The United Nations special envoy to Myanmar met with State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi in Naypyidaw on Friday to discuss the Rohingya crisis in beleaguered Rakhine state, where the repatriation of some of the 720,000 Muslim refugees who fled to Bangladesh last year during a crackdown has yet to get fully underway.
Christine Schraner Burgener, appointed to her post in April by U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, spoke with Myanmar’s leader about how the U.N. can help with the return and resettlement of the Rohingya, said Chan Aye, director general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
A former Swiss diplomat, Burgener met with Aung San Suu Kyi, who also serves as Myanmar's foreign affairs minister, at the start of a nine-day visit.
She had earlier met with Lt. Gen. Soe Win, vice chief of staff of the Myanmar Army, on Monday to discuss the Rakhine issue and the use of child soldiers by the military, Chan Aye said.
Burgener will also meet with Win Myat Aye, the minister of social welfare, relief, and resettlement who is overseeing the repatriation of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh, with Attorney General Htun Htun Oo, and with officials in Rakhine state, he said.
Myanmar has agreed to take back Rohingya refugees who have been verified as eligible to return to Rakhine state, though the process has not begun in earnest.
Burgener, who has an office in Naypyidaw, is tasked with enhancing cooperation between the U.N. and Myanmar to address the crisis in Rakhine, help bridge differences in the ethnically and religiously divided state, and assist the government with its peace process efforts.
She will issue a statement about her latest visit after it ends on Oct. 20.
Burgener previously met with Aung San Suu Kyi and military commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing in June. She also spent two days in Rakhine’s Maungdaw township, where she toured repatriation facilities and villages affected by violence during the brutal military campaign that targeted Rohingya civilians following deadly attacks on police outposts by a Muslim militant group.
The U.N. and other members of the international community have said that the crackdown amounted to ethnic cleansing and genocide.
An important visit
Myanmar political analyst Aung Thu Nyein said Burgener's current visit is very important, especially considering that the U.N. has recently put a lot of pressure on Myanmar, and that earlier this year the government refused to let a U.N.-mandated commission into the country to investigate the situation in Rakhine.
“Considering the way she was welcomed on arrival at the airport, it seems that the government is not placing much emphasis on the visit,” he said. “[But] we have to realize that this woman has the power to serve as a negotiator to address the differences between the U.N. and the Myanmar government.”
Burgener will also likely broach the topic of Myanmar’s stalled peace process which Aung San Suu Kyi is spearheading to try to end seven decades of civil war in the country.
“In the past, special envoys did not have the opportunity to talk about the peace process, but now this woman has the chance to give suggestions or advice on the issue to the parties concerned,” said Aung Myo Min, executive director of Equality Myanmar, an NGO that facilitates human rights education and advocacy programs.
“But the question is how much the Myanmar government or the world will listen to her recommendations,” said Aung Myo Min, who met Burgener during her first visit to Myanmar in June.
The government has denied credible evidence and reports by the U.N. and rights groups that security forces committed widespread atrocities against Rohingya civilians, including indiscriminate killings, rape, torture, and arson, during the crackdown. Instead, it has defended the campaign as a counterinsurgency operation against the Muslim militants who carried out the attacks on police outposts.
Besides the U.N.-appointed fact-finding mission, Myanmar has also refused to let in representatives from the U.N.’s human rights office and the special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar to probe the Rakhine crisis.
After conducting remote monitoring of the situation, the U.N.-mandated fact-finding mission that investigated atrocities committed against the Rohingya issued a report in September detailing violence by security forces and calling for the prosecution of top commanders as well as the removal of the country’s powerful military from politics.
The government, however, has agreed to work with the U.N.’s refugee and development agencies, which are conducting field assessments and surveys in northern Rakhine to facilitate the return and reintegration of Rohingya refugees.
Six more Rohingya return
Meanwhile, six Rohingya, including a family of five who had fled to Bangladesh, returned to Rakhine state on Wednesday after authorities approved them for repatriation, Maungdaw district administrator Myint Khine told RFA's Myanmar Service.
One is from Yaydwinbyin (south) village, and the family of five is from Kyaingyaungtaung village, he said.
“Their houses had been ravaged by fire, so they are now living with friends in the town,” he said, adding that the refugee reception center has provided them with basic staples such as rice, oil, and beans, as well as blankets and mosquito nets.
“We came back because we could no longer stand the threat of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) in the Bangladesh refugee camps,” said one of the returnees, Mahmoud Sharaf, referring to the Muslim militant group that conducted deadly attacks on police outposts in northern Rakhine in 2017 and on border guard stations in 2016.
ARSA members operating in the sprawling refugee camps recently killed one of his neighbors named Aragula, he said.
“More people are now showing an interest in returning to Myanmar after we told them about our living conditions here,” Mahmoud Sharaf said. “It’s pretty quiet here. The security situation is so different here compared to over there. Maungdaw district and township authorities are providing us with basic staples.”
More than 100 Rohingya refugees who have returned to Myanmar after being screened, including 90-some who were adrift in a boat after leaving Bangladesh and a family of six who were repatriated in August, are being looked after by township authorities, Myint Khine said.
“They were then relocated to their places of origin, and some of those who have homes there were relocated to their friends’ houses via the refugee reception centers,” he said.
Many Rohingya refugees have expressed fear of returning to Myanmar where they are considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, face systematic discrimination, and are denied access to health care and freedom of movement.
Myanmar will likely begin repatriating the first large group of Rohingya refugees after representatives from its Joint Working Group meet with their Bangladeshi counterparts at the end of October, the online journal The Irrawaddy reported Friday, citing Social Welfare Minister Myat Aye.
The group is responsible for working out the details of an agreement between the two countries to repatriate some of the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who fled.
The repatriations will likely take place soon after the meeting because the two U.N. agencies have already finished assessing 23 villages under consideration for potential returns, the report said.
Reported by Thiri Min Zin and Khin Khin Ei for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane and Nandar Chann. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.