Europe’s values collapse when it comes to EU’s relations with Myanmar, says Prof Imtiaz
Head of Delegation of the European Union to Bangladesh Ambassador Rensje Teerink has said the Rohingya issue will not disappear from the agenda until a lasting solution is found even though the world is now facing challenges like the Covid-19 pandemic and a situation in Afghanistan.
“I don’t have the magic recipe nor do I have the crystal ball to see how this situation will evolve. But I can make sure that it (Rohingya issue) will not disappear from the agenda,” said the outgoing EU Ambassador, noting that the issue is something really close to her heart personally having seen and visited the Rohingya camps many times.
Recognizing a lot of focus on Afghanistan, Ambassador Teerink said that does not mean that the Rohingya issue should disappear. “I will keep on following this.”
The EU envoy made the remarks while responding to a question at a virtual dialogue titled “Bangladesh-European Union Relations: Prognosis for the Future” premiered on Thursday where she delivered the keynote speech.
Cosmos Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the Cosmos Group, hosted the dialogue as part of its ongoing Ambassador’s Lecture Series.
The opening remarks were delivered by Cosmos Foundation Chairman Enayetullah Khan. The session was chaired by Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury, renowned scholar-diplomat and former Advisor on Foreign Affairs of Bangladesh Caretaker Government.
Distinguished Fellow at Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) Dr Debapriya Bhattacharya, former BGMEA President and Mohammadi Group Chairperson Dr Rubana Huq, founder Chairman of Policy Research Institute (CRI) Dr Zaidi Sattar and Professor at International Relations Department of Dhaka University Imtiaz Ahmed and Honorary Advisor Emeritus, Cosmos Foundation Ambassador (Retd) Tariq A Karim comprised the panel of discussants.
Enayetullah Khan raised the issues like growing US-China conflict, Covid-19 pandemic, climate change and crisis in Afghanistan; and said it seems that the Rohingya refugee issue is almost fading away from people’s minds.
Terming the Rohingya issue a very “complex and complicated” one, he said without cooperation from the three important countries – India, China and Japan – he does not think the Rohingya issue can be resolved.
Khan wanted to know from the EU Ambassador what the EU can do to help Bangladesh resolve this problem created by Myanmar.
In reply, Ambassador Teerink said first of all a political solution of course needs to be found in Myanmar itself, but it is very tragic to see that a coup happened in Myanmar on February 1 making it difficult to reach out to Myanmar. “It is really an enormous setback. That is the reality we need to face.”
Looking at the reality of the dynamics at the UN Security Council, the Ambassador said they have unfortunately seen the situation there and it has not been very positive.
She recognized that Bangladesh is reaching out to India, China and Japan to continue discussions with those countries as their partners. “It is always on the agenda.”
The EU has also been providing significant funding for lifesaving assistance to Rohingya refugees and host communities in Bangladesh's Cox’s Bazar district through international NGOs and the UN.
The 25 August 2021 marked the fourth anniversary of the mass fleeing of over 740,000 Rohingya from Myanmar, following major outbreaks of violence in Rakhine State, Myanmar. Over 1.1 million Rohingya refugees currently live in Cox's Bazar district and Bhashan Char; and over 150,000 in other countries of the region.
‘Bangladesh wants the EU to play a proactive role’
Decoupling the Rohingya issue from economic interests, Prof Imtiaz said there are two things -- pandemic and Rohingya -- that are now major concerns for Bangladesh, and these two central things are involved with the political economy of Bangladesh.
The international relations expert said Bangladesh wants the EU to play a proactive role in the issues of Rohingya and vaccine diplomacy.
Talking about the Rohingya issue, Prof Imtiaz said the values of Europe -- the rule of law, governance and human rights -- collapse when it comes to the EU’s relations with Myanmar.
He said he cannot understand why the EU buys Myanmar’s bizarre democracy with incumbent military officers in parliament. “The EU also helped Myanmar’s election. It’s not a democracy when the incumbent military officers sit in parliament. The EU should have been straightforward and should have questioned that.”
Prof Imtiaz said Bangladesh wants the EU to play a proactive role over the issues of Rohingya and vaccine diplomacy.
