Chinese Ambassador to Bangladesh Zhang Zuo on Tuesday made his first visit to the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar after one year and four months in the country. He discussed the possibilities for refugee repatriation to Myanmar, Bangladeshi officials and Rohingya leaders said.
Bangladeshi officials described his first visit to the Rohingya camps as “very significant”, as China maintains “strong diplomatic ties” with both Bangladesh and Myanmar as well as significant links in terms of trade and development.
Officials at Bangladesh’s Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission in Cox’s Bazar said Zhang arrived in the tourist district on Tuesday and would leave Wednesday.
Zhang’s visit comes ahead of Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s planned visit to China in the first week of July, and a scheduled Foreign Ministry briefing for foreign diplomats stationed in Dhaka on Wednesday on current issues with a special focus on the Rohingya crisis.
Bangladeshi Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday evening that he found the visit “positive” and said “they [China] are observing in person in what circumstances the [Rohingya] are living in inside the camps… We have no intention of hiding anything.”
He said Dhaka hoped China would pressure Myanmar to solve the crisis.
The minister also said Hasina was likely to visit China in July and that the Rohingya crisis was one of the issues to be discussed during the bilateral talks there.
During the visit to Cox’s Bazar, the Chinese ambassador met Bangladesh Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner Mohammad Abul Kalam at the latter’s office in the district headquarters.
Kalam told The Irrawaddy that given China’s involvement, both direct and indirect, in the process of repatriating the Rohingya to Myanmar, his visit was “significant”.
He said they discussed the problems inside the camps and possibilities for facilitating the repatriation process.
“He said that China is interested in solving the crisis and that’s why he visited me,” the commissioner said.
The ambassador also met Rohingya rights activists including Mohib Ullah, the chairman of the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights (ARSPHR), which since 2018 has been one of the leading Rohingya-led rights groups working inside the camps.
Members of ARSPHR said they discussed the repatriation process with the ambassador.
“We showed all kind of documents confirming that we are one of the ethnic minorities of Myanmar,” said a Rohingya rights campaigner who attended the meeting.
The campaigner also said the Chinese ambassador said he would visit them again.
“We asked him about the purpose of his visit, how they can help us to repatriate and what their strategy will be,” the rights campaigner said, adding, “He promised that he will talk to the Myanmar government about us.”
Bangladesh is currently home to over 1.1 million Rohingya. The majority of them entered Cox’s Bazar since Aug. 25, 2017, following a Myanmar military offensive in northern Rakhine State.
No statement from the Chinese Embassy in Dhaka had been issued as of Tuesday evening and the embassy did not respond to an email query about the ambassador’s visit to the Rohingya camps.
Zhang arrived in Dhaka to take up his post in February 2018.
On May 18, he was present at a function at the capital’s National Press Club to inaugurate the Bangladesh-China Silk Road Forum to deepen “people-to-people bonds”.
In a written statement promoting the scheme, the Chinese diplomat said, “We … proposed a three-phase solution of ending violence, repatriation and development for the issue of Rakhine State in Myanmar; brokered informal tripartite meetings between Bangladesh, Myanmar and China; and encouraged Bangladesh and Myanmar to reach consensus on the principle of the repatriation of the Rohingya, demonstrating China’s sense of responsibility to regional peace and stability.”
China is the largest trading partner of Bangladesh.