Win Myat Aye, Myanmar’s minister of social welfare, relief, and resettlement, is visiting Bangladesh on April 11-12 to discuss the repatriation of some of the hundreds of thousands Rohingya refugees living in sprawling displacement camps. He is the first cabinet minister to travel to the camps and meet with the Rohingya, members of an ethnic group not officially recognized by Myanmar which considers them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and subjects them to systematic discrimination. On Wednesday, Win Myat Aye spoke with a few dozen Rohingya who had fled Rakhine state during a brutal military crackdown that included killings, rape, torture, and arson. He is also meeting with representatives from the United Nations and Bangladeshi government officials to discuss delays in the repatriation program that the two countries agreed to in November and Myanmar’s preparations for the return of the Rohingya. On Thursday, reporter Aung Theinkha of RFA’s Myanmar Service asked Myint Thu, permanent secretary of Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, about Win Myat Aye’s visit to southeastern Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district where the camps are located. What follows is an edited version of their conversation.
RFA: What do you know about Minister Win Myat Aye’s visit to Bangladesh?
Myint Thu: As far as we know, Bangladeshi authorities arranged for Win Myat Aye and his team to meet with United Nations agencies and refugee camp officials in Cox’s Bazar. Win Myat Aye explained to them about the UEHRD [Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement and Development in Rakhine, a Myanmar government initiative to rebuild infrastructure and the economy in tattered Rakhine state and to prepare for the return of Rohingya refugees] and the repatriation process. That was the aim of this visit as well.
RFA: Did the refugees understand and accept what the minister said?
Myint Thu: The minister met with refugee camp officials and village heads. We assume that they will share the information with the refugees.
RFA: We heard that refugees are afraid to return home to Myanmar. What are you doing about this?
Myint Thu: There are some people from interfaith organizations and women groups. They discussed this fear with the refugees.
RFA: What guarantees of safety can you give the refugees once they return to Rakhine state?
Myint Thu: Both countries [Myanmar and Bangladesh] have been working together on this issue, and Myanmar is going to sign memorandums of understanding with the UNHCR [U.N. refugee agency] and the UNDP [United Nations Development Programme] to work together on the repatriation process. I think their concerns, such as the fear of returning home and whether there will be enough security, will die down once the U.N. agencies get involved.
RFA: The refugees say they don’t want to live in internally displaced persons camps when they return to Rakhine state. What will the government do about this?
Myint Thu: We have already announced that they have to stay only one or two days at the two repatriation centers in Taung Pyo Letwe and Nga Khu Ya villages. After that, they will be sent to a transit camp in Hla Pho Khaung village. We have been building new villages for these refugees, so they will have to stay at the transit camp only about a month.
RFA: Did Bangladeshi authorities or refugees say anything about the use of the term “Rohingya?”
Myint Thu: The Myanmar delegation said no one mentioned it. The delegation's visit was successful and useful in that it had a chance to explain what Myanmar is doing about the issue.
RFA: What is the Myanmar delegation’s schedule for the second day of its visit?
Myint Thu: The delegation will meet officials from Bangladesh’s foreign affairs and home affairs ministries. We believe that because of this trip, we will be able to work together more closely so that the repatriation process will speed up.
RFA: One U.N. official said Myanmar is not ready to take the refugees back, but you said the country is ready to accept them. Why is this?
Myint Thu: What the U.N. said is just an accusation, though we have been saying that we have been ready to receive refugees back since January. We often have taken international diplomats and U.N. officials to the repatriation centers and showed them what we are doing there and how we ready we are.
Reported by Aung Theinkha for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Edited by Roseanne Gerin.