Rohingya crisis brings Turkey and Bangladesh closer
Turkey and Bangladesh, once at odds, are cooperating to bring aid to hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees.
Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh – To most Rohingya taking shelter in makeshift refugee camps in southern Bangladesh, the sight of a white crescent and star on a red background – the Turkish flag – symbolises one thing: a hot meal.
Turkey’s state-run aid agency, the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA), has been distributing meals – often rice, lentils, chicken curry and potatoes – to Rohingya refugees here since mid-September.
Every day, 2.5 tonnes of ingredients are used to feed about 25,000 Rohingya, an ethnic minority group, hundreds of thousands of whom were forced to flee Myanmar earlier this year amid a deadly crackdown at the hands of the country’s military.
TIKA has also distributed 10,000 blankets, provided medical care and built the only playground for Rohingya children in the camps.
The governments of Turkey and Bangladesh did not always enjoy such a close relationship. But the Rohingya crisis has changed that.
“There were times when we were sitting on … rice and lentils for days as there was no firewood to cook,” said Innasur Alam, a refugee in Kutupalong camp.”
Pointing to a TIKA-run food distribution point, Alam said: “They started giving us cooked meals then.”
Earlier this week, Binali Yildirim, Turkey’s prime minister, described the killing of Rohingya by the Myanmar military a “genocide”.
Yildirim, who made the comments on a two-day visit to Bangladesh, helped hand out some of TIKA’s meals himself, while also inaugurating a medical facility at Balukhali refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar.
Turkey also donated two ambulances to the local district administration.
TIKA was the first foreign organisation to deliver foodstuffs and medicine – an initial shipment of 1,000 tonnes – to the conflict zone of Rakhine state in Myanmar on September 2.
After the violence erupted there in late August, the Myanmar government blocked all UN aid to the area.
Turkish Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD) and Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate are also providing aid and medical care in Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh.
Yildirim is one of several Turkish policymakers and senior figures who have made high-profile visits to Bangladesh since the Rohingya crisis broke out in August.
Emine Erdogan, spouse of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, visited the camps in September, alongside Mevlut Cavusoglu, Turkey’s foreign minister, and Fatma Betul Sayan Kaya, the Turkish family and social policy minister.
Erdogan himself was the first world leader to condemn the Myanmar army for applying a disproportionate use of force to remove the Rohingya from Myanmar, calling it a “textbook case of ethnic cleansing”.
As the incumbent chief of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), Erdogan gathered Muslim leaders across the world in applying pressure on Myanmar to stop its attacks on Muslim-majority Rohingya.
He also raised the Rohingya issue at the UN.
Turkey has played an “initial key role” to draw international attention to the plight of the Rohingya, explained Imtiaz Ahmed, a professor of international relations at Dhaka University.
Ahmed said this is part of the Turkish government’s wider push to defend Sunni Muslims against oppression around the world.
Turkey’s “overwhelming support on Rohingya issue” is part Erdogan’s effort to become the “leader of the Muslim world”, Ahmed told Al Jazeera.
“[Turkey’s] stance on the Rohingya issue definitely gives them an edge.”
Ties between Turkey and Bangladesh became particularly strained over a war-crimes trial in which top leaders of Bangladesh’s largest Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami, were hanged.
Erdogan condemned the execution of Motiur Rahman Nizami, the 73-year-old head of the party, who was hanged in Dhaka on May 11, 2016, and accused European leaders of ignoring the case because Nizami was a Muslim.
Turkey also reportedly recalled its ambassador to Bangladesh, Devrim Ozturk, at the time. Three months later, however, Ozturk came back to Dhaka.
Last year, Ozturk thanked the government of Bangladesh for “expressing its support to Erdogan’s government after the failed coup attempt” in Turkey on July 15.
Officials at Bangladesh’s ministry of foreign affairs and the Turkish embassy in Dhaka declined to comment on whether the Rohingya issue had healed the rift between the two countries.
But a high-ranking official in the ministry, who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity, said Bangladesh and Turkey “want to forget what happened” around the war-crimes trial.
The countries “plan to focus on strengthening their bilateral relationship”, the official said.
With the most prominent war-crimes trials now over, “Turkey is not concerned or bothered about it any more”, said Munshi Fayez Ahmed, chairman of the Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies (BIISS).
Ahmed told Al Jazeera he believed Turkey’s strong support for Bangladesh on the Rohingya issue has “definitely helped the two countries to improve what was perceived to be a frayed relationship”.