Articles - August 2018

Ambassador Masud Bin Momen of Bangladesh

Balancing National Interests with Humanitarian Concerns
James A. Winship, Ph.D.

With nearly 3,000 people per square mile Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated countries on earth. Located on the Bay of Bengal between India and Myanmar and at the confluence of three major rivers – the Padma (Ganges), the Meghna and the Jamuna – nearly 80% of Bangladesh is made up of the river deltas. The land is subject to frequent flooding from monsoon rains and rising sea levels.  The water table is so high that Bangladesh is officially designated as a waterlogged country, meaning that the alluvial land is at once fertile and agriculturally productive yet fragile and frequently inundated.

Though the majority of its population remains rural, Bangladesh is experiencing rapid urbanization and working to build a modernizing industrial economy alongside its more traditional agriculture and fishery sectors.  Rice is the main crop and the hot, wet climate allows for three plantings a year.  Shrimp is the major fisheries export.  At the same time, Bangladesh has become a major global producer of ready-made garments (RMGs) and has a heavy industrial sector focused on shipbreaking (now referred to as ship recycling), ship repair and ship building.

The partition of British India in 1947 resulted in the creation of two states -  India, a secular but predominantly Hindu state, and Pakistan, a predominantly Muslim state but with constitutional protections for religious minorities.  The Pakistan born of partition was a country divided between West and East Pakistan, two parts of the same nation-state, literally separated by the geographic presence of India.  Though technically one state that shared Muslim cultural identity, the two parts of Pakistan were quite different from each other.  West Pakistan was dominated by the Punjabis (43%) and Pashtuns (17%) and included several other smaller groups.  East Pakistan was also Muslim but was dominated by Bengalis.

Bangladesh, which had been born as East Pakistan, did not become a sovereign state in its own right until 1971.  More than half (55%) of Pakistan’s population lived in East Pakistan, and East Pakistan was ethnically much more homogenous – 98% Bengali – with strong linguistic affinity and an even stronger cultural tradition. Yet, at independence, West Pakistan dominated East Pakistan allotting the Bengalis a disproportionately small number of seats in the national parliament.  Moreover, only limited numbers of East Pakistanis were represented in the government bureaucracy (15%) and in Pakistan’s military (10%).

This unbalanced situation produced resentments that eventuated in civil disobedience, an armed uprising and the imposition of martial law by West Pakistan on the East as well as the banning of Bengali literature, including the works of the Nobel Prize laureate Rabindranath Tagore.  Tensions built as natural disasters pummeled the East taking hundreds of thousands of lives.  The central government in West Pakistan was perceived as slow to respond, and calls for the independence of East Pakistan reached a fever pitch.  Though the pro-independence movement won nearly all the parliamentary seats allotted to East Pakistan, the Prime Minister-elect Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was placed under arrest and flown to West Pakistan, but not before he had declared the independence of Bangladesh.

What Bangladesh calls its War of National Liberation began with the intervention of large numbers of troops from West Pakistan who sought to put down the independence movement by eliminating hundreds of thousands of students, teachers, intellectuals, artists and opponents of the Pakistani regime.  Thousands of refugees fled across the border to India as Bangladesh forces denied the Pakistanis control of territory.  Unable to control the countryside and pushed back into the cities, Pakistan chose to attack India on the Western Front, drawing that country into the war.  The combination of the Bangladesh forces and Indian air power led to the surrender of the Pakistani forces, the return of Sheikh Mujibur to Dhaka, and the global recognition of a new, self-governing state – Bangladesh.

