Wednesday, March 22, 2017

UN Refugee Agency urges fair deal for Rohingyas in Bangladesh


SALEEM SAMAD

United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) seeks equal treatment for all Rohingyas in Bangladesh and help to provide basic aids to new arrivals.

Apparently the appeal was made amidst confusion created after fresh influx of refugees who fled violence in Myanmar are dubbed 'undocumented' and miss out on vital aid, while those arrived in Bangladesh are considered 'refugees'.

The new influx has highlighted the urgent need to verify the number and location of the new arrivals. Without this information, vulnerable refugees risk falling through the cracks while others could be receiving duplication of assistance, says a top UNHCR officials in Bangladesh.

The influx of refugees in the early 1990s, lives in two government-run camps serviced by UNHCR, and its partners the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the World Food Program (WFP) in Ukhia, Cox's Bazar, bordering troubled Rakhine State.

The 33,000 registered refugees in Kutupalong and Nayapara camps in Ukhia have access to basic services including food assistance, healthcare and education for children, but the registered refugees do not have any legal status in Bangladesh.

More than 70,000 Rohingya are believed to flee during a security operation between October 2016 and February 2017. The security operation by Myanmar Army has recently been postponed after international outcry, including the United Nations, European Union, Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

The Bangladesh government has announced it will conduct a census of undocumented Rohingya living outside the two camps to include the new arrivals.

"We are advocating for a joint verification of the new arrivals with our partners as soon as possible," said Shinji Kubo, UNHCR's Representative in Bangladesh. "This exercise will help the government and humanitarian agencies to better target assistance to those who need it the most, be they new arrivals, refugees who came earlier or locals who host them."

A third category consists of an estimated 200,000 to 500,000 'undocumented' Rohingya who arrived in Bangladesh between the two influxes. They live in makeshift sites and local villages, and until recently had no access to humanitarian aid.

"The current situation is not sustainable," said  Shinji Kubo. "Regardless of when they came and where they live, these people have the same needs and deserve equal access to protection and assistance," he told UNHCR press.

Several thousand new arrivals are presently accommodated in the two official camps, pressuring on the capacity of existing refugees and the infrastructure. Many more new arrivals are living in existing makeshift sites or new ones that have sprouted spontaneously.

"In the long run, we hope that all Rohingyas in Bangladesh can be documented to ensure full respect for their rights," said UNHCR's Kubo. "Knowing the profile of this population will also help us to identify longer-term solutions for them."

Article first published in The Asian Age, March 22, 2017

Saleem Samad, is an Ashoka Fellow (USA), an award winning investigative journalist and is Special Correspondent for The Asian Age

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Defense pact between Bangladesh & India in front row, while Teesta water-sharing takes backstage

SALEEM SAMAD

India eyes a comprehensive defence pact with Bangladesh, while Teesta water-sharing is off the radar during the official visit of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to India's capital New Delhi in early April.

Bangladesh is nervous on the outcome of the India visit, which is expected to further take the bilateral relations to new heights, said a top official of the Ministry of Foreign Ministry on Monday. She is also slated to visit Ajmer to pay homage to Sufi Saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti.

Political hype on the crucial issue of twice postponed the Teesta water-sharing treaty has caused much embarrassment to the government and ruling political allies. For Hasina, inking another sensitive military pact will not be easy to keep afloat in rough weathers, observes former Bangladesh envoy to Delhi Ambassador Liaquat Ali Chowdhury.

The anti-Indian political lobby, both ruling Awami League's arch rivals Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Jamaat-e-Islami, is likely to make noise to the government's getting closer to India, "but Hasina is not afraid of the wolves", said Chowdhury.

Since Hasina returned to power in 2009, she walked extra miles in addressing India's concerns over north-east India's insurgency and connectivity. Nevertheless, India understands that a military pact with Bangladesh  would be beneficial for the two neighbors.

If the pact comes through, India will offer highest ever credit line for defence cooperation with other friendly counties. Delhi is also willing to commit up to 500 million USD in line of credit for military cooperation with Dhaka, writes Jayanth Jacob in Hindustan Times.

Earlier, India had not given line of credit for defence hardware purchases, a source told The Asian Age. On the other hand, the crucial parleys on the outlines of the defence pact is going on, which comprises training, sale of military hardware and military to military cooperation.

