US Special Envoy: Restoring Democracy in Myanmar Will Ease Bangladesh’s Rohingya Burden

Jesmin Papri
US Special Envoy: Restoring Democracy in Myanmar Will Ease Bangladesh’s Rohingya Burden United States presidential climate envoy John Kerry (left) speaks during a press conference with Bangladesh Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen in Dhaka, April 9, 2021.

Updated at 3:10 p.m. ET on 2021-04-09

Democracy must be restored in Myanmar to ease the Rohingya refugee burden on Bangladesh, U.S. special envoy John Kerry said Friday during a lightning visit to the South Asian nation to drum up support for a Washington-hosted climate summit.

The American diplomat heaped praise on Bangladesh for its “extraordinary” generosity in sheltering the refugees from Myanmar, and even mentioned Dhaka’s controversial decision to relocate thousands to a flood-prone island.

He called the current situation in Myanmar “one of the great moral challenges of the planet today,” in referring to a coup and deadly violence against civilians by the same military that caused hundreds of thousands of traumatized Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh in 2017.

“Bangladesh has been one of the greatest helping hands, you’ve given them an island. You’ve helped people to be able to find a future, but that’s not a long-term future, and that doesn’t resolve the issue,” Kerry, President Joe Biden’s special envoy for the climate, told reporters in Dhaka.

“So the new administration, Secretary [of State] Tony Blinken, is very cognizant of this issue, and very focused on it, and I know that he and the administration are going to do everything in their power to try to restore democracy to Myanmar, and in the doing of that, to try to be able to help relieve the pressure and the challenges that the Rohingya represent,” Kerry said in responding to a question from a BenarNews correspondent.

Bangladesh Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen, who appeared at a press conference with Kerry, asked Washington’s special envoy for help in repatriating the Rohingya – about 1 million of whom are sheltering at densely crowded refugee camps in southeastern Cox’s Bazar district.

The vast majority crossed the border into Bangladesh while escaping a brutal military offensive in their home state of Rakhine in 2017.

“We hope that the U.S.’s proactive initiative can help with a safe and dignified return,” Momen said.

Addressing climate issues, Kerry said, “We’re excited in the United States about the prospect of moving to this cleaner energy, this new future that protects our world for our children, our grandchildren, future generations, and we live up to our global responsibility to lead and to do what young people around the world are asking us to do – which is to behave like adults. And get the job done.”

Kerry’s visit to South Asia came ahead of President Biden’s virtual “Leaders’ Summit on the Climate,” from April 22 until 23, and which will include 40 world leaders. His hours-long visit to the Bangladeshi capital was the third and final stop on an official trip, which also took him to Abu Dhabi and New Delhi.

“[W]e’re delighted that Bangladesh will take part in President Biden’s summit, but equally importantly, we’re delighted that we have the ability to work together now, intentionally going forward, in order to bring technology, research and finance to do what we know what we must do,” he said, referring to an invitation, which he officially extended to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina during his short trip to Dhaka.

Hasina hosted Kerry at her residence and praised U.S. efforts under Biden to rejoin the Paris Agreement on climate, after the previous administration had pulled the United States out of the international pact, which aims to reduce carbon emissions in countering global warming.

“The returning of the U.S. to the Paris Agreement will create new momentum to the climate diplomacy,” she said, according to state-owned BSS news agency.

Rohingya and climate crisis

Linking the Rohingya crisis with the climate crisis, Momen discussed how the refugee camps have had a negative effect.

“About 1.1 million Rohingya are destroying our forest and ecosystem,” he said.

As many as seven reserve forests, totaling about 2,500 acres, were wiped out in Cox’s Bazar as the Rohingya who began fleeing Myanmar in August 2017 cut down trees for firewood and to construct makeshift shelters, area forest officer Ali Kabir said two months later.

Landslides that struck near the camps in 2018 killed at least a dozen people, including a Rohingya youth who was killed by a falling tree.

Climate change, more broadly, is a critical issue for the South Asian country.

Bangladesh loses 2.5 percent of its national income annually because of extreme weather-related phenomena, according to analysts. Experts have also warned about the effects of global warming causing erosion as sea levels rise and threaten low-lying areas along the country’s coastline, where millions of people live.

Bangladesh chairs the Climate Vulnerable Forum, a group of 48 countries that are home to 1.2 billion people and have a combined gross domestic product valued at U.S. $2.3 trillion. Forum members collectively contribute only 5 percent of total emissions.

The nation has been at the forefront in the climate negotiations as one of the leaders of the group of Least Developed Countries.

“There are many issues that need to be sorted out in the climate change negotiations,” Md Ziaul Haque, an official who represents Bangladesh at climate negotiations, told BenarNews.

“In terms of carbon emission, we are at the bottom, but we are one of the severely affected countries. Our main demand is to reduce carbon emission in line with the Paris Agreement and the developed and developing countries must do it,” he said.

“Unless they reduce emissions, we will continue to be affected by severe weather conditions such as temperature rise, sea level rise, frequent and severe floods, droughts, river erosion, storms and so forth.”

‘Incredible spirit’

Kerry spoke about the “incredible spirit and helping hand” that Bangladesh has given to the Rohingya refugees.

Efforts to provide food supplies to the Rohingya cost about U.S. $11 million per month, the World Food Program representative in Bangladesh said in March 2020.

The U.S. has been the leading donor to the humanitarian response to the crisis in Myanmar’s Rakhine state and Bangladesh, having provided nearly $1.2 billion since August 2017. In October 2020, the U.S. donated $200 million of the $600 million raised in a virtual fundraiser to support United Nations efforts to assist Rohingya in Bangladesh and Myanmar.

Meanwhile, since last December, Bangladesh has moved at least 18,000 Rohingya from refugee camps on the mainland to Bhashan Char, a Bay of Bengal island.

The government plans to relocate 100,000 Rohingya there as a measure for relieving crowding at the camps in Cox’s Bazar, although international human rights groups and humanitarian organizations have voiced concerns about the island’s vulnerability to cyclones. The government, which has built housing and infrastructure to accommodate the refugees, insists that Bhashan Char is safe and that refugees are moving there voluntarily.

Kerry also discussed U.S. efforts to push Myanmar back toward democracy.

On Feb. 1, the military overthrew the government that was elected in November 2020 and arrested civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, President U Win Myint and other political leaders. Since then, military and security forces have cracked down on protesters, killing at least 618 people, according to Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a Thai NGO.

“I know that we fought very hard to try to see Myanmar move in a different direction and we had high expectations and we talked frequently with and worked with Aung San Suu Kyi to try to move the process forward,” said Kerry, who served as U.S. secretary of state during the second Obama administration (2013-2017).

“I personally visited Naypyidaw and met with the generals and we tried very hard, to hold, to have an accountability that met the highest universal standards of human behavior ... they have not honored that.”

Kamran Reza Chowdhury in Dhaka contributed to this report.


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