Admitted to the United Nations in 1974, Bangladesh is today the world’s eighth largest country in population and the fourth largest in Muslim population, following Indonesia, Pakistan and India. Despite its immense population pressures, Bangladesh has managed to nurture substantial economic growth, averaging 6% over the past decade and at times exceeding 7% growth in GDP.  Still, roughly one-third of the population lives in extreme poverty.  Both foreign aid and remittances play a substantial part in the economy, but Bangladesh has significantly updated its industrial base as well as its agricultural technology. It continues to be a developing country, but it is ranked as a middle power and has been listed among the “Next 11” likely prospects for substantial growth behind the so-called BRICs – Brazil, Russia, India and China.
Though Bangladesh faces daunting development challenges in its own right, in recent months the government has chosen to accept, or had thrust upon it, a new challenge originating from outside its borders in neighboring Myanmar.  “Since August 2017,” says the World Health Organization, “an estimated 693,000 Rohingya have crossed over from Myanmar into Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, joining approximately 212,500 others who had fled in earlier waves of displacement.”  Though the influx of refugees has slowed in 2018, nearly one million Rohingya - a predominantly Muslim people living in Buddhist dominated Myanmar – have been forced to flee their home country under pressure from the Myanmar military.
The refugees live in encampments that have become make-shift villages. The Rohingya live under the indulgence of the government of Bangladesh, which recognizes a humanitarian obligation to care for co-religionists and remembers the sufferings that brought about its independence.  The refugees survive with the assistance of United Nations humanitarian programs and the services offered by an array of private relief agencies that help to provide the necessities of life. In these conditions diseases like cholera, diphtheria and measles that are normally well controlled by public health professionals reappear and spread.  Bangladesh’s monsoon season now disrupts any appearance of normalcy in the refugee camps compounding routine difficulties with flooding and mud slides that destroy facilities and displace already displaced people.

With United Nations assistance, agreements in principle have been reached to repatriate the Rohingya to their homeland in Myanmar, but progress has been complicated by what Myanmar calls terrorist attacks by Muslim groups and what the United Nations terms unsafe conditions for return of the Rohingya.  In the midst of that impasse, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has recently begun formal registration procedures to identify and document the Rohingya living in the Bangladesh camps.  These credentials carry the logo of the UNHCR and the government of Bangladesh and state that: "This person should be protected from forcible return to a country where he/she would face threats to his/her life or freedom."

Bangladesh continues to face a humanitarian crisis not of its own making.  It has responded to the plight of the Rohingya refugees forced out of Myanmar with its limited national resources, in the process endangering its own path to sustainable development.  Repeated calls to the international community for assistance have helped to meet the immediate needs of the refugees.  Despite substantial efforts by humanitarian organizations to alleviate suffering, observes President Peter Maurer of the International Committee of the Red Cross, “Too many people are still suffering too much, despite all the talking and all the efforts.”
Today Bangladesh confronts an inescapable dilemma.  The short-term goal was to shelter the Rohingya people in their exile. Now, the medium-term target must be to improve the immediate quality of their life by providing the essentials of community – education, sanitation, health care. Somewhat in contradiction to these immediate needs, however, the long-term goal must be to repatriate the Rohingya to their home area, Rakhine state, in Myanmar in “a safe, voluntary and dignified manner.” How to accomplish these simultaneous and competing ends?

Summer 2018 brought a stream of United Nations and international officials to Bangladesh including UN Secretary General António Guterres, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi, Executive Director of the UN Population Fund Dr. Natalia Kanem, and UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar Yanghee Lee. In the midst of a summer of many discontents around the world, their goal was to focus attention on the continuing plight of the Rohingya and to prepare an action agenda for the opening of the UN General Assembly in September. 

These leaders met in Dhaka with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and other government officials to express the appreciation of the international community for the efforts Bangladesh had undertaken and to learn the government’s plans for the future of the refugees. They went to see first-hand the situation in the Rohingya settlements and review options under consideration in Bangladesh.  They deliberated and examined how best to effectively engage the government of Myanmar in the work of repatriation by securing the resettlement environment, building suitable housing and offering productive economic opportunities.
Diplomatic Connections was pleased to have the opportunity to speak at length with Bangladesh’s Ambassador and Permanent Representative at the United Nations in New York, H.E. Masud Bin Momen.  A career diplomat, prior to his posting in New York, Masud Bin Momen served as Bangladesh’s Ambassador to Japan and previous to that as Ambassador to Italy where he was also Permanent Representative to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Food Program (WFP) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development. He has long experience in multilateral and multisector diplomacy designed to bridge his country’s relations across South and Southeast Asia.

