate change, trade facilitation, COVID-19 response, migrants, and in this case, also Rohingya. Our expectation from the Biden administration is indeed reasonably higher. In fact, some of the major areas of Bangladesh's upcoming engagement with the new administration would encompass these domains and other areas like the Rohingya crisis, which is indeed the most important concern for us at present and also investment and trade cooperation, capacity building, and technology transfer and support in infrastructure development, including through an Indo-Pacific strategy. We also have the important issue of deportation of a convicted killer of our “Father of the Nation” from the U.S. to ensure justice and the rule of law. We understand that the U.S. also has its own set of priorities as well. Altogether, I would say that we are keenly looking forward to having a deeper and wider engagement with the Biden administration in the coming months and years. I will stop here and we'll be looking forward to further elaboration on different issues during my conversation with the moderator and the Q&A sessions, especially on the issue of Rohingya.

You asked me about the Rohingya. So I may tell you that, and you are right that in 2017, nearly 840,000 Rohingya, you know, came to Bangladesh. When they were being persecuted at the time, Bangladesh open its borders. There has been a Rohingya exodus again and again. We are currently sheltering 1.1 million Rohingya in our land. Myanmar is our neighbor and Myanmar agreed to take them back. We only wanted them to provide safety and security and also to create a conducive environment that Myanmar agreed to. We signed three agreements for their safe and dignified return. Unfortunately, four years, almost four years now, not a single Rohingya would go back because they don't trust. We made an agreement, but the Rohingya don't trust the Myanmar government and there is sufficient reason not to trust. To reduce this trust deficit, we approached Myanmar and provided some solutions. One solution was that Myanmar officials should visit the Rohingya in our camps and talk to them. And Myanmar, these refugees would let them know what is their aspirations and how they need to be treated once they go back. Only once has a Myanmar official come and discussed with them and then inundated them with questions. And since then the officials never came back. Then we also asked them to do another visit because there is a trust deficit to help improve this confidence level, reduce the trust deficit, and let Myanmar allow, you know, some nonmilitary civilian observers in Rakhine State from their own friendly countries. We don't have any agenda. Let them get nonmilitary civilian observers from ASEAN countries that are friendly countries, even from China, India, you know, name it, and they did not answer. We said that if there are nonmilitary observers, at least we can tell the Rohingya, other than the Myanmar military, there are some other nationals out there. But Myanmar did not respond. Then there was another proposal and that came from Indonesia. And that proposal was to let the leaders of, you know, the Rohingya leaders, go with the cell phones in their hand to go back to Rakhine State. Once they go they look at the arrangement they have made and if they are happy, they will call their family that, you know, things are okay and you can come. Myanmar did not respond to this. We have been trying bilaterally to resolve this issue because the problem was created by Myanmar. The solution also lies with Myanmar.

