Myanmar has informed Bangladesh that it will take back fewer than 400 Rohingya refugees out of the more than 8,000 who want to return voluntarily to northern Rakhine state from which they fled a brutal crackdown by the Myanmar military, a government official said Wednesday.
Myint Thu, permanent secretary of Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said during a press conference in Naypyidaw that the country has verified that 374 refugees on a list of 8,032, which Bangladesh submitted to Myanmar officials in February, are eligible for the first round of repatriations.
“We have sent the list [of 374 refugees] to the Bangladeshi embassy in Yangon today, and the Myanmar embassy in Dhaka is going to forward it to Bangladesh’s Foreign Ministry,” Myint Thu said. “We are ready to receive these 374 refugees. We have asked Bangladesh to fill out the incomplete forms of the rest.”
The military launched a violent campaign against the Rohingya in northern Rakhine in response to deadly attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) in August. The crackdown, which included killings, rape, and arson, drove roughly 700,000 Rohingya across the border to Bangladesh where they live in squalid displacement camps.
The U.N. and United States have said the military crackdown in Rakhine has amounted to ethnic cleansing, if not genocide.
On Monday, Yanghee Lee, the U.N.’s human rights envoy in Myanmar, and Marzuki Darusman, chairman of a U.N.-appointed international fact-finding mission on human rights in Myanmar, issued damning reports on the violent expulsion of Rohingya, citing hundreds of interviews with victims and eyewitnesses about reported human rights violations. Lee said the crackdown bore the “hallmarks of genocide.”
Myanmar and Bangladesh have agreed to repatriate refugees who can prove they had lived in northern Rakhine prior to Oct. 9, 2016, the date of a smaller-scale ARSA attack. But the program, slated to begin in late January has been beset by delays, with each side blaming the other.
Aung Tun Thet, chief coordinator of the Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement and Development (UEHRD), an organization set up by the government to handle refugee resettlements and development plans for impoverished Rakhine state, told the media that the international community’s accusations of genocide and ethnic cleansing are not reasonable.
“No country receives back refugees if it is accused of genocide or ethnic cleansing, but we are taking the refugees back even though we have been accused of this,” he said, adding that there have been no cases of either crime anywhere in Myanmar.
He also took issue with the United Nations’ estimate of refugees who fled to Bangladesh from northern Rakhine after the Aug. 25 ARSA attack, putting the number at 530,000.
Also during the meeting on Wednesday, Myanmar government’s spokesman Zaw Htay said authorities have arrested more than 380 Rohingya based on background checks of those on the list, and have charged 248 of them under anti-terrorism laws.
He also said the government has taken action against a military commander and senior police officer involved in the Rohingya crisis, without further elaboration.
Bangladeshi leader complains
Senior officials in Myanmar and a U.N. spokesman in the country said Wednesday that that they have begun talks with U.N. agencies to see how they can assist with the repatriation of Rohingya refugees, the Associated Press reported.
Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina urged Myanmar on Tuesday to cooperate on repatriating the refugees, which she said are a burden on her impoverished country of 160 million people.
“Despite commitments by the Myanmar authorities, the flow of Rohingya into Bangladesh continues till today,” she told The Straits Times of Singapore during a state visit to the Southeast Asian city-state.
“Creating a conducive environment in the Rakhine state in terms of ensuring safety and security, rebuilding of destroyed villages and houses, creating livelihood options, and granting due rights to the returnees are crucial,” she said.
“These are primarily the responsibilities of the Myanmar authorities. Now, it depends on their sincerity,” the newspaper quoted her as saying.
The U.N. has expressed concern about the creation of conditions that will allow for the safe, dignified, and voluntary return of refugees in accordance with international principles.
Reuters reporters’ trial
Meanwhile the Myanmar government continues to deny reports about abuses against the Rohingya during the crackdown and refuses to allow the independent media and Darusman’s commission into the country to investigate.
Two Reuters news agency reporters, detained for “obtaining state secrets” while reporting on the massacre of 10 Rohingya civilians from Inn Din village in northern Rakhine’s Maungdaw township appeared in court in Yangon for the tenth time on Wednesday.
Thet Oo Maung, also known as Wa Lone, and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested on Dec. 12 just after they had dinner with two police officers who gave them documents about the military crackdown. They face up to 14 years in prison.
Rights groups and the Myanmar media have accused the police of entrapment and have criticized Myanmar’s civilian government under de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi for backpedaling on press freedom.
Lawyer Khin Maung Zaw said Kyaw Soe Oo is suffering from hepatitis — a health condition he did not have before he was jailed in Insein Prison, according to his wife Chit Nu Win.
“Lawyer Than Zaw Aung met Kyaw Soe Oo at Insein Prison before this hearing and saw his eyes were yellow,” he said. “That’s why the lawyer asked him to see a prison doctor.”
The doctor said he observed symptoms of hepatitis in the reporter, Khin Maung Zaw said.
“We have suggested that he see his prison doctor again and be referred to a specialist or sent to a hospital,” he said. “His wife will also meet with the head of the prison and ask him to refer her husband to a hospital. It is a right for a detainee to be sent to a hospital if he is sick.”
About half of the 25 listed witnesses have been called by the government prosecutor to the weekly hearings. The next hearing is scheduled for March 21.
Fighting in Shan state
The interim report issued by Darusman’s panel said the Myanmar military has created patterns of human rights violations and violations of international humanitarian law not only in Rakhine state, but also in Shan and Kachin states, where lesser-known conflicts are raging between the government army and ethnic militias.
He told the annual meeting of the Human Rights Council that there are credible reports of indiscriminate or disproportionate attacks, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, destruction of property and pillage, torture and inhumane treatment, rape, forced labor, and the recruitment of children into armed forces in those areas.
Recent fighting between two ethnic militias in Shan state’s Kyaukme township left two residents of Tawphe village dead and three injured, and forced about 500 others to flee, Major Mai Aik Kyaw, a spokesman from the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), said on Wednesday.
The new clashes between the TNLA, an ethnic Palaung militia, and the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) also prompted about 500 propel to flee the area to safety, local residents said
“Some people in Kyaukme called us for help because these internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Tawphe village are experiencing problems trying to get to Kyaukme,” said Ko Myo who is helping the IDPs.
“They don’t have enough food and they will have trouble surviving if they have to stay away from homes for a long time,” he said.
The online journal The Irrawaddy reported Wednesday that altogether more than 800 residents of Namtu, Kyaukme and Namhsan townships in northern Shan state have been displaced by a recent flare-up of hostilities between the TNLA and RCSS.
Many have sought shelter in Buddhist monasteries.
On Monday, The Irrawaddy reported that the TNLA said its soldiers killed three RCSS members and seized some of its weapons and ammunition during two days of fighting in northern Shan state at first along the border between Kyaukme and Namhsan townships where the RCSS is said to be building a new base, and the next day in Namtu township.
The TNLA first attacked the RCSS base in January, and the Myanmar army fired on its soldiers to help the RCSS drive them back, the report said.
The TNLA has been fighting the government army and the RCSS in Shan state since late November 2015, about six weeks after the signing of a nationwide cease-fire agreement (NCA) between the government and eight of the country’s more than 20 ethnic armed groups.
The RCSS is one of the eight original signatories to the NCA, while the TNLA was excluded from signing the accord because of its ongoing hostilities with Myanmar’s armed forces.
Reported by Thant Zin Oo, Khin Khin Ei, Htet Arkar, Khet Mar, and Aung Theinkha. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.