Diplomatic Connections: For Bangladesh, what is the importance of being here in New York at the United Nations?  What is the importance of the United Nations as a multilateral institution?

Ambassador Masud Bin Momen: For any country the United Nations is the ultimate forum for international interaction on a government-to-government level. Not only is the United Nations the key forum for multilateral diplomacy, it also offers a vital locale for bilateral and regional diplomacy to take place. 
When Bangladesh gained its independence, we also began the process of gaining recognition as a separate sovereign state with its own seat at the United Nations.  We became a United Nations member in 1974.Since that time we have been active participants deeply engaged in the work of the United Nations at all levels.
The father of our nation, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman – father of our current Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina - made his landmark statement at the United Nations General Assembly in September 1974.  There he laid out the fundamentals of our country’s foreign policy: friendship to all and malice to none.  That simple principle has continued to shape our foreign policy and our work in New York and at the United Nations in Geneva to this day.

Diplomatic Connections: Does it make a difference that all 193 members of the United Nations are here in New York whereas there are some states that are not represented bilaterally in various countries around the world?  Every state is here in New York, even – from an American point of view – the North Koreans, even the Iranians, even the Cubans.  [NOTE: Three states that are not members – The Holy See, Kosovo and Palestine – have been accorded Non-Member Permanent Observer Status.]

Ambassador Masud Bin Momen: The United Nations Charter is very explicit that membership is open to all “peace-loving states.”  This is essential because it means that each member state can hear the voice, the aspirations, and the world views of other states on a wide variety of issues.  In many ways, the United Nations is a vital locale for listening even more than speaking.  Here, Bangladesh has the opportunity to discuss various issues and whenever possible to form smaller groupings or coalitions of like-minded countries that share our views in order to enhance our influence on global decision-making.  Often smaller countries do not have enough leverage to make their voice heard, but the United Nations can amplify their voices and highlight their concerns.

Diplomatic Connections: How is Bangladesh coping with the large influx of Rohingya refugees?  In a country that already has a very large population, hundreds of thousands of people flooding across your border as refugees in the span of a few months presents a serious dilemma.  The refugees are in camps inside Bangladesh but not far from the border with Myanmar.  How is the United Nations helping?  How is your country coping?

Ambassador Masud Bin Momen: Although we are not parties to the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention, Bangladesh felt strongly that out of humanitarian consideration we had to allow these people into our country.  When we saw desperate people, including large numbers of women and children, trying to flee violence in Myanmar by crossing the river that separates our two countries, Bangladesh felt obligated to allow them to enter even though it put an enormous strain on our resources.

Diplomatic Connections: To what extent is the conflict in Myanmar based on religious identity given that the Rohingya are predominantly Muslim in a majority Buddhist country, and to what extent is it a more complex ethnic conflict between the Rohingya group and other ethnic groups in Myanmar?

Ambassador Masud Bin Momen: There are more than 135 registered ethnic groups in Myanmar and historically the Rohingya have been included among them.  From 1948 onwards, Burma has had very exclusionary citizenship policies and since 1982 the Rohingya have been denied full citizenship rights.  Though they were permitted “temporary status” for several years and even granted special identity cards, in recent years the government of Myanmar has become even more restrictive and anti-Muslim sentiment has grown.
Though the Rohingya had been living in Rakhine state since the 15th century and many others arrived in the 19th and 20th century during the era of colonialism in British India, the government of Myanmar essentially views the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. By denying the Rohingya citizenship, Myanmar has rendered the Rohingya virtually stateless.  Religious identity is certainly shorthand for the difficulties the Rohingya have faced, but the reality is much more complex and involves history, culture, and economics.

Diplomatic Connections: What would improve the situation of the Rohingya at this point?