They created a similar problem before. They have been doing it again and again. Even in 1978 around 200,000 Rohingya, you know, came to Bangladesh. Afterward, through dialogue and discussion, they took most of them. Then again in 1991, 250,000 Rohingya came to Bangladesh. Then after dialogue and discussion, they took them back. They took around 230,000. During those days Myanmar was under sanctions, economic sanctions, and a lot of pressure, and therefore they were willing to take them. But now they are not under pressure. And so, although they agreed to take them, they don't respond. So therefore we have been asking global leadership to put pressure on Myanmar. We feel pretty bad when I see the leaders of human rights have been doing business as usual with Myanmar. The trade and investment to Myanmar over the last four years has increased from three to fifteen times, not by only China, but by the friendly countries, our friendly countries, by many Western countries who are leaders of human rights even after this ethnic cleansing or near genocide. They did not stop. Even the U.S.A allows them to have GSP facility. Even the business with the U.S.A. has increased three times. So anyway the question is they currently have been trying bilaterally to resolve the issue. We tried trilaterally to resolve the issue. We tried through the UN. We even tried, you know, and we also firmly believe there must be accountability and justice. Those who perpetrated such a crime, they should be brought to justice. Therefore we are thankful to Gambia, on behalf of the OIC, the cases in the ICJ, but they're finding difficulty because they are not rich and they don't have much money. Other countries should come forward and support Gambia to continue this case. So anyways the situation at this time, in behest of China, last month in January 20 there was a meeting between Bangladesh and China and China moderated it—Bangladesh, China, and Myanmar. And there at least Myanmar was a little positive. They said they will publish a booklet stating what facilities they would provide when Rohingya go back to their country of origin. But nothing happened. The next meeting was on the fourth of February, but by the first of February, there was a military takeover. And after the military takeover, we don't know. The only thing we know, the military sends out a note to all nations stating the rationale for the takeover. And they stated that there had been something like 10.5 million voter fraud and this and that and therefore they have taken over. We told them, we made a statement immediately after the military takeover, we said Bangladesh always promotes democracy. We believe in democracy and the constitutional process of the transfer of power. And we would hope that our neighbor would also follow us. Secondly, we said we don't want any uncertainty, we need peace and stability in the region and Myanmar should continue to provide this peace and stability and insurance. And that means they must not adopt policies that, you know, create chaos and confusion and instability in their own country. And third, of course, we said our priority is the repatriation of Rohingya back to their country of origin with dignity, with safety, and voluntariness. So these are the things we told them. Since then we have no communication with them.

COLEMAN: Foreign Minister, you mentioned that, of course, the Chinese were mediating those talks last month that you lead for your country, Bangladesh, on repatriation. Do you see the Chinese playing a helpful role and putting pressure on the government in Myanmar to enable repatriation in that safe and dignified way that you've talked about? I understand there was talk of trying to repatriate as early as June, but with the changes that are going on in Myanmar, that doesn't seem at all feasible at this point. But from your perspective, anything helpful coming out of China on this issue?

MOMEN: You see, even during the military rule in 1978 and 1992, Myanmar took back Rohingya even on those days. And now our priorities are the repatriation of the Rohingya, but you are right the environment in Myanmar is not very conducive. So we have requested the UN Secretary-General that he should dedicate more resources in the Rakhine province to create a conducive environment. I have made a suggestion, a request to Secretary of State Blinken yesterday when I had the chance to speak to him, to create a position of special envoy on Rohingya to monitor the developments and keep an eye on these developments and that will put some pressure on Myanmar. And secondly, I also requested that henceforth the U.S. should withdraw GSP facility to the military government.

COLEMAN: The previous administration did put sanctions on the government after the violence in 2017, which didn't seem to have much impact. What would you be hoping for from this special envoy that you've asked for?

MOMEN: Now the previous government put some sanctions on generals and the sanctions were travel bans to the U.S.A. These don't work. Sanctions should have some teeth, it should bite. Unless it bites, it is useless. So I'm hoping with the special, you know, the envoy, he will analyze it, identify the issue, and can figure out what sort of strategy would be helpful to achieve the goal to restore democracy and also for the repatriation of the Rohingya. It is up to him because whoever would be appointed, hopefully, he will have a clear idea, he can develop a clear idea, and have no hidden agenda. The only agenda is that there should be peace and stability in our neighborhood. We are afraid of this Myanmar problem, if this Rohingya problem lasts for longer periods, there could always be a possibility of pockets of radicalism. And, you know, Ambassador Coleman, radicals who don't have any country, that don't have any fate, they are radicals. They can be terrorists. They can create problems. They can create uncertainty in the area, not only in Bangladesh and Myanmar, they could create uncertainty in the whole region and that may lead, we don't know, and before that happens, we want a peaceful resolution of the Rohingya problem.

COLEMAN: Foreign Minister, you have noted that over the last couple of years more than 90,000 children, Rohingya children, had been born in Bangladesh since the violence in 2017. And I think we look at that situation and the world is very concerned, of course, about a whole generation growing up with not great access to education. Specifically, there's been a lack of access to textbooks in the camps. Could you talk about that, recognizing that this is a very difficult situation to resolve and that some years may still go by with hundreds of thousands of people living there.