He said the EU wants to see the rule of law, human rights and even the rule-based garment industry in Bangladesh.
But when it comes to Myanmar, he said, even after the killing of over 900 people the EU is still almost in the same kind of relationship with Myanmar. “You have only sanctions on some military officers who never go to the EU countries and they don’t have any bank account there. You have even very recently helped Myanmar in the debt service payment.”
Prof Imtiaz said the EU continues business with Myanmar and it remains the third biggest trade partner of Myanmar after China and Thailand. “So, I see the business interest and politics here…I can understand that the EU is not going to really pressurize Myanmar regarding the Rohingya issue due to its business interest.”
He urged the outgoing EU Ambassador to put in her efforts in decoupling the Rohingya issue from the economic interests once she returns to Brussels.
Prof Imtiaz also said the EU will not go for imposing sanctions on Myanmar though it has sanctions on several countries in the world, including Iran and North Korea, only because of its business interests.
He said the EU also may impose sanctions on Afghanistan following the US until things develop further, but it will not do it in Myanmar. “Over 900 people were killed, but you still didn’t move in that direction. So, what would be the decoupling? One can be supporting The Gambia in the legal battle in the UN court seeking to prevent Rohingya genocide.”
Except for the Netherlands, he said, no one of the EU countries has joined The Gambia openly. The EU has welcomed the provisional verdict, but that does not help.
If the EU joins Netherlands or Canada openly over the issue, Prof Imtiaz said, it would pressurize Myanmar and then Myanmar will understand what it means.
He said this is something more important not only because “you are helping The Gambia on this issue as the whole issue of genocide is critical because this is one country that has committed the genocide.”
After the Second World War, Prof Imtiaz said, Europe as a whole was very particular on the issue of genocide, but here when it comes to Myanmar “you are dillydallying.”
“You are even critical of China when it comes to genocide against Uyghurs, but somehow in Myanmar it is not there. So, if people or academicians and scholars want to take Europe seriously, Myanmar I think is a test case. I think it is getting eroded day by day and people at one point will not take Europe seriously and its interests will get hurt. That’s my point that you don’t do it for the Rohingya, but do it for yourself,” the expert observed.
He said the second way for decoupling is to help the Rohingya Diaspora to form a civil entity as there are a good number of Rohingya organizations in Europe, including in Germany, the UK and France. “The Rohingya Diaspora in Europe is quite active and very intelligent and well placed.”
Prof Imtiaz said the moment a country commits genocide it does not remain a bilateral issue as it becomes an internal issue by its definition.
So, he thinks, it is time for the EU to get together and should actually convene an international conference with the participation of Rohingyas.
From that conference, Imtiaz said, a civil entity can be formed who will then go from country to country wherever the EU has influence, whether it is India and Japan.
He said the important part in Myanmar’s geopolitics is that they have three countries –- India, China and Japan -- literally in their pocket.
“But if you can decouple India and Japan, Myanmar will immediately feel the pressure. So, there are many ways of doing this decoupling and then making yourself regain the kind of good things Debapriya pointed out at the beginning which came from the post-Second World War European politics, but unless you go by doing that whatever you are saying in terms of good governance and human rights people will just smile at you and people will say you are not serious about it.”
He said Ambassador Teerink can actively advocate for resolving the issue when she will go back to Brussels as she knows so much of the Rohingya issue since she has seen the sufferings of Rohingyas and the genocidal condition and Myanmar’s intention to destroy the Rohingyas. “You have seen these things in your own eyes.”
Former Ambassador Tariq Karim said Bangladesh’s position where it is having two huge problems -- one is Myanmar and the other is now Afghanistan -- ready to explode.
“These two problems alone could destabilize the entire region and it will have repercussions in South East Asia and it will have an impact on the security of the region and it will have a lot of repercussions globally. What will happen after the explosion is that it will go out in all directions,” he said urging the EU to reassess its role not just globally, but also in South Asia and Southeast Asia.
Ambassador Teerink concluded the discussion assuring Bangladesh of the EU’s active role in keeping the Rohingya issue on the agenda with other partners apart from continuing support to Bangladesh which is hosting over 1.1 million Rohingyas.