DHAKA Bangladesh is working with Myanmar security forces to stop Rohingya Muslim militants crossing their shared border, but will continue to allow women, children and the elderly to seek shelter there, a top government official said.
Around 69,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh to escape violence in Buddhist majority Myanmar since October, straining relations between the two neighbours who both see the stateless Muslim minority as the other nation's problem.
Despite those tensions, H.T. Imam, political adviser to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, said Bangladesh had handed over two Rohingya militants caught sneaking into its territory in October, and was continuing to cooperate with Myanmar to prevent more from doing so.
"Those who are absolutely helpless – women with children and the elderly – we will give them temporary shelter," Imam said in an interview on Wednesday. "We are doing this at a heavy cost. It's a crisis that has been forced on us. They are citizens of Myanmar and must be taken back."
About 1.1 million Rohingya Muslims live in Myanmar's Rakhine state, where they face restrictions on their movements and are denied citizenship. Many Myanmar Buddhists regard them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Myanmar's military launched what it describes as a counterinsurgency operation in northwestern Rakhine in October. A United Nations report last week said soldiers have committed mass killings, gang rapes and arson.
Bangladesh is already host to hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees, and says the latest influx has strained its limited resources.
Officials, including Imam and Foreign Minister A.H. Mahmood Ali, met diplomats from countries including the United States, Saudi Arabia and Myanmar in Dhaka on Sunday to address the crisis.
Bangladesh is seeking funds for its much-criticised plan to relocate new and old refugees from Myanmar to an isolated and undeveloped island in the Bay of Bengal called Thengar Char - which floods at high tide. They are currently sheltered in the coastal district of Cox's Bazar.
"The foreign minister requested for international help and also for taking the Rohingya population," Imam said. "Bangladesh has a serious political, economic and financial problem because of the influx."
Underscoring Bangladesh's commitment to press ahead with the island plan, the prime minister's military secretary, Major General Mia Mohammad Zainul Abedin, visited Thengar Char on Wednesday.
The general asked the local administration to set up a helipad, jetty, deep tube well for drinking water and other infrastructure to make the island liveable, a local official said.
The crisis erupt after nine Myanmar police officers were killed in coordinated attacks on border posts on Oct. 9.
Refugees started to trickle across the border soon after that, but many were initially turned back by Bangladeshi border guards. Imam said they were later allowed to come in after Prime Minister Hasina intervened on humanitarian grounds and at the request of the international community.
Over the past five months Hasina has twice spoken with Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who leads Myanmar's government, to work out ways to send back the refugees that Bangladesh calls "undocumented Myanmar nationals".
"The PM also sent a special envoy to Yangon," Imam said. "We are trying to engage them as much as possible. We suggested joint border patrols, joint border watch. Our border guards keep regular contact so that there is no cross-border militancy."
Myanmar, however, has not responded to the proposal for joint patrolling of the border, Imam said. Myanmar's Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to a request for comment.
(Reporting by Krishna N. Das and Serajul Quadir in DHAKA; Additional reporting by Simon Lewis in YANGON; Editing by Alex Richardson)