Myanmar and its neighbor Bangladesh have traded blame over stalled efforts to repatriate some 740,000 Muslim Rohingya refugees who fled a brutal 2017 Myanmar military campaign that drove them from their villages to camps on the Bangladeshi side of their border.
The latest row flared up after Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina told reporters in Dhaka that Myanmar is reluctant to take back the Rohingya Muslims despite a signed agreement to repatriate them.
“The problem lies with Myanmar as they don’t want to take back the Rohingyas by any means,” she told a news conference at her official residence.
“Everybody wants the Rohingya people to return to Myanmar from Bangladesh. But Myanmar does not want to take them back. Here lies the problem,” Hasina told reporters after her recent tour of Japan, Finland and Saudi Arabia.
“Myanmar is not interested in taking them back,” she said.
The Myanmar military responded to an attack on border guard posts in August 2017 with a campaign of violence against the Rohingya in Rakhine state that left thousands dead, subjected others to indiscriminate killings, sexual assaults, and arson, and drove more than 740,000 members of the ethnic minority across the border to Bangladesh.
U.N. investigators called for the prosecution of top Myanmar generals for “genocide” after the extent of the violence was revealed. Myanmar rejected the criticism, saying it was clearing the area of militants.
Naypyidaw and Dhaka signed a repatriation deal in November 2017, but virtually no Rohingya have offered to return out of fear for their safety and rights in Myanmar.
Myanmar also signed an MOU on the voluntary repatriation of the Rohingya with the UN High Commission for Refugees and the UN Development Program in June 2018, and extended it last month for a year.
“You have seen that we have signed deals. We have adopted all measures (for repatriation). We have communication with them. But we do not get good response from them (Myanmar),” Hasina said.
Chan Aye, director general at Myanmar’s Foreign Ministry, said: “They are saying this (as an excuse) just to avoid their failure.”
“There already is an agreement signed between the two countries and we have almost completed our part to implement it,” he said, adding that the Bangladesh had failed to return repatriation application forms for the Rohingya refugees.
“The form states that the repatriation must be voluntary and they would be obliged to Myanmar’s existing laws. But they didn’t complete the forms. That’s the reason for the failure of first batch to return in November 2018,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
Aye Lwin, a former member of Myanmar’s Rakhine Advisory Commission, said the “back-and-forth comments” about the paperwork were not helping.
“There’s no way to prove what they’ve been saying is true or not. So, it’d be better not to blame each other because people are suffering badly and they’re not lifeless matter,” he told RFA.
The exchange of words followed the leak last week of an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) report predicting half a million Rohingya refugees will return to Myanmar in two years.
ASEAN angers Rohingya
The report by ASEAN’s “Emergency Response and Assessment Team,” revealed by the Agence France Presse (AFP) news agency, angered Rohingya groups and their advocates for playing down Myanmar army atrocities, and ignoring ongoing hostilities in Rakhine state.
“ASEAN should be playing a key role in advancing human rights and protecting the life and dignity of minorities living in member states, but instead they have covered for the crimes of Burma in this report and vastly underestimated the obstacles which face safe and equitable repatriation of the Rohingya to Burma,” said Kyaw Win, executive director of the London-based Burma Human Rights Network.
“It is a clear failure of duty by the organization, seemingly done to protect a member state instead of holding them to an appropriate standard and most importantly ASEAN has failed to protect its population (Rohingya) from Genocide,” he added.
The online Myanmar news outlet The Irrawaddy quoted the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights (ARSPHR) as warning ASEAN and the UN that they must consult with the Rohingya in Bangladesh before any talk of repatriation.
“We want to make it clear to the world that ASEAN and UNHCR do not speak on behalf of the Rohingya refugees. Rohingya refugees can speak for [ourselves]. There will be no repatriation without talking to us,” the rights group based in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh said in a statement on Saturday.
The statement also slammed ASEAN for not using the term “Rohingya” to describe the ethnic group, which despite a long history in Myanmar are referred to disparagingly as Bengalis who entered the country from Bangladesh.
“Many ASEAN countries like Malaysia and Indonesia visit the camp to take a photo with us and call us Rohingya to our face but now they refuse to give us dignity. Why is [the] ASEAN organization not using our ethnic name,” it said.
Khin Maung, a Rohingya refugee in a camp in Bangladesh, told RFA that Hasina had reached the “right conclusion.”
“We want to return to our country but the situation makes the return impossible. Now, fighting with the Arakan Army is going on in Rakhine State and the people of Rakhine are in trouble. We can’t do anything here in the refugee camp…and education, health and everything is difficult.”
Since December 2018, more than 50 civilians have been killed, with over 100 injured and more than 40,000 displaced, because of clashes between government forces and the ethnic Arakan Army, a rebel group representing Buddhist Rakhines which is fighting in several Rakhine townships for greater autonomy in the state.
Asked by RFA about the Rohingya repatriation, Myanmar Upper House lawmaker Maung Kyaw Zan underscored his country’s ambivalence toward the ethnic group.
“The Bengali who fled had made those demands before. They have demanded that we give them assurances on security, instant citizenship and free to travel. We’d be happier if they don’t return. Their origin was Bangladesh and they have migrated here through the years,” he said.
Reported by Kyaw Thu for RFA’s Myanmar Service, and by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service. Translated by Nandar Chann. Written by Paul Eckert.