A Myanmar government spokesman on Wednesday accused Bangladesh of delaying efforts to repatriate Rohingya Muslim refugees who fled a recent crackdown in northern Rakhine state because of a dispute over certain terms of an agreement between the two countries.
More than 600,000 ethnic Rohingya fled northern Rakhine state amid a military crackdown and armed clashes between Muslim insurgents and government security forces following deadly attacks by terrorists on police outposts on Aug. 25. They now live in refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh.
Zaw Htay, director general of State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi’s office, said Myanmar is ready to accept the refugees back based on a 1993 agreement with Bangladesh, though progress has been delayed because Bangladeshi officials have failed to agree on particular terms.
“Myanmar’s home affairs minister [Lieutenant General Kyaw Swe] discussed this issue with his Bangladeshi counterpart last week … in the meeting of two countries’ top-level officials, but we didn’t agree on some points to accept these refugees back,” Zaw Htay told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“The points in the 1993 agreement are Myanmar’s basic principles, but we still need to discuss them because Bangladesh wants to amend some points in the agreement,” he said.
Myanmar and Bangladesh agreed in September to begin a process to repatriate the refugees under the accord, which allows the return of Rohingya who can prove residency in Myanmar.
Zaw Htay's comments come a day after Myint Kyaing, permanent secretary of the Department of Immigration and Population, told RFA’s Myanmar Service that Myanmar was working to modify the accord. He did not specify what modifications Myanmar was seeking.
Zaw Htay also indicated that Bangladesh’s acceptance of the terms of the agreement concerning the repatriation of refugees hinged upon that country’s receipt of funds from the international community to build large displacement camps for the Rohingya.
“Currently they have got U.S. $400 million. [W]e are now afraid of delaying the program of deporting the refugees,” he was quoted as saying by the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar.
“They have got international subsidies,” he said. “We are now afraid they will have another consideration as to repatriation.”
There was no immediate response from Bangladeshi government officials, who said last week that Myanmar had failed to agree to points Dhaka had submitted to their Myanmar counterparts on the return of the Rohingya during talks in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw.
After the discussions, the two countries signed memorandums of understanding to increase their security cooperation and set up border liaison offices to handle returning refugees.
Myanmar’s Ministry of Labor, Immigration, and Population said it will check and accept 150 refugees a day at each of two checkpoints in Taungpyo Letwe and Ngakhura villages in northern Rakhine, Zaw Htay said.
He also said Myanmar’s police chief had asked his Bangladeshi counterpart for a list of those who fled northern Rakhine, but had yet to receive it.
“They told us they will email us the list,” he said. “This list is very important. We have our original documents for those people.”
“Bangladesh must have the list of registered people at refugee camps, and we need this list to accept them back, but they haven’t sent us this list,” he said. “If we have this list, it might be easier and quicker to take them back. We just need to check this list with the documents and photos we have. We want to do the process as soon as possible.”
On account of the delay with the implementation of the repatriation process, Myanmar is concerned about comments from the international community that might suggest officials are not willing to comply with the terms of the agreement in order to keep the Rohingya refugees out of the country, Zaw Htay said.
“The international community is putting pressure on us about the exodus and accepting them back,” he said. “All ministries are implementing the process of accepting them back as the state counselor has already promised.”
As long as the refugees can submit proper documents showing that they live in northern Rakhine, they will be resettled in their villages, and houses for them will be built, he said.
Also on Wednesday, Aung Ko, Myanmar’s minister of religious affairs and culture, assured six Buddhist monk leaders from Maungdaw — one of the three townships in northern Rakhine affected by recent turmoil — that there was no need to worry about renewed violence in the area arising from the government’s plan to repatriate the Rohingya who fled.
The monks will agree with the repatriation plan as long as there are measures that the international community can accept and guarantees that no new attacks will occur, said Jotika, abbot of Jotikaryone Monastery in Maungdaw.
“If so, we will accept the plan,” he said.
When the monks asked Aung Ko to invite Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi to visit the township, he said she would come there, but gave no further details.
Aung Ko also met with Buddhist monk leaders in Buthidaung and Rathedaung townships.
Meanwhile, other ethnic minority groups who live in the region have continued to clamor for more security in light of the government’s plan to repatriate the Rohingya refugees.
The head of one of Rakhine state’s ethnic political parties called on the government military on Sunday to protect the Daingnet minority who live in northern Rakhine’s Maungdaw township, the focal point of the recent violence following the August attacks and military crackdown, where several ethnic groups coexist.
“We believe we are not safe without the army,” said Aung Kyaw Zaw, chairman of the Daingnet National Development Party (DNDP). “We’re not calling for martial law for the entire country, but only in Buthidaung, Maungdaw, and Rathedaung townships to maintain peace and security in the region.”
After the Aug. 25 terrorist attacks in Maungdaw, two ethnic Daingnet were killed, and two others were injured. A total of eight have been killed since then.
“We have Daingnet, Khami, Mro, Thet, and Rakhine ethnics in the region,” Aung Kyaw Zaw said. “Rakhine people can go to their relatives when we have problems [in the region], but our small ethnic groups are living in the forest and in very rural areas. We have to go into the forest for firewood and to fish, but we don’t dare to do this now because people were killed when they were in the forest.”
The Daingnet are one of the 135 ethnic groups officially recognized by the Myanmar government as indigenous to the country. More than 30,000 ethnic Daingnet, who are natives of northern Rakhine state, live in Maungdaw township.
Min Aung, Rakhine state spokesman and minister of municipal affairs, said on Wednesday that local police and border security guards have been deployed in Maungdaw to ensure residents’ safety.
“We know local ethnics are worried about living with these refugees because they have had many problems because of them, but the Union government must work on mitigating their concerns,” he said.
Reported by Khin Khin Ei, Waiyan Moe Myint, Thinn Thiri, and Wai Mar Tun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.