Ambassador Masud Bin Momen: The refugees in the camps pose significant challenges.  For instance, in Bangladesh we have virtually eliminated diphtheria, but now we are encountering significant numbers of diphtheria cases among the refugees in the camps.  We are also seeing cholera and other public health challenges.  Bangladesh has been able to manage these threats among its own population, but the rapid expansion of the camps has presented enormous difficulties.  Bluntly, the camps though a necessity in humanitarian terms are a recipe for disaster because the crowded conditions and limited facilities provide an ideal environment for the spread of disease.
The international community has been very forthcoming with assistance but the need is so great and the plight of the refugees so prolonged that it is difficult to sustain the amount of assistance needed.  There are other displaced communities and refugees in need of assistance around the world.  Not only does a degree of donor fatigue set-in but resources are simply stretched too thin.  And, it is difficult to keep attention focused on the plight of the Rohingya.  It is in the nature of the international community and the media to move from one crisis to another.

Diplomatic Connections: Looking ahead, projecting, what should be the solution to the Rohingya question? Can the Rohingya be repatriated? Can they be integrated in some way into the civil, economic and political order of Bangladesh?

Ambassador Masud Bin Momen: Bangladesh has signed a bilateral statement with Myanmar that is designed to move towards repatriation of the Rohingya.  Of course, this would be a voluntary repatriation to be conducted with dignity, with guarantees of safety and in a sustainable manner.  We are currently working to finalize the terms of reference for this transition and working to establish a Joint Working Group that will oversee the repatriation process; it was our hope that this course of action could actually start this year (2018), but progress has been halting.

Diplomatic Connections: You would only send the Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar under conditions where Bangladesh felt their security was reasonably assured?

Ambassador Masud Bin Momen: If the persons concerned feel that they are not safe enough or they are not treated fairly, then they themselves might refuse to return to their homes in Myanmar.  The most critical element is that many of these people have been subjected to various forms of torture and intimidation before leaving their land.  They are still traumatized and, as a result, it is very difficult to convince them to go back unless the situation on the ground improves. The Myanmar authorities will have to design and put in place a series of confidence building measures in order to facilitate the repatriation process.

Diplomatic Connections: Bangladesh is pursuing parallel tracks in an attempt to deal with the Rohingya refugees.  You are dealing directly with Myanmar and, at the same time, pursuing multilateral diplomacy through the United Nations.  How do these two diplomatic tracks reinforce each other?

Ambassador Masud Bin Momen: You have made a very important observation.  We have to solve this problem bilaterally at the end of the day.  It is between Myanmar and Bangladesh because these people have come to Bangladesh, and now we are making arrangements so that they can go back to Myanmar. 
But, given the history of these events and our experience with the refugee flow, we have seen that if it is left solely between the two countries, then it might take years or decades to complete this process.  The international community’s constant engagement is required.  We feel that the social outcry about the situation of the Rohingya, the attention of the media, and the concerns expressed by various human rights organizations as well as civil society must continue not only in order to amplify the voices of the Rohingya but also to encourage the government of Myanmar to correct the situation and allow the Rohingya to return to their home with full citizenship rights.
The momentum that has been created is helping to move the bilateral negotiating process forward by highlighting the human tragedy of the Rohingya migration into Bangladesh from Myanmar.  We are asking the international community to take “custody” of the humanitarian and political situation of the refugees in order to facilitate their return home and the restoration of their basic human rights.

Diplomatic Connections: The United Nations involvement assures that the attention of the world does not turn away from this humanitarian crisis?

Ambassador Masud Bin Momen: Exactly.  Otherwise the situation can relapse into a downward spiral where the Rohingya become “stateless” and trapped in a kind of diplomatic limbo with no one taking responsibility for them.

Diplomatic Connections: Do you expect action from the Security Council beyond continuing to be “seized” of this issue?

