Japan’s ambassador to Myanmar advised the dominant ethnic Rakhine political party in the country’s beleaguered Rakhine state that it should work to resolve the Rohingya Muslim crisis as soon as possible during a visit to the area to discuss the plight of refugees from an ongoing conflict.
Attacks by a Muslim militant group on police outposts in northern Rakhine in August 2017 prompted a crackdown by Myanmar forces who carried out indiscriminate killings, torture, rape, and arson in communities where the stateless and persecuted Rohingya lived.
The campaign drove nearly 700,000 Rohingya into neighboring Bangladesh, where they now live in sprawling refugee camps.
During a meeting in Rakhine’s capital Sittwe, Ambassador Ichiro Maruyama told Tun Aung Gyaw, general secretary of the Arakan National Party (ANP), and other party officials that the political organization should work to clear up the crisis which the United Nations and others have said amounts to ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.
“He said we should solve it quickly because it has stirred huge global interest,” Tun Aung Gyaw said.
“We told him this Bengali issue couldn’t be resolved in a short time and that we would need time to slowly find a lasting solution,” he said, using a derogatory name for the Rohingya, who are considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and subjected to systematic discrimination in Myanmar.
They are also denied citizenship though many have lived in the country for generations.
Myanmar officials are in the process of reviewing applications from Rohingya refugees who fled the crackdown to return to Rakhine state, pending verification.
Rights groups and the U.N. have called on Myanmar to guarantee the safety of Rohingya who are repatriated and allow them to become citizens.
The ANP does not object to granting citizenship to those who qualify under Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law, but its wants the central government to clearly declare that those who do not qualify for citizenship will be rejected, Tun Aung Gyaw said.
ANP officials also told the ambassador that the government will not keep all the Rohingya who return confined to Rakhine state, but will give them the freedom to travel across the country.
Maruyama, who arrived in Sittwe on May 27, has also met with Rakhine state officials and Muslim villagers and visited Rohingya repatriation centers.
Though authorities have approved for repatriation hundreds of Rohingya from a list of more than 8,000 provided by Bangladesh, official returns have not yet begun. Myanmar officials say the country has been ready to accept back refugees since Jan. 23, but they have blamed delays in the process on their Bangladeshi counterparts.
Japan is the fourth largest investor in Myanmar after Singapore, China, and the Netherlands. The country has provided financial support for numerous large-scale infrastructure projects with its investment in Myanmar hitting an all-time peak of roughly $1.48 billion in fiscal year 2017, according to Myanmar’s Ministry of Planning and Finance.
Refugees arrested, released
The Japanese ambassador’s advice came days after 58 refugees, presumed to be Rohingya Muslims, returned to Myanmar on their own without first being verified by officials and processed through repatriation centers in Rakhine state.
Authorities arrested them and handed down some prison sentences, though they later all received a pardon from President Win Myint and were released from prison. From there, they were sent to the Nga Khu Ya reception camp where they will be verified as eligible for return and transferred to the transit camp at Hla Phoe Khaung.
Myanmar has agreed to take back Rohingya refugees who want to return voluntarily to Rakhine state if they can prove residency in the region prior to October 2016, when Muslim militants launched a deadly smaller-scale attack on border guard stations.
A Myanmar delegation led by Myint Thu, permanent secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, visited Bangladesh's capital Dhaka on May 15-18 to discuss the repatriation of verified displaced persons, including security for the prospective returnees and the involvement of U.N. agencies in the process of repatriation and resettlement.
The Myanmar side repeated its readiness to accept back verified Rohingya and Hindus who also had fled northern Rakhine during the crackdown.
“Despite these efforts, the procedures for systematic repatriation are still not yet widely known by the displaced persons,” said a statement issued by State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi’s office on May 27 following the arrests of the 58 refugees who returned to Myanmar on their own.
“As a result, the displaced persons who no longer find it tenable to continue their stay in the camps in Cox’s Bazaar began returning to Rakhine state of their own volition and under their own arrangements,” it said.
Reported by Min Thein Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Myang Nyane and Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.