Myanmar Signs MoU With UN Agencies on Repatriation of Rohingya Refugees

Aung San Suu Kyi’s office hopes UN involvement will speed up the returns, but the UN is calling the pact a first step.

A Myanmar official (R) signs a memorandum of understanding with a United Nations representative (L) in Myanmar's capital Naypyidaw, June 6, 2018.

Myanmar signed an agreement with two United Nations agencies on Wednesday to assist with the repatriation of some of the nearly 700,000 Rohingya Muslims who fled a violent military crackdown in northern Rakhine state and are now living in overcrowded displacement camps in Bangladesh.

The memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the U.N.’s development (UNDP) and refugee (UNHCR) agencies will help with the voluntary return and reintegration of displaced Rohingya, assess conditions in Rakhine state for those who are contemplating returns, and support programs that benefit all communities in the multiethnic state.

The statement referred to “displaced persons” and not the Rohingya by name because Myanmar does not include the minority Muslim group as one of the country’s official ethnic groups under the 1982 Citizenship Law.

“The signing of the MoU is expected to enhance the work already undertaken by the government of Myanmar since last year for the voluntary, safe, and dignified repatriation of the displaced persons,” said a statement issued by State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi's office.

“It is hoped that with the U.N.’s involvement, the repatriation process will hasten,” it said.

Myanmar and Bangladesh signed an agreement for the voluntary return of Rohingya refugees last November, but so far only several dozen refugees returned illegally on their own in May.

The U.N. and rights groups have warned that the stateless Rohingya, who are considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, will continue to be discriminated against after they return to Myanmar and be denied citizenship and access to basic services in the Buddhist-majority country.

Following a May visit to Rakhine state by U.N. Security Council diplomats, the Council called on Myanmar to involve the U.N. agencies in a probe of allegations that the military carried out killings, torture, rape, and arson in Rohingya communities during the crackdown.

“The MoU [signed] today serves as the first important and necessary step to establish a framework cooperation between the U.N., and more specifically the UNHCR and UNDP, with the government to start working at creating conditions which could be conducive to the voluntary return of refugees from Bangladesh,” said Giuseppe de Vincentis, the UNHCR’s representative in Myanmar, during an interview with RFA’s Myanmar Service on Wednesday.

The MoU does not set a time frame for the repatriation of some of the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh who must decide on their own whether to return to Rakhine state, he said.

“So the MoU today establishes a framework which we hope will help to build confidence to support the community [that] is still living in Rakhine and [to] create conditions that refugees in Bangladesh may consider when they make a decision about their lives,” de Vincentis said.

Local experts only

Also on Wednesday, lawmakers from the opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) submitted an urgent motion to parliament calling for the exclusion of foreign experts from an independent inquiry commission that the government is setting up to investigate human rights violations that occurred during the crackdown in response to deadly attacks in August 2017 by the Muslim militant group Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).

The civilian government under the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party announced its intention to create the three-member panel on May 31. A statement issued by President Win Myint’s office said the commission would include an international representative and would be assisted by domestic and international legal and technical experts.

The lower house of parliament accepted the motion submitted by lawmaker Sai Kyaw Moe and supported by USDP legislator Maung Myint that the commission be composed only of Myanmar experts.

“We want the government to establish a new inquiry commission only with local experts,” Sai Kyaw Moe said. “We have had experience with forming commissions with foreigners, but the problems were not resolved; they became more complex.”

“This commission should be formed only with local Myanmar experts because [they] know the Myanmar people, culture, and history very well,” he said.

In August 2016, Aung San Suu Kyi set up a nine-member advisory commission led by former U.N. chief Kofi Annan to assess the obstacles to development and sectarian tensions between Muslims and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists in Rakhine state.

Many politicians and lawmakers objected to the panel’s composition of three international experts and six domestic ones.

The commission’s final report issued in August 2017 called for a review of the country’s 1982 Citizenship Law, which prevents the Rohingya from becoming citizens, an end to restrictions on the Muslim minority in order to prevent further violence in the region, and the closure of internally displaced persons camps in Rakhine state.

A day after the report was publicly released, ARSA carried out the deadly attacks on 30 police outposts in northern Rakhine, sparking the violent campaign against the Rohingya.

“The problem began because of the operation by government security forces after the police stations were attacked by the terrorists,” said Maung Myint. “The inquiry commission will get close to the truth if it can capture the whole picture. But if it throws a curtain over ARSA’s [actions] and only investigates Myanmar security guards, police, and soldiers, it will not capture the entire story.”

Myanmar’s investigations to date, however, have been largely dismissed by human rights experts for glossing over the ferocious army campaign that drove 700,000 Rohingya into exile.

On May 1, a group of U.N. Security Council diplomats who visited northern Rakhine called on Myanmar to conduct a “proper” investigation into atrocities against the Rohingya following the ARSA attacks.

A Myanmar border police officer secures the Hla Pho Khaung processing camp for Rohingya Muslims refugees near the Bangladesh border in Maungdaw township, western Myanmar's Rakhine state, April 24, 2018. Credit: AFP
No foreigners wanted

Lawmakers from other parties also voiced discontent with the plan for the new inquiry commission.

“We have no reason to accept it,” said legislator Oo Hla Saw from the Arakan National Party, which represents the interests of the ethnic Rakhine people in Rakhine state. “We rejected the Kofi Annan commission as well.”

“Actually, we didn’t reject the commission, but we rejected having foreigners on [it] because we felt that it would turn a domestic problem into an international issue,” he said, adding that the NLD has many ethnic Bamar, Shan, and Rakhine academics and experts who would be suitable for the panel.

“But it is impossible for a foreigner to investigate such a big issue in Rakhine state,” Oo Hla Saw said. “Rakhine ethnics … don’t like foreigners.”

Lawmaker Lama Naw Aung from the Kachin Democracy Party agreed that only Myanmar nationals should be on the commission.

“It would be better for only local experts to investigate these human rights violation,” he said. “Whenever Myanmar appoints foreigners as commission leaders, it has to listen to their suggestions although they might have suggestions that are unsuitable for the [actual] situation on the ground.”

The government should include ethnic Rakhine experts to help resolve regional issues, he said.

But NLD lawmaker Aung Khin said it does not matter whether those appointed to the inquiry panel are foreigners or Myanmar nationals.

“Whether foreigners or Myanmar [citizens], it would be best if they do their jobs impartially in line with their mission and with respect for protecting human rights,” he said, adding that the panel members should not favor one community of group or another while doing their work in Rakhine state.

Reported by Nay Rein Kyaw, Win Ko Ko Latt, and Thinn Thiri for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.