MOMEN: Ambassador Coleman, you touched a very important issue. Thank you for that. You see, I'm a father, father of five kids. You see, and we want, as a parent, we all want our kids to have a good living, better life than us. And you are right, more than 90,000 is around 118,000 newborns. In addition to that there is a large number of young kids in our Rohingya camps. When I visited one camp, one little clinic, for around fifteen minutes, you will be surprised, within fifteen minutes, there are two newborns. And I was asked to give the name to the newborns. And I was shocked because one mother, she had nine children and this is the tenth one. And I asked her husband, "How will you maintain it?" He said, "God will do it." He has not the right idea. He says God will do it. There was another one and the mother is around, they said fourteen years, but my reading is maybe less than that. It looks like a little, you know, young girl. But she has a mini baby, small, little, and she was raped. She has no husband. She has no mother. But she has a newborn. Can you believe it? This is so painful. And I feel so bad that—I'm a teacher. I have been teaching over the years. And I feel so bad that there is such a huge generation of Rohingya people becoming totally illiterate and becoming, what should I say, a lost generation. And therefore we agreed to provide some education to these kids. These Rohingya that are in our camps, but they have to learn the Myanmar literature, Myanmar language, Myanmar history, not Bangladesh, and we don't know their language, I cannot communicate without someone else with them. So they have to learn their own language, own culture, so that once they go back, they can easily reintegrate with their society. We asked also UNESCO, too, that they should provide teachers and their curriculum from Myanmar so that they can—unfortunately, they couldn't get it. So we are in a standstill. What we're doing now, here in Bangladesh, we are giving the basic elementary things, you know, some math, some English letters—that's it. It's not enough. Not enough to build a future. Their future lies in repatriation of them back to their country of origin. Once they go, they can lead a better life. But it is also true over the last thirty years or so these Rohingya minority people have been persecuted, denied of education, denied of health care, and therefore, Ambassador, you will be surprised. I wanted to, you know, get a few educated people from these camps, from these Rohingya camps, someone who is a graduate. Unfortunately, we didn't get much. It is such a state of situation, really sad. We need your help. We need, you know, the voice of the people to create such a strong voice so that the, you know, the government succumbs to, forced to, you know, repatriate them and give them a decent living not only to repatriate. Repatriate and provide them a decent living, free mobility, and ways that we use for—that's why I asked UN, UN Asia, they should work more in Rakhine and create a conducive environment. Once they go, they should get all the facilities that are necessary for a decent living and a better upbringing.

COLEMAN: Well, while we don't have full clarity on what is going on inside Rakhine State, there are concerns that the government has been bulldozing villages and building infrastructure bases. And there are concerns that it's to move new populations into those depopulated areas. Could you talk a little bit about that from your perspective?

MOMEN: We have been told by the Chinese that they have built many housing inside Rakhine State. Even our friend India has told us that they will also build lots of housing inside Rakhine State. And they said there is enough room for many to go back. And we are ready to stand whenever they are ready to, you know, they are ready. We are willing. We made the arrangement a couple of times for their safe return, but eventually—it needs a political commitment. It needs a mindset of taking them back. Unfortunately, in Myanmar, until recently, the many Myanmar people, those are other minorities. They used to think of the Rohingya as insects, not as human beings, as a parasite. But I was listening, I was looking at some of the comments by some of the Myanmar people recently after the military takeover, many were saying we made a mistake. We should have stood by these Rohingya when they are being persecuted. And at the time we turned their backs and so we’d rather encourage the military to go for persecution. Twenty-five thousand died. 112,000 houses were burned down. 115,000 were destroyed. They said when those were happening, their girls are being raped, we did not make any noise because we thought these are, you know, untouchables. So this is good, this is a good realization. I'm so happy.

