Though Myanmar has nearly completed housing for 5,000 returning Rohingya Muslim refugees, the government is still waiting for Bangladesh to send lists of those who are eligible for repatriation slated to begin later this month, officials said Wednesday.
The government will first accept refugees at two reception centers in Taung Pyo Let Wae and Nga Khu Ya villages in northern Rakhine state.
“All buildings in Taung Pyo Let Wae and Nga Khu Ya will be ready for refugees on Jan. 22, Win Myat Aye, minister for social welfare, relief, and resettlement, told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “We can accommodate about 5,000 people at the same time by the end of January.”
Myanmar and Bangladesh agreed in November to repatriate some of the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees who fled the region during a brutal military crackdown that began in August 2017, which included killings, rapes, and village burnings.
Though officials from the two countries have a working group dedicated to the repatriation program, Bangladeshi officials said Monday that the voluntary repatriations would not likely begin on Jan. 22 because the logistics are not yet in place. Those who can prove prior residency in Myanmar will be permitted to return.
But Win Myat Aye said the repatriations can begin on Jan. 22 and that the two reception centers will be expanded to handle 30,000 Rohingya.
With financial assistance from the World Bank, the Myanmar government has purchased more than 1,000 waterproof tents that can each hold 10 people, he said.
China, Myanmar’s major trading partner, is also providing assistance for displaced persons in Rakhine state. On Jan. 6, the country delivered about 100 prefabricated houses to accommodate up to eight people each, China’s official Xinhua news agency reported.
Speaking at a ceremony marking the delivery, Hong Liang, China’s ambassador to Myanmar, pledged to continue China’s assistance to conflict-displaced people in the region as well as help develop the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone to build up Rakhine state’s economy, the report said.
Rights groups and the United Nations have cautioned against a hasty return of the refugees, saying that they will continue to face repression and discrimination in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, where they are considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and are denied citizenship and access to basic services.
They also argue that some Rohingya who want to return may not have documents proving prior residency because their homes were burned during the crackdown and they fled with few belongings.
While Myanmar officials insist that immigration officers have records to verify residency claims, they say the problem now is that they have not yet received any completed repatriation application forms from Bangladesh.
“We have sent the forms for refugees who want to return voluntarily to complete to fill out, and [we have] buildings and teams of workers in place to process the returnees,” said Myint Kyaing, Myanmar’s permanent secretary of the Ministry of Labor, Immigration, and Population. “But the Bangladeshi government has not sent any forms back to us yet.”
“The Bangladeshi government said Rohingya repatriation can be delayed, but this is not because of the Myanmar side, because we have everything ready,” he said. “It is because of their process. [Myanmar’s} Union government, all ministries, and the Rakhine state government have willingly been working together on the refugee repatriation process.”
There was no immediate response from Bangladesh to Myint Kyaing’s assertions.
Admission of wrongdoing
In a related development, Myanmar’s military said on Wednesday that it would take action against soldiers who killed and burned 10 Rohingya during attacks in early September following the murder of an ethnic Rakhine man.
The killings occurred during the military crackdown that began in response to deadly assaults on police outposts by the Muslim militant group Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on Aug. 25
After the army announced that a mass grave containing 10 bodies had been discovered in Rakhine’s Inn Din village in Maungdaw township, a senior officer was appointed to investigate. His probe found that soldiers killed the 10 men, according to an announcement on the Facebook page of Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of Myanmar’s armed forces.
The 10 men were part of a larger group of 200 Rohingya “terrorists” who attacked security forces with sticks and swords, the statement said.
They were captured after soldiers drove the rest away by firing into the air, the statement said.
“Some villagers from Inn Din village and security forces confessed they killed 10 Bengali terrorists,” the Facebook post said, using a derogatory term for the Rohingya.
“The decision was made to kill them at a cemetery,” it said.
The announcement came as a rare admission of wrongdoing by the Myanmar military, which has denied committing extrajudicial killings and other atrocities against the Rohingya during the crackdown.
The United Nations and United States have said that the campaign amounted to ethnic cleansing, while others have suggested that the military’s actions may constitute genocide.
London-based Amnesty International said on Wednesday that the military’s admission exposed extrajudicial killings of Rohingya during the crackdown
“This grisly admission is a sharp departure from the army’s policy of blanket denial of any wrongdoing, said James Gomez, the organization’s regional director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, in a statement.
“However, it is only the tip of the iceberg and warrants serious independent investigation into what other atrocities were committed amid the ethnic cleansing campaign that has forced out more than 655,000 Rohingya from Rakhine state since last August,” he said.
“It is appalling that soldiers have attempted to justify extrajudicial executions by saying they were needed as reinforcements elsewhere and did not know what to do with the men,” he said. “Such behavior shows a contempt for human life which is simply beyond comprehension.”
Foreign extremist groups
Min Aung Hlaing said on Tuesday that foreign extremist groups are likely backing ARSA, which carried out an ambush on Jan. 5 that injured six soldiers and their civilian driver. ASRA said the attack was in retaliation for the military continuing to commit atrocities against the Rohingya in northern Rakhine.
“It is most likely that terrorist organizations based in other countries are backing the ARSA extremist Bengali terrorists,” Min Aung Hlaing said during a meeting with his Singaporean counterpart in Naypyidaw, the online news service Democratic Voice of Burma reported.
“For that reason, Myanmar will cooperate with other friendly countries in preventing acts of terror perpetrated by these terrorists,” he was quoted as saying. “Several countries have endured experiences similar to those of Myanmar. That’s why we need to cooperate together more than ever.”
The Myanmar government has pledged to fight back against ARSA on Monday after the group issued a statement claiming responsibility for the ambush.
Reported by Thiri Min Zin and Khin Khin Ei for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.