Myanmar officials say that dozens of nearly 6,500 Rohingya Muslims from Rakhine state whose names appear on a list of refugees from displacement camps in Bangladesh to be considered for repatriation have been “involved in terrorism.”
Soe Han, director general of the ASEAN Affairs Department at Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told RFA’s Myanmar Service on Thursday that 54 of 6,472 Rohingya on the list have been identified as having been involved in “terrorism,” without specifying the type, timing, or location of the alleged activities.
“Myanmar sent the list of these people involved in terrorism to Bangladesh and has asked it to take action against them, but nothing has happened yet,” he said, adding that the state cannot reveal any information about them for security or diplomatic reasons.
“If they are sent back to Myanmar, we have to take action against them according to the law,” he said.
Myanmar has agreed to take back some of the more than 800,000 Rohingya refugees who fled across the border during the two crackdowns in 2016 and 2017 in response to deadly attacks on border guard stations and police outposts, respectively, by a militant Muslim group known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).
Myanmar has largely denied or played down widely documented atrocities against Rohingya before and during their exodus to Bangladesh, while urging its critics to focus on the actions by the shadowy ARSA that triggered the crackdown.
Officials also have verified that 4,654 of those on the list actually lived in northern Rakhine state prior to crackdowns there by Myanmar security forces in 2016 and 2017, Soe Han said.
Another group, numbering 1,764, have no documents at all that can prove they lived in the state.
“If they can submit something that shows they lived in Rakhine, we will verify them again,” he said.
Those who wish to return to northern Rakhine must do so voluntarily, though they must prove that they were residents of the region prior to the two campaigns that expelled them.
The much-delayed repatriations, which were agreed to in an agreement Myanmar and Bangladesh signed nearly a year ago, will begin in mid-November, according to Myanmar officials.
'Conditions not conducive for return'
In the meantime, the United Nations development (UNDP) and refugee (UNHCR) agencies are in the region conducting surveys in villages to identify community initiatives to support the government’s efforts to improve the lives of all populations affected by the violence, build trust in the multiethnic region, and promote social cohesion among communities.
“We have been working together with the U.N. agencies by arranging field trips to 50 villages,” said Chan Aye, director general of the Consular and Legal Affairs Department under Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, adding that the UNDP and UNHCR must survey about 100 additional villages.
“The U.N. agencies have shared with us what they found on their field trips and have suggested to us what we should do,” he said without providing details.
Despite Myanmar’s readiness to begin repatriations in mid-month, the UNHCR has said that conditions in northern Rakhine are still not conducive for refugee returns.
The U.N., human rights groups, and some Western nations also have called on Myanmar and Bangladesh to continue putting off repatriations until the safety of returning Rohingya can be ensured. They say that the Rohingya, whom Myanmar views as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, will likely to face the same persecution and systematic discrimination that they suffered before fleeing.
A draft U.N. resolution condemning abuses against the Rohingya and calling on the Myanmar government to end discrimination and provide a means for them to become citizens was circulated at the U.N. in New York on Wednesday, the Associated Press reported.
The General Assembly's human rights committee is expected to vote on the measure, sponsored by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, more than 25 European countries, and Canada, on Nov. 15, the report said.
Dutch minister discusses Rakhine
On Thursday, Sigrid Kaag, the country’s minister for foreign trade and development cooperation, discussed the Rohingya crisis with State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi during a meeting in Naypyidaw, Soe Han said.
Aung San Suu Kyi, who also serves as foreign affairs minister, informed Kaag about issues in Rakhine as well as Myanmar’s progress with the recommendations by an advisory commission on the state, led by late former U.N. chief Kofi Annan, he said.
“[Kaag] mainly raised questions about how we are implementing the recommendations by the Kofi Annan commission,” Soe Han said. “We then explained what we have implemented and what remains to be done.”
The commission called for reviews of the country’s Citizenship Law, which effectively prevents the Rohingya from becoming Myanmar citizens and for an end to restrictions on the stateless minority to prevent further violence in the beleaguered region.
The Myanmar government has previously said that it has already implemented 81 of the panel’s 88 recommendations.
Sigrid and Aung San Suu Kyi also talked about what the Netherlands can do to help address communal violence in Rakhine state, assist in the peace process by ending hostilities between ethnic armies and the Myanmar military, and support the country’s transition to democracy.
Kaag is visiting Myanmar and Bangladesh this week to gain insight into the refugee crisis, the authorities’ response, and humanitarian aid being offered.
Prior to her visit, she issued a statement, saying, “The Netherlands continues to underline that return is only possible if it happens voluntarily and in a safe, dignified and sustainable manner.”
U.S. diplomats in Buthidaung
Meanwhile, Richard Albright, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state who is responsible for humanitarian assistance programs in Asia, and U.S. Ambassador to Myanmar Scot Marciel are on a routine visit to Rakhine state.
The visit is part of a broader trip by American diplomats to observe U.S. humanitarian assistance programs throughout Myanmar, said Aryani Manring, a spokeswoman at the U.S. embassy in Yangon, in an interview with RFA.
The two diplomats visited Buthidaung district on Thursday — one of three districts in northern Rakhine affected by the violence from the 2017 crackdown — where he and Marciel met with 10 ethnic Rakhine people and 10 Rohingya in Ywama village.
“We told them about the difficulties we have regarding our survival and transportation,” said village chief Aung Zan, referring to tighter restrictions on the Rohingyas’ movements and access to basic services in the wake of the 2017 violence.
A village resident who declined to give his name said that in the past, members of the community were allowed to go to a nearby forest to collect firewood any time they wanted and could even sleep there overnight.
But now their movements are more limited, with many checkpoints along the road to the forest and they need permission from local officials to sleep there.
“So we can’t finish our work [in the forest] in time,” he said.
Manring said the diplomats are meeting with people from different ethnic communities in Rakhine state to find out how the U.S. can help them.
“We’re interested in talking to all communities in Rakhine State because we are trying to look for ways in which the United States can help,” she said.
“And we think that addressing the human rights abuses that occurred in Rakhine state in an honest and forthright way is critical not only for the communities in Rakhine state, but also for the entire country to be able to make progress on the transition to democracy,” Manring said.
Albright on Wednesday told a group of Rohingya leaders in Thet Kae Pyin village in Sittwe township that he would press the Myanmar government to grant basic rights, including citizenship and freedom of movement, to members of the ethnic minority group who live in the vicinity of the state capital.
The two American diplomats also met that day with leaders from the Arakan National Party (ANP), the dominant political party in the state which represents the interests of the ethnic Rakhine people.
The group told Albright and Marciel that returning Rohingya refugees should not be placed in the northern Maungdaw district region, another focal point of the violence, said ANP Secretary Aung Mya Kyaw.
“This proposal was approved by the Rakhine state parliament as well,” he told RFA.
“We also told them to ensure that the Bengalis are accepted back according to the 1982 Citizenship Law,” he said using a derogatory name for the Rohingya.
Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh have called for full citizenship rights if they return to Myanmar — something that most of them are denied under the 2012 Citizenship Law which does not recognize them as one of the country’s official ethnic groups.
Albright told the ANP that the U.S. will not interfere in the repatriation process and will only help provide humanitarian assistance, Aung Mya Kyaw said.
Reported by Wai Mar Tun, Min Thein Aung, and Nandar Chann for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar and Nandar Chann. Written in English by Rosanne Gerin.