COLEMAN: Well, it might create a window for some change. As you noted that there does seem to be a coalescing of opinion in the country that they have a common enemy, the military, with the Rohingya, so I don't know. I personally am not overly optimistic on that front, but I have seen the same reports that you're reading. Okay, so I think at this time we will open up the discussion to our members who can ask questions. And just a reminder that this is on the record, and if you could please state your name and affiliation when you ask your question of the foreign minister. Laura, I think we're ready to take the first question.

COLEMAN: Laura, do you have a question for us?

STAFF: Looks like we lost Laura. So I'll take care of this. Ladies and gentlemen, if you'd like to ask a question, click on the raise hand icon on your zoom window. When you're called on to speak, please accept the unmute now button. Then proceed with your name, affiliation and question. If you would like to view the roster of registered participants for this meeting. Click on the link in your zoom chat window. We will take the first question from Joanna Shelton.

Q: Good afternoon, good morning. And Mr. Minister, thank you so much for joining us here today. I have a question relating to humanitarian aid groups working in Bangladesh. I'm wondering how many there are and whether their assistance that they are providing to the Rohingya is useful. I mean, it sounds to as if you can use a lot more, but I'm just wondering if you could briefly discuss who is there and how effective their assistance is. Thank you.

MOMEN: Yes, you see, there are 1.1 million Rohingya being sheltered in a small area of 6,800 acres of land. As per estimate, 84,000 people live per square mile. 84,000 people live per square mile. In the U.S.A, it may be four per square mile. So you can simply imagine the number of—so much of a condition. We are trying, with the help of our friendly countries and the UN is here, we have been providing food, nutrition to these, and providing medical services. And in order to reduce the condition, because at times just afraid that many may die of suffocation in order to reduce the condition and at times also Bangladesh has a lot of monsoons. During the rainy season, we get a lot of heavy rainfall. And where we have sheltered them, these are hilly places. So there have been some landslides in our camps. And if there is a landslide, you know, it washes away the housing, these little tattered houses. And also, sadly, many people die. So in order to avoid risks of death and also to reduce this condition, we have thought of moving a hundred thousand of them out of, you know, 1.1 million to an island, a really safe sound and one of our biggest islands. In the camps what we did, in the camp, everybody has access to communication. Generally, they have 2G-3G telecom network. We have also provided 4G network. But there is a problem. When we provide 4G network, those networks are being used by some of the Rohingya, these guys, for either drug trafficking or for human trafficking. They line up girls on their computer and show it to people in other countries and give them marriage, weddings over the internet. And then they make arrangements for them to take a boat to go to those countries and they go there, but they are denied, denied to enter. And they claim that we are married to someone in Malaysia and married to someone in Indonesia, but these are all false. Some people take advantage. But anyway, because of the pressure from here in the U.S., we allowed that and it is creating problems. Since we allowed even the drug trafficking has increased manyfold and when there is drug trafficking, money is involved and there is infighting within the groups inside Rakhine that are inside our camps. So in order to provide safety and security, we wanted to move some of them. The situation within the camp is good, good in the sense we are providing food and during the COVID we were very afraid when COVID came, we had to make lots of restrictions because this is such a crowded area. We were afraid that if a single one gets infected, immediately there could be a bonfire and thousands would be infected and many will die. You will be happy to know because of our arrangement, not a single Rohingya in our camps died of COVID and there is no one infected by COVID. We kept them away so that, you know, that they don’t get mixed with the people who do have the COVID. In the new area, the Bhasan Char, which is a forty square kilometer big, you know, island. We spent $350 million and build beautiful shelters with all the amenities. And there we move some of them voluntarily, all voluntary, for their better living. This is a model in the world. We have created a model in the world for those desperate people persecuted. Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina should be applauded because of making such an arrangement with their own resources. They're what we want, we want these people to do some economic activity. Do fishing, agriculture, raise some goats, chicken, [inaudible]. Also do some other professional jobs, whatever they can. We are providing the equipment and they are very happy. And for the children, we have created some schools there and the children can move around in the camps that we have in Kutupalong, the children cannot move. There is no space for them. They are living in [inaudible] houses in a shed and ten of them live in one little 10x10. It's awful, but now in the other place, you know, they have a bed, they have, you know, they can cook their own food and they have gas and they have electricity. They have all the modern amenities. So we are trying our best to give better, you know, but these are all temporary. These are all temporary because these people, their only hope that one day they will go back to the country for a better life. And currently, we are just giving them a temporary shelter, either in our camps or in Bhasan Char.

