Myanmar has rejected an offer by China to facilitate a visit by a group of Rohingya refugees to its Rakhine state to investigate the situation there ahead of a possible repatriation from temporary camps across the border in Bangladesh, a senior Myanmar foreign ministry official confirmed Thursday.
Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen told reporters on Wednesday that Myanmar’s government had dismissed the proposal, originally floated by Li Jiming, the new Chinese ambassador to Bangladesh, during talks with Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar last month and formally discussed during a meeting last week between Myanmar, Chinese and Bangladeshi delegates on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
On Thursday, Aung Ko, the director general of the political affairs department for Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told RFA’s Myanmar Service his government had never agreed to the offer and is waiting for Bangladesh to “allow” the refugees to return to the border, whereupon they will be accepted following individual assessments.
“We never agreed to their suggestion, even though the media reported it as a formal proposal, and our position has not changed,” he said, calling the offer “one-sided.”
“We will stick to the bilateral agreement to accept returning refugees after they are assessed … We can’t do anything, as the other side hasn’t allowed the refugees to return yet. We have made all the necessary preparations for repatriation, but it will work only if we have the cooperation from the other side. The conditions are the same as before.”
Aung Ko did not provide a reason for why Myanmar’s government does not want the Rohingya refugees to visit Rakhine state or explain why it is “one sided.”
Following Wednesday’s meeting in New York, Myanmar’s Union Minister Kyaw Tin said his government is working with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the U.N., and partner nations “to implement the repatriation process,” and that Myanmar, China, and Bangladesh had agreed to form a “working group” to address the situation.
More than 740,000 Rohingya fled to southeastern Bangladesh from Myanmar after government security forces launched a brutal crackdown in August 2017 in the wake of deadly attacks by Rohingya insurgents on police and army posts in Rakhine state. Various U.N. and international agencies and NGOs describe the campaign as ethnic cleaning, if not genocidal.
Myanmar and Bangladesh have tried twice to repatriate Rohingya refugees who fled during the 2017 crackdown, but their efforts failed after no one showed up at the border for re-entry processing.
Most of the refugees have said that they will not return to Rakhine state unless the government can guarantee their safety, grant them citizenship, and allow them freedom of movement.
‘No difference for us’
At the time of Li’s proposal last month, a Rohingya leader in Bangladesh named Mohammad Jasim told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service, that he and other members of the refugee community had given their consent.
However, on Thursday, Mohammad Juharal, a Rohingya leader from the No. 20 Balukhali refugee camp, told RFA said he believes such an advance visit would “make no difference for us.”
“[We have heard that] in Myanmar, there has been no progress or changes for the Rohingya who remained,” he said, adding that “very few people want to participate in such a plan, because it won’t change anything.”
He said he was unaware of Myanmar having rejected the proposal, which the government of Bangladesh had encouraged the Rohingya to accept, but that few refugees are interested, because “even those left in Rakhine state lack freedom of movement.”
Aye Lwin, a Muslim leader in Myanmar who was a member of a commission headed by former U.N. chief Kofi Annan that called for an end to restrictions on the Rohingya minority to prevent further violence in Rakhine state, said that if Myanmar’s government is willing to consider the offer, the Rohingya refugees should accept.
“If it were to be implemented honestly and accurately, they should participate,” he said.
“These refugees won’t return to their home because they lack trust. The best way to gain trust is to see the situation with their own eyes.”
‘Ready to accept’
Meanwhile, Soe Aung, the administrator of Rakhine state’s Maungdaw district, said authorities are “ready to accept refugees” at the Ngakhuya, Taungbyo and Hlaphoekhaung outposts of the border with Bangladesh.
“We have prepared to be able to process at full capacity for filling out documents and other requirements,” he said.
“If 150 refugees return, we can process 150 persons.”
In August, officials from Bangladesh and Myanmar said they plan to repatriate 300 Rohingya each day according to the terms of a bilateral agreement signed last year, provided the refugees voluntarily agree to go.
Under such an arrangement, it would take nearly seven years to return the Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh to Myanmar’s Rakhine state.
A report released on Sept. 16 by the Independent International Fact-finding Mission (FFM) set up by the U.N. Human Rights Council warned that the roughly 600,000 Rohingya who remain in Myanmar still face a “serious risk of genocide” and called for Myanmar to be held responsible for the violence against the Rohingya.
Myanmar rejected that report, but Rohingya living in Rakhine in camps set up after deadly communal strife in 2012 confirmed that they live in fear and hardship.
“It has been seven years living in this camp. It is like we live in a concentration camp. We lost everything, our livelihood, business, access to health, education and our social lives. We are now struggling hard for our very survival,” Ba Sein, a resident of Thae Chaung refugee camp, in Rakhine’s Sittwe township told RFA.
Reported by Wai Mar Tun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.