Hindustan Times confirms that the "discussions for a defence pact is progressing and yet to reach a final shape". Unfortunately, Delhi is unable to keep pace with Hasina in reciprocating her political desires from her largest neighbor.

The much-awaited Teesta water-sharing deal and two neighbors to share 54 rivers remains a far-cry. Negotiations on Teesta were on for the past 18 years, Chowdhury noted. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi opined for water sharing of all 54 rivers during his maiden visit to Bangladesh two years ago.

The good offices of an elderly politician and President of India Pranab Mukerjee in Delhi are trying to break the ice to resolve the Teesta water sharing issue at a parley between Sheikh Hasina and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has been planned.

Bangladesh is confident that she will not return home with empty hands, said a Foreign Office official. The draft agreement prepared by Delhi in 2011 was not signed due to opposition from Mamata, the two sides agreed to share the river's water 50:50, the same as the 1996 Ganges (Padma) water-sharing pact.

First published in The Asian Age, March 21, 2017

Saleem Samad, is an Ashoka Fellow (USA), an award-winning investigative journalist based in Bangladesh. He is Special Correspondent, The Asian Age
Twitter @saleemsamad

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Bangladesh hide and seek on presence of Islamic State militants


SALEEM SAMAD

Bangladesh is embarrassed. So are the top officials of Interpol, security experts, academicians, police chiefs from the region attending the three-day long conference organized by Bangladesh Police and the Interpol in the capital.

Bangladesh Police top brass AKM Shahidul Hoque has denied the presence of Jihadist of Islamic State (IS or ISIS) in the country. "There is no presence of the Islamist terrorist outfit here," the inspector general of police maintained at impromptu press briefing on Monday morning.

"These are baseless propaganda. What we call militants are actually 'homegrown' who might have been embodied with IS philosophy and ideology. But they don't have any link with the IS," said Hoque. His reaction came in the wake of Prof Rohan Gunaratna, an international security expert, who affirmed on the presence of IS jihadist in Bangladesh and that the outfit carried out the Gulshan café attack on July 1.

What further embarrassed the government was the joint forces operation to disengage and neutralize the militants, release the hostages and regain control of the café, when his paper,  "Deradicalization of Militant: An Approach for Disengagement and Reintegration into Society,"

Government was enraged not only with his observation on presence of IS in Bangladesh, the military brass took the scholar's comments on delayed commando operation to regain the seized café, as an exception and interference into internal affairs.

Gunaratna said police should have immediately responded to the café attack and should not have lingered on for the commandos to join the operation. The conference seeks to build regional cooperation in curbing violent extremism and transnational crime.

In a typical IS  strategy, Gunaratna explained that the IS second phase was propaganda and the third phase was showdown. "The group that mounted the Holey Artisan attack is not the JMB. In fact, it is the IS," opined the expert.

But unfortunately, the Bangladeshi political leadership did not accept that the group that is operating is the IS, Gunaratna remarked.

Administration top officials, including Home Affairs Minister Asaduzzaman Khan and the inspector general of police have repeatedly said that there is no presence of ISIS in Bangladesh. Prime Minster Sheikh Hasina described any such claims as local and foreign conspiracies.

There could be various reasons why the government is determined to justify non-existence of jihadist or Islamic militants who are linked to Al Qaeda or Islamic State. Head of Singapore based International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research Rohan Gunaratna, has claimed that terrorist network Islamic State has physical presence in Bangladesh.

Police chief Shahidul Hoque described Gunaratna as an academician, a professor of a university. In a virulent attack, Hoque observed that "he does not deal with any security issue. He has done his academic research on his own. But he does not have experience of the real issue of Bangladesh."

"What Mr Rohan said is his own statement. We don't endorse his statement," the IGP concluded. Born in Sri Lanka, Gunaratna interviewed terrorists and insurgents in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Saudi Arabia and other conflict zones, according to his brief biography presented at the conference.

The United States 9/11 Commission formed after the attack of Twin-Tower in New York invited Gunaratna to testify on the structure of al-Qaeda.

Gunaratna, who teaches security studies at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, is also a trainer for national security agencies, law enforcement authorities and military counter-terrorism units, said his bio distributed at the conference.

This article first appeared in The Asian Age, March 14, 2017

Saleem Samad, is an Ashoka Fellow (USA), an award winning investigative journalist and writes on current affairs