COLEMAN: Thank you. Do we have another question?

STAFF: We'll take the next question from Lionel Rosenblatt.

Q: Yes, Mr. Minister, I'm a former U.S. Foreign Service officer and NGO official, and I wanted to just underscore the tremendous humanitarian challenge that Bangladesh has undertaken for more than twenty years. It's not just the fairly recent influx, but I was first in Cox's Bazar in the mid-1990s when you already had hundreds of thousands of refugees there. That's almost forgotten these days. And I couldn't agree with you more that the international community should do more, and first of all, should recognize this incredible record you have, humanitarian record. I don't think it's widely enough recognized, so if I could offer you a word of advice, your public affairs people that ought redouble their efforts to expose to the world what it is that you are doing. It's truly extraordinary and it's not easy given that Bangladesh has its own challenges. So my hat is off with great admiration. I wanted to touch on two problems that I'm not very current on but maybe you could have a look at. One, of course, is that as you touched on cyclones are a perpetual danger both to the Bangladesh citizenry as well as to the refugees and they're jam-packed and hillside shelters, flimsy shelters, and partly due to this, the government, as I understand it, is going to try to relocate some to an island in the Bay of Bengal. And a number of NGOs and humanitarian agencies, I think, on the UN side as well have, including WFP, the major source of international food, have real concerns about that. So I'm hoping you could look at that again. I understand the temptation out of sight, out of mind, and trying to put people in a new location, but seems to me we have to look at that very carefully. It's only a couple of feet above sea level in spots. And the other thing to touch on, I don't want to take too much time on my question, but to ask you to also look at the lack of communications these days for the refugees. Their communications on cell phones have apparently been strictly limited recently, which actually causes problems for them and for your government because lots of confusion arises as to what the real situation is and the more information flow that we can have, the better off I think everybody will be. Again, thank you so much for what your government is doing.

MOMEN: Thank you, Lionel, for your question. The first one is about the cyclones and you are right, Bangladesh faces plenty of cyclones, tidal waves and hazards, and this is our number one, you know, problem, climatic problem. Erratic climate changes will create havoc in Bangladesh. But we are used to it, we have in the sense that we have developed many home base, you know, the disaster management programs. And as a result, these are working very efficiently. You may recall that in 1970 when we had a disastrous cyclone, around half a million people died, and of course, they lost all their property. But because of our, you know, disaster preparedness program, cyclones of 2007, with the same philosophy of [inaudible] in that only one in thirty-nine of people lost their lives. But unfortunately a lot of damages to property. So we know about it, we have created an embankment with the help of including the U.S. and we moved these people to an island, Bhasan Char, it is a forty square kilometer big island and we have put up a high embankment there. We consulted with some British experts and they suggested and on this suggestion, we created an embankment. In the south of Bangladesh, we have plenty of embankments to keep us away from tidal waves and surges. In the Bhasan Char where we have moved these people, you know, the good news is when we had the big cyclone the other day, you see five hundred fishery families took shelter and fortunately even the electricity did not go in [inaudible] island, while in the north and south and [inaudible], many houses were without, you know, electricity for days. And the beauty is we have fresh water all year long in that island. There is a beautiful lake for year-round, you know, there is water skiing. So it's a lovely place and I thought that it should be a resort area for people. If this would have been an American island, I'm sure it would be a wonderful resort. But, of course, you know, we put all these for the safety of security in Bhasan Char. And no one was taken there forcibly, they went there voluntarily on their own choice.

