Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono expressed serious concern to his Myanmar counterpart Aung San Suu Kyi on Friday over the plight of Rohingya Muslims who have fled violence by the military in northern Rakhine state.
During a meeting in the capital Naypyidaw, Kono urged Aung San Suu Kyi to ensure the safe and voluntary return of Rohingya refugees who fled to neighboring Bangladesh during a military crackdown and to allow humanitarian and media access to the region, Japan’s Kyodo news agency said.
Myanmar’s military launched a brutal campaign against the Rohingya in three townships in northern Rakhine after a Muslim militant group carried out deadly attacked on police outposts in August 2017.
The violence has driven about 655,000 Rohingya across the border to Bangladesh where some have accused soldiers of committing random killings, rape, and arson in their villages.
“We have discussed with the Japanese foreign minister the development of Rakhine state, the repatriation of Muslim refugees, and possible areas of cooperation with the Japanese government to help stabilize the situation in Rakhine state,” Aung San Suu Kyi, who also serves as Myanmar’s de facto leader in her other capacity as state counselor, said during a joint news conference with Kono in the capital Naypyidaw.
Kono also asked Aung San Suu Kyi to implement the recommendations issued last year by the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, a group led by former U.N chief Kofi Annan.
The commission called for reviews of the country’s Citizenship Law, under which the Rohingya are ineligible for citizenship, and an end to restrictions on the Muslim minority group to prevent further violence in the ethnically and religiously divided region.
Kono also met with Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of Myanmar’s armed forces, and will visit Rakhine state, the online journal The Irrawaddy said.
Millions pledged for Rohingya
Separately, Japan announced an emergency grant aid of 330 million yen (U.S. $3 million) to assist Rohingya refugees who voluntarily return to Myanmar when repatriations begin.
Myanmar and Bangladesh signed an agreement on Nov. 23, 2017, to repatriate Rohingya refugees who wish to return to Myanmar and who can prove prior residency in the country.
“We have decided to provide the aid in response to the agreement between Myanmar and Bangladesh to represent an international message of support so that the repatriation can be carried out promptly,” said Foreign Ministry official Shinobu Yamaguchi in a statement.
Myanmar has said that it will begin accepting the Rohingya refugees on Jan. 22, but the process could be delayed because Bangladesh has yet to send the completed repatriation forms to Myanmar.
During his meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi, Kono also said Japan, a major donor of development aid to Myanmar, will grant the country roughly U.S. $20 million more to improve humanitarian conditions and development in Rakhine state, the Associated Press reported.
“To achieve development in Rakhine state, it is critically important to solve the root causes of the problems facing all the people in Rakhine state,” he was quoted by The Irrawaddy as saying.
Military probe ‘encouraging’
Also during the news conference on Friday, Aung San Suu Kyi said she was encouraged by the Myanmar military’s investigation into the killing of 10 Rohingya at a village in Rakhine’s Maungdaw township and its plan to take action against those who committed the crime.
The armed forces issued a rare admission on Wednesday that some of its troops had killed what it said were Muslim “terrorists” in September and buried their bodies in a mass grave in Inn Din village in Maungdaw township.
Maungdaw, along with neighboring Buithdaung and Rathedaung townships, was the epicenter of recent violence against the Rohingya.
“There were killings in Inn Din village, and it is a step forward that the Tatmadaw [Myanmar military] has investigated and said that those responsible will be held accountable,” said Aung San Suu Kyi. “At last, a country has to assume responsibility for its own rule of law.”
A military investigation team began a probe of the killings after the remains of the bodies were unearthed on Dec. 19. It found that both security forces and ethnic Rakhine villagers were involved in the murders of the Rohingya men who the army says were affiliated with Muslim militants who carried out previous attacks in the state.
A statement issued by the military earlier this week said action would be taken against the villagers and soldiers who confessed to the murders as well as against officers to whom the soldiers reported.
Protest in Ramree
In a related development, about 500 protesters in Rakhine’s Ramree township demanded on Friday that officials conduct thorough screenings of Muslim residents under Myanmar’s Citizenship Law, so that the Rohingya are not classified as Kaman Muslims and granted citizenship.
The law does not recognize the Rohingya as one of Myanmar’s 135 official ethnic groups, thereby denying them citizenship as well as access to basic services such as education and health care.
By contrast, the government formally recognizes the Kaman who are classified as one of the seven ethnic groups comprising the Rakhine national race. They are considered indigenous and are widely acknowledged as citizens who have national identity cards.
A citizenship process for Muslims who live in the Kyauknimaw village tract has been under way since last week, protesters said.
Protesters said they have doubts about the process because some Rohingya are listed under the Kaman Muslim ethnic category, and they have demanded that officials check them carefully.
“We are protesting to demand that officials check the citizenship process for Muslims in the Kyauknimaw village tract and not grant citizenship to [Rohingya] Muslims who are under the [Kaman] category,” protest leader Phyu Lone told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“We don’t want Kofi Annan’s recommendation that citizenship be granted to Bengalis who are not one of Myanmar’s official ethnic groups,” he said, using a derogatory term for the Rohingya who are viewed as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Earlier this week, Zaw Htay, director-general of State Counselor’s Aung San Suu Kyi’s office, said the government has been working on a citizenship process for undocumented people in Rakhine state, and that everybody must be checked to determine whether they are eligible for citizenship.
To become citizens, the Rohingya must obtain national verification cards before they will be granted a status according to the law, such as guest citizens or people who can apply for citizenship, he said.
Phyu Lone went on to say that authorities have issued family lists, detailing members of all households, to Rohingya residents, erroneously listing them as ethnic Kaman.
If the Rohingya who live in the village tract are granted citizenship, all of them will become Kamans, he said.
Last April, the Rakhine state government agreed to close down three internally displaced persons camps housing Kaman Muslims, ethnic Rakhine people, and Rohingya Muslims in the towns of Ramree, Kyaukphyu, and Sittwe, per the Annan commission’s recommendations.
The groups had been living in the camps since 2012 when they were displaced by communal violence in the state.
Reported by Win Ko Ko Latt and Min Thein Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.