Ambassador Masud Bin Momen: The critical thing is for bilateral diplomacy to operate in an atmosphere where all parties are conscious that the international community is watching and encouraging a positive outcome that will protect the Rohingya and preserve their human, cultural, political, social and economic rights.
The Security Council can take some actions.  There must be a demand for the immediate cessation of violence and all kinds of hostilities.  We need continuing international action to ensure that violence against the Rohingya homeland does not continue, even if allegedly in the name of preparing for their return to Rakhine state.  In the meantime, we need to do all that we can to protect the Rohingya in the camps and provide adequate conditions for them.  This is especially critical now that the monsoon season has set in.

Diplomatic Connections: Given your long and varied experience, how would you describe the differences between bilateral diplomacy and multilateral diplomacy?

Ambassador Masud Bin Momen: Both bilateral and multilateral diplomacy are important.  In bilateral diplomacy you can see the result of your efforts.  Directly.  That can provide great satisfaction.  In United Nations and other multilateral work the issues are multi-faceted, and it is often more difficult to see the immediate impact of your work.  Yes, resolutions can be passed but their language is often diluted by competing demands.  At the end of the day, it is often not clear that your country has directly benefited from those resolutions. 
In bilateral diplomacy the situation can be quite different. For instance, there might be 100,000+ Bangladeshi workers laboring in Italy in various capacities.  If you can help them to establish themselves and live more easily in a foreign country, you have really had an impact on those workers lives and livelihoods.  That is a satisfaction. 
While I was in Italy, I always tried to promote integration of Bangladeshi citizens into the Italian mainstream.  I tried to promote football (soccer) and other games that can easily be shared across cultures.  We also tried to promote various cultural activities.  Because Bangladesh has a rich cultural heritage it is often possible to dissuade our workers from taking religion to an extreme in defense of their cultural identity.  The goal is to guide the Bangladeshi diaspora in certain directions.  This is something in which I took great pride.  That was true not only in Italy but in Japan as well.

Diplomatic Connections: Does that mean that being in multilateral diplomacy here in New York is more frustrating because the results are less immediate?

Ambassador Masud Bin Momen: Here at the United Nations, the responsibilities can be more challenging.  Certainly you invest time and effort in talking to your colleagues from other countries, but they are also tied by the guidance their foreign ministries have given them. Realpolitik requires them to look first at their own country’s interests in political, economic and geostrategic terms.  National interests can often override even more real humanitarian concerns. That can be frustrating, but it is the nature of a diplomat’s work.

Diplomatic Connections: You have had such a long and varied career.  Based on your experience, what would you want to offer as lessons to a new generation of Bangladeshi diplomats?

Ambassador Masud Bin Momen: Diplomats are given a trust, the responsibility to represent their home country and to do something to advance its interests.  Never undervalue any diplomatic position; no matter what the assignment or the country.  Every station, every desk job at the Foreign Ministry is a stepping stone to the next position and presents an opportunity to learn.  Contribute toward creating a better image of your country.  Help to build and strengthen economic ties.

Diplomatic Connections: You used the word “trust.”  In fact, whether it is the Bangladeshi Foreign Service or the diplomatic personnel of any other country, diplomats are entrusted not only with protecting their country’s national interests but also entrusted with understanding and accurately reporting back to their Foreign Ministry the interests of the country to which that diplomat has been posted.

Ambassador Masud Bin Momen: I believe in honest diplomacy.  I believe in mutual trust and respect.  With technology and the internet nobody can hide or bluff their way out of a dilemma.  There is no question in my mind that: “Honesty is the best policy.”  A single deception, a single misrepresentation can undermine not only a diplomat’s but a country’s credibility in an instant, or these days a click of the mouse.  If you are honest then automatically you gain trust, with your friends and even with your adversaries.
That will eventually create a situation where everybody benefits.

Diplomatic Connections: Thank you, Ambassador Masud.  We have had a lengthy and fascinating discussion that has touched not only on Bangladesh’s place in the world but has dealt extensively with one of the most pressing humanitarian conundrums confronting our world, the Rohingya refugees who have safe haven in your country.  Their plight poses unusually challenging questions of cultural identity, nationality, sovereignty and fundamental human rights.
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