Now, as for the communication, we have restored communication. Look, in the camps, the camp is only fifteen minutes away from our resorts. [Inaudible]. The international NGOs or other NGOs, the people who work there, most of them, they live in Cox's Bazar, and Cox's Bazar has the world's largest natural sixty-mile long sea beach. And there are plenty of hotels and all those, you know, customary to, you know, the resort area. So they live there and they come to the camps and it takes fifteen minutes to come there and they have all the facilities that we have. Even in the camps, we have allowed 4G communication. Unfortunately, the Rohingya cannot afford to buy a cell phone that can take the advantage of 4G. They can buy a cell phone that can work only for telephone service or little communication because the cost is also metrics. So this is a problem with them, but they are pretty smart, these Rohingya. They have constant communication with people all around, even the people whose families are living in Rakhine State. They know when immediately after the military takeover, the military commanders visited some of the, I mean, IDPs of Rohingya in Rakhine State and they assured those Rohingya of safety and security and also assured them step by step they would get, you know, rise to mobility and other benefits. That thing came right away to our camps. And there was euphoria that, you know, the military is supporting these Rohingya in Rakhine State. We didn't get the information. We got it from the Rohingya because they have their own system of government. They are pretty, pretty smart in that.

COLEMAN: Thank you. Laura, can we take the next question? And if you could, please, we have, I think, a number of questions to get through so if you could ask short questions, that would be great.

Q: Sure. Hi, my name is Moushumi Khan. I'm a lawyer. I wanted to thank you both for a great presentation and really good context. I've just returned from Bangladesh after living there off and on for the last ten years. And my question to the foreign minister is, could you give us some context on what the local Bangladeshi populations' role or their impact on the population might be? Because it's quite clear to me that the government and even the military has played a constructive and really wants to provide a lot of support. What has been the impact on the Bangladeshi community as a whole?

MOMEN: Thank you, Moushumi. I know you when you were a student at Harvard University. I met you on those days. I'm happy that you are a lawyer. Good. Congratulations. Moushumi, you asked a very important question. You see the number of the Rohingya in the Kutupalong camp, in Cox's Bazar, is more than double of the local population. When the Rohingya came in the beginning, the local population welcomed them. They fed them. They kept them in their house and they are very happy to, you know, do some humanitarian work for them. But now, after four years, the local community is very frustrated. They are very unhappy because the Rohingya are taking away their jobs, low-paid jobs. The Rohingya are destroying their farms, their trees, everything that the local people have is being destroyed by the Rohingya. And they're snatching the jobs they created. And this Rohingya [inaudible] provides them with lots of [inaudible], a lot of things. They sell those. And by that they get money and as a result, the inflation in the area has gone up. There are many NGOs and UNHCR, they work, and they're spending a lot of money. As a result, the inflation in the area has tripled. Naturally, it is hurting the local people. They are deprived from all those benefits, you know, so they're upset. And in addition, because recently these Rohingya are involved in drug trafficking and they are corrupting the local people. The people are upset, there is infighting within the Rohingya camp. People sometimes fighting between the local people and the Rohingya. These are bad beginnings and so far we are trying to control it but we are afraid if this should continue. If this problem is not resolved that situation might get worse. Thank you, Moushumi, for such a good question.

COLEMAN: Thank you. Laura, can we have the next question.

STAFF: We'll take the next question from Monsoor Shams.

Q: Hello, [Speaks foreign language] Foreign Minister. I was born in Pakistan, so somewhat of a neighbor. My question is regarding the state that you keep describing, which is a very terrible state and I wondered what do you see as the future and do you see, you know, extremism and radicalism coming out of the situation if it's not resolved? Thank you.

