About 350 Hindu refugees from Myanmar who fled to the state capital Sittwe amid ethnic violence during a brutal military crackdown in northern Rakhine state returned to Maungdaw township on Sunday, a Hindu leader said.
Another 200 people from 50 households will be sent back to Maungdaw via neighboring Buthidaung township on Tuesday, said Hindu leader Bu Hla Shwe.
Those who are returning will stay temporarily in a building near the Maungdaw district administration office because their homes were burned during the violence, he said.
The Hindus have requested that the local government place them near ethnic Rakhine villages to ensure their safety, he said.
Phu Boung, one of the Hindus who returned to Maungdaw, told RFA’s Myanmar service that the situation in northern Rakhine is now calm, but those who are returning are having problems finding jobs.
“Our houses were burned down, so we are staying at temporary houses built by the government,” he said. “We are experiencing problems because we can’t earn enough money to survive.”
Phu Boung said he used to make about 10,000 kyats (U.S. $7.25) a day locally before he fled the area, but now he can earn only half that amount.
Though officials gave each Hindu household a bag of rice, two bottles of cooking oil, beans, and some dry fish for a month, the food supplies were enough to feed his family of 16 for only 15 days, he said.
“The situation in this area is calm because there are no Bengalis now,” Phu Boung said, using a derogatory term for the Rohingya Muslims who were the target of the military crackdown following deadly attacks on police outposts in northern Rakhine by the Muslim militant group the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).
The Rohingya, who are viewed as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, have faced decades of discrimination in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar where they are not recognized as one of the country’s official ethnic groups.
Rights groups and some of the Rohingya who fled to Bangladesh during the crackdown have accused security forces of committing atrocities against them. The United Nations, United States, and others have said that the crackdown amounted to ethnic cleansing.
Hindus and other non-Muslims residing in northern Rakhine have accused ARSA militants of invading their villages and driving out or killing residents.
Local Hindus and the Myanmar government in late September said that ARSA militants detained nearly 100 people from several Hindu villages in the Kha Maung Seik village on Aug. 25, killed most of them, and dumped their corpses in mass graves. The militants also forced the young Hindu women to convert to Islam and took them to a Muslim refugee camp in neighboring Bangladesh.
‘They can’t be trusted’
“We would become greatly worried if they came back into this area,” Phu Boung said of the Rohingya who fled to Bangladesh. “They can’t be trusted.”
It would be best if they don’t come back. I feel as though something would happen again in six months or a year,” he said, adding that some of his friends who are living among Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh have reported that they overheard the Muslims discussing future attacks in Maungdaw.
“I have never trusted these Bengalis all my life,” Phu Boung said. “We don’t want the government to let them back in Myanmar, especially in Maungdaw.
“We were attacked by them three times,” he said. “They burned down our houses the first time, attacked police outposts and took weapons the second time, and killed people from three Hindu villages. And some were raped during the latest attack. We can’t accept them anymore.”
Phu Buong’s account of events, which is similar to what the Myanmar military told reporters at the time, could not be independently confirmed amid tight restrictions on access to the conflict zone.
Myanmar and Bangladesh have signed a bilateral agreement that calls for the voluntary repatriation of some 700,000 Rohingya Muslims who escaped to Bangladesh as they fled outbreaks of violence and two brutal military crackdowns in Rakhine state since October 2016.
The agreement does not cover another roughly 300,000 refugees who fled earlier cycles of violence.
Last week, Bangladesh approved a U.S. $280 million plan to relocate 100,000 Rohingya refugees from the mainland to a low-lying desolate island off its southern coast, where it intends to build shelters for them.
Reported by Min Thein Aung and Khin Khin Ei for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.