Bangladeshi PM asks Hun Sen for help in dealing with Rohingya crisis

Prime Minister Hun Sen (left) walks with his Bangladeshi counterpart Sheikh Hasina past an honour guard upon her arrival at the Peace Palace yesterday in Phnom Penh.
Prime Minister Hun Sen (left) walks with his Bangladeshi counterpart Sheikh Hasina past an honour guard upon her arrival at the Peace Palace yesterday in Phnom Penh. Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP

Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina yesterday appealed to the Cambodian government to “support” her country in handling the refugee crisis that has seen hundreds of thousands of Rohingya pour over its border fleeing violence and persecution in neighbouring Myanmar.

Prime Minister Hun Sen told reporters he had discussed the crisis with his counterpart during bilateral talks. “We also discussed the issue of the refugees, which is a very hard burden on Bangladesh,” he said.

“We provide consideration altogether about the repatriation of the refugees and hope that Bangladesh and Myanmar will work together smoothly for the safer return of the refugees back to Myanmar,” he said.

Hasina, meanwhile, maintained that the displacement of the Rohingya posed a threat to peace and stability for the whole region.

“I request Prime Minister Hun Sen for his support of a durable solution of the crisis,” she said, adding that bilateral negotiations with Myanmar were ongoing.

“Bangladesh continues to shelter more than 1 million Rohingya, among them are almost 700,000 Rohinya [who] fled atrocities in Myanmar [and] took shelter in Bangladesh recently,” she said, adding that bilateral negotiations with Myanmar were ongoing.

The mass exodus began after Rohingya separatists attacked police posts and an army base at the end of August, prompting severe reprisals by security forces targeting civilians and razing entire villages. Observers have characterised Myanmar’s campaign against the Rohingya as ethnic cleansing.

Rohingya asylum seekers stand along a track running through the Thankhali refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar.
Rohingya asylum seekers stand along a track running through the Thankhali refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar. Ed Jones/AFP

In an opinion piece published yesterday, Hasina stressed that Bangladesh is unable to shelter the refugees much longer.

Chum Sounry, spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, declined to comment on Cambodia’s stance as he was waiting for an official statement.

In the past, Hun Sen has said the situation in Rakhine State was an internal matter that should not be internationalised, but in October he acknowledged that the exodus constituted a “humanitarian crisis of refugees”.

Nonetheless, Cambodia voted against a United Nations resolution last month calling on the Myanmar government to protect the rights of the Rohingya.

Miguel Chanco, lead Asean analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, said practical support from Cambodia was unlikely, though Hun Sen might voice support for an agreement signed last week between Bangladesh and Myanmar regarding potential repatriation of Rohingya back to Rakhine State.

“From my perspective there’s not much Cambodia can do to directly support Bangladesh with regards to the Rohingya refugee crisis – and there’s not much it should do, considering how [it has] botched the refugee deal it signed with Australia in 2014 and its poor handling of the Montagnard refugees from neighbouring Vietnam,” he said, referring to a controversial deal to accept refugees detained by Australia, and to the government’s repeated rejection of refugee claims by persecuted minorities fleeing Vietnam.

“What Hun Sen’s government is likely to do, though, is provide rhetorical backing for Myanmar’s agreement with Bangladesh.”

Southeast Asia expert Paul Chambers predicted that Cambodia could, and likely would, assist Bangladesh to the extent that it could.

“Cambodia can help Bangladesh in terms of offering public support for, and thus legitimizing, Bangladesh’s returning of the Rohingya refugees to Myanmar,” he said in an email.

The fact that China pushed for the agreement between Myanmar and Bangladesh would probably play a big part in how Cambodia, Chambers added, calling China “Hun Sen’s economic and political patron”.

Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said he couldn’t comment on whether Cambodia would provide support to Bangladesh, but reiterated the government’s principle of noninterference.

“We do not do any internal interference at all,” he said, adding that bilateral agreements between Myanmar and Bangladesh could help to “find a good solution for all”.

Additional reporting by Ben Sokhean