MOMEN: You see there, as I said already, the future of Rohingya is very bleak, unless the global leadership comes forward to solve that problem. Otherwise, I do know what would be the future. And more so, the future of their children, it is this one situation. However, we can change the whole scenario provided the leadership all across the globe that come forward and recognize this problem and help those people put a better living. The world is pretty big, you see, maybe Bangladesh is very crowded but the world is very big. There are so many countries. [Inaudible] have only a single [inaudible] or two [inaudible] population density and their income is pretty good. You know, their living standard is pretty good. Out of humanitarian consideration, they can try to help them and if they do, there will be a better living. There will be better future for them. It is time for all of us to work together and try to create a better future for [inaudible]. Another one is our [inaudible]. Look at Afghanistan, you know, so many difficulties came up. Drug trafficking, these are happening around their laws. And our feelings, if this problem lingers for a long time and so many people are, you know, restricted within a small area, and there are always pockets of radicalism. There are some groups who will try to take advantage of the people, radicalize them, and if that happens, there could be a bombshell. It will create havoc not only for Bangladesh or Myanmar or India or Thailand. It will create uncertainties and a real threat to security and stability and peace [inaudible]. Yes, I'm afraid for that. That's why I urge everyone, I appeal to everyone, they should come forward to resolve this issue as soon as possible before radicalism takes over before it goes beyond our control to manage it.

COLEMAN: Minister Momen, can I just pick up on your answer calling on the world's leaders to do more. And I understand the conversations you've had in Washington calling for the United States to do more, but a country like Saudi Arabia, which is a very wealthy country, an Islamic country, is in the process of trying to repatriate forty thousand Rohingya who've been living for years, some of them decades in Saudi Arabia, back to Bangladesh. You know, is there not more that a country like Saudi Arabia could be doing?

MOMEN: Ambassador Coleman, thank you for this question. Nowadays it has become a fashion for many countries and many institutions. If anywhere any Rohingya gets stuck, then they always look towards Bangladesh to provide them shelter. As if Bangladesh has taken the global responsibility and the contract to save, to rehabilitate Rohingya all across the globe. Whenever there is a Rohingya on the ocean, in the high seas beyond our maritime boundaries, we are being asked to take care of them as if, you know, other than nationals of Myanmar, they have the responsibility. But apparently, it looks like since we gave them shelter, apparently, everybody thinks, oh, Bangladesh is the heaven for the Rohingya. Very sad. Now the question that you raised is a very important question. During the 1970s when the Rohingya been uprooted from their homes, at the time the king of Saudi Arabia invited them to go to his land. Saudi Arabia has plenty of land. So many Rohingya during the late '70s and early '80s, they moved to Saudi Arabia from these Rohingyas. Now, currently, some, you know, we are being asked, that we have been requested that they have around fifty-something, fifty-five thousand Rohingya and their families totaling around 250,000 or so that Bangladesh should provide them a passport. They don't have Bangladeshi passports. They never had a Bangladesh passport. Now, they are asking that Saudi Arabia do not want to keep any people who are stateless because these people went there, this Rohingya went there at the invitation of the king, [inaudible] king. But now they are saying that Saudi Arabia doesn't have a policy to keep anyone who is stateless and therefore there are people who may need some passports. And they said that they will not be sent to Bangladesh. They will remain because these people born and brought up in Saudi Arabia, they had they don't know Bangladesh, never seen Bangladesh, they, you know, born and brought up they know Arabic. Their living style is just like the Arabs, you know, two-third generation, these Rohingyas in Saudi Arabia said they will not send them back to Bangladesh. But they want Bangladesh to issue passports for them so that they are not stateless. So this is some pressure we are getting. And we feel really funny about it because as if any Rohingya anywhere in the world, you know, he or she should be accommodated in Bangladesh. Very unfortunate.

COLEMAN: Thank you. Laura, do we have another question?

STAFF: Yes, we'll take the next question from Dan Mozena.

Q: Thank you very much. This is an excellent discussion. And Mr. Foreign Minister, it's wonderful to see you again. I'm Dan Mozena, I was U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh.

MOMEN: We know you.

