Myanmar is working to modify a 1993 agreement with Bangladesh allowing the return of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Rohingya who have fled the country amid armed clashes between Muslim insurgents and government security forces, a senior government official said on Tuesday.
The changes will be made in consultation with Bangladesh and will “add more points to the agreement,” Myint Kyaing, permanent secretary of the Department of Immigration and Population, told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“The agreement was made in 1993, and it is now 2017,” Myint Kyaing said. “A very long time has passed, and the situation has changed.”
“Four major points from the 1993 agreement will remain the same, but we will add more points after discussing this with the Bangladesh government,” he said, without elaborating on which points would be kept and which would need to be added.
“Forms will be delivered only after both countries sign on to the agreement, and people will have to fill them out, stating where they were born in Rakhine state, in what year they were born, and what documentation they were holding when they lived in Rakhine,” he said.
“Refugees can return when a government-approved verification team approves the forms.”
“We will accept anybody back who is approved,” he said.
Crimes against humanity
Just over 600,000 stateless Rohingya Muslims have fled to southeastern Bangladesh since late August, when Myanmar’s military launched a crackdown against suspected Rohingya militants in Rakhine state, which lies along the border, according to reporting by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
Rights groups, the United Nations, and some of the half-million Rohingya who fled to safety in Bangladesh have accused soldiers of committing atrocities against the minority group amounting to genocide and crimes against humanity.
The Myanmar government, however, denies the allegations and has accused Muslim militants of burning down villages and attacking and killing non-Muslim residents.
Camps set up to receive returning refugees have now been created in Taung Pyo Let Wae and Nga Khu Ya villages in northern Rakhine’s Maungdaw township, Myint Kyaing told RFA.
“There is a bridge with checkpoints at each end in Taung Pyo Let Wae village,” Myint Kyaing said, adding, “If we see people coming in without approved forms, we can immediately send them back to the Bangladeshi border security team.”
In a statement on Monday, Myanmar’s opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) said that it will closely monitor any changes planned to the repatriation agreement, saying these would have to acceptable to the majority-Buddhist residents of Rakhine.
“We are monitoring which points in the existing agreement the two governments would discuss, which points would be added and which points would be scrapped,” USDP official U Wunna Maung Lwin told reporters, the online Irrawaddy news service said in a report.
'Can't live together'
Residents of 36 ethnic Rakhine villages have meanwhile vowed to leave the area if Rohingya refugees are brought back to their former homes nearby, citing fears that terrorists will be placed among those returned.
“We have all decided to leave if these Bengalis are resettled near our villages,” one villager, named Kyaw Win, said following a meeting held at Yan Aung Myin village in northern Maungdaw. “Bengali” is a derogatory term in Myanmar for Rohingya.
“We have lived next to them in the past and have never made any trouble, but they have been making many problems for us during the last five years, and it has been getting worse and worse,” he said. “We can’t live together anymore.”
Separately, the Thailand-based Women’s League of Burma (WLB) called on Oct. 31 for an end to what they described as “widespread propaganda” driving racial tensions and insecurity among Rakhine’s ethnic communitities.
“WLB believes that this violence has been deliberately created and fuelled by certain groups who do not want sustainable peace in Burma,” the group said, using another name for Myanmar.
Reported by Thiri Min Zin and Min Thein Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Richard Finney.