Q: First of all, I'd like to align myself with Lionel's comments about the excellent job Bangladesh has done in helping the Rohingya. I saw that with my own eyes during several visits to those camps. And it's impressive what Bangladesh has done. And you rightly made that point. My question to you, Momen, is you laid out well the problems vis-a-vis Myanmar going back to the '70s, fifty years, and you laid out how twice Myanmar took him back only to throw the Rohingya out again. I opined that prospects for the Rohingya to return permanently as citizens with rights, full rights, in Myanmar are very, very bleak. And so I think we come to a decision point, are these camps in Bangladesh going to become like in the Middle East permanent? They'll be there a hundred years. Or forever? Or is there some other solution? Can these people who have some affinity for Bangladesh be absorbed into Bangladesh? It's an amazing culture, as I know, well, from two tours there, and a very generous culture or is there some other solution other than permanent camps?

MOMEN: Thank you, Ambassador Mozena. We miss you a lot. You are one of the most illustrious American ambassadors in Bangladesh. And people rank and file you always talk about you. Thank you, Ambassador, I would love to meet you in person but, you know, because of the COVID. You are okay, I presume This is good. Now you raised two questions and thank you, Ambassador, about the citizenship. I agree with you. There are very, very bleak prospects for the Rohingya to get full rights of citizenship. But what we are asking Myanmar, we are asking them they should create a path to citizenship. Look at these Rohingya. They are the citizens of Burma. They were the members of parliament. They were cabinet members of the Burmese cabinet. They have been there for many, many years. Unfortunately in 1982, they have been disenfranchised and became [inaudible], except and only except, this Rohingya. So you're right that is a very bleak prospect for the Rohingya to be fully assimilated. If we all work together, there is a prospect. There is a prospect. And because currently as I see in some of the comments from the Myanmar people, that they made a mistake when they did not side with these Rohingya when they are being persecuted. So realization is stuck. And with the new modern technology, this realization can spread very quickly. In that case, they would be recognized and accepted. They need leadership. Unfortunately, there is a very shortage of leadership among the Rohingya. As I said to you, Ambassador Dan Mozena, I was trying to find out how many graduates are staying in the camps. Unfortunately, the scenario is very dismal.

Now, your other question is about is there any other solution? I believe there is another solution is, you know, the countries, so many countries, they can come forward and relocate some of them. If they do these people, they are hardworking, and they will be contributing members of society. Maybe they will need little training and education and the language and the education, but they could be contributing members of those societies. It is time if we can create a global consensus about them, that they are after all human being and we must protect and preserve the life of these human beings. In that case, maybe there will be some opening some people will and there are so many good philanthropists. They can also come forward to help support them. And there are so many countries that can do the burden sharing. There is a possibility but all said and done, Rakhine State is their state. Rakhine, they should live in honor and dignity in their own land. And if the countries of the world, you may agree to that, then we can make it. We have R2P facility. We have many other facilities. We have a coalition of the willing. If the coalition of the willing agrees to provide them a shelter in their own land, I'm sure this can be done. This can be done. And I would argue it's the leadership of the world. Please look, see the misery of their people. Misery, the plight of these people and come forward. We all will die today or tomorrow but if we can help humanity, the God's creation, we can say on the day of judgment that we have done our part of the job. And that's what I urge everyone come forward and take a lead, inshallah, we will be successful.

COLEMAN: Well, that is a very strong note to end on, Foreign Minister Momen. Thank you for your very inspirational words there. It is time for the leaders to come together across the region around the world to really make a big push on addressing this very protracted crisis that's going on. And, again, I will ask you what others have said about really thanking Bangladesh for the efforts that you've made in this crisis. And thanking you so much, Foreign Minister, for joining us here today. And with that, we will end. Thank you so much.


Top Stories on CFR


Questions of how the United States should address the issue of China and Taiwan have moved to the center of the U.S. foreign policy debate.


Argentina is one of Latin America’s largest economies and most stable democracies, but the country has struggled with political dysfunction and financial crises in recent decades.