The United Nations special envoy to Myanmar met on Tuesday with the deputy speaker of the Rakhine state parliament and leaders from the region’s dominant political party, as the troubled state deals with a recent escalation in armed conflict, thousands of displaced civilians, and Rohingya refugees still languishing in neighboring Bangladesh.
Christine Schraner Burgener asked deputy speaker Mya Than about the situation of some 6,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) who have fled their communities in Rakhine State due to an increase in hostilities between the Myanmar Army and the Arakan Army (AA) since late November.
Mya Than told RFA’s Myanmar Service that he informed the envoy that state lawmakers will hold a meeting on Feb. 13 to discuss additional support for the IDPs and ways to guide state officials so that they can end the fighting.
Burgener also met with leaders from the Arakan National Party (ANP), which represents the interests of the Rakhine people in the state, sources said. She will spend the night in Rahine’s capital Sittwe and visit the Kyeinni Pyin Muslim IDP camp in Pauktaw township on Wednesday.
It is not yet known if Burgener will meet with State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi or senior military leaders, an unnamed official from the Ministry for Foreign Affairs told the Myanmar Times.
The U.N. envoy arrived in Myanmar on Jan. 19 and could spend as long as a week in the country, although her official schedule has not been confirmed, the official told the publication.
Burgener is working with the government on how the U.N. can help with the return and resettlement of Rohingya Muslims who fled a brutal crackdown by security forces in 2017 following deadly attacks on police outposts by a Rohingya militant group. The violence also displaced ethnic Rakhines and Hindus, a group of whom were killed by the militants and dumped in mass graves.
More than 725,000 Rohingya fled from the northern Rakhine townships of Maungdaw, Buthidaung, and Rathedaung across the border to Bangladesh, where they have been living in sprawling displacement camps.
Myanmar and Bangladesh signed an agreement in November 2017 for the repatriation of some of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who fled Rakhine, though the program has not yet begun on a mass scale, and few Rohingya have expressed a willingness to return without safety guarantees.
During a previous trip in October 2018, Burgener met with San Kyaw Hla, speaker of Rakhine state’s parliament, and representatives from Muslim, ethnic Rakhine Buddhist, and Hindu communities in the troubled multiethnic region's Maungdaw township.
During her first visit in June 2018, nearly two months after her appointment to her post, Burgener visited Maungdaw to tour repatriation facilities and villages affected by violence during the 2017 military crackdown.
She also met with Aung San Suu Kyi and military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing in the capital Naypyidaw.
'A solid guarantee'
Burgener’s latest visit comes as more than 2,000 civilians displaced by fighting in Kyauktaw and Ponnakyun townships have been holed up in safe havens far from the hostilities for more than a month.
Several displaced villagers living at the Ahtet Myit IDP camp in Ponnakyun township told RFA that they have lost hope because they do not know when they will be able to return to their homes.
They said they have received some food supplies from local donors, but they still lack adequate supplies of water, shelter, and health services.
“The IDP camp is not like our house,” said Bi Shi Htaw, a villager from Kyauktaw township who is residing temporarily at the Ahtet Myit IDP camp in Ponnakyun township, which houses about 400 people.
“We are unhappy,” he said. “We don’t have enough water or food or utensils for cooking, but we have to live with it.”
The Rakhine state government has banned NGOs and the U.N. from providing aid to civilians in five townships affected by hostilities between the AA and the government military, and locals have reported that Myanmar troops are restricting food supplies from reaching residents in an effort to prevent them from getting to the insurgents.
Maung Hla Aung from Kyauktaw’s Pyannya Gyi village had a stroke soon after he arrived at the Ahtet Myit Le camp, his wife Sein Hla told RFA through an interpreter.
“He had a stroke, though he wasn’t sick before,” she said. “It might be because of the cold as we have to sleep on the ground, and the roof of the tent we are in is always covered with dew. His condition is not getting better, and we can’t afford to send him to a hospital.”
Aung Tun, an IDP living in Kyauktaw’s Taung Min Kalar camp with more than 600 others who have fled recent hostilities, said that everyone will remain there until they receive “a solid guarantee” from the government military or the Arakan Army that they will be safe when they return home.
Ashin Pyinnya Bala, head monk at a monastery in Kyauktaw’s Pyin Saut village who is providing shelter to more than 500 IDPs said, “In my view, when you are building peace, it is important for the government and military to have the trust of the people. That’s why I want the government and military to try to gain the trust of the people.”
The IDPs have called on the Myanmar government to stop the fighting and say it would be better for Rakhine locals if officials used the budget for development work instead of for fighting. They also said that they did not understand why Aung San Suu Kyi had asked the Myanmar military to “crush” the AA.
The AA, which represents the region’s Buddhist Rahkine ethnic group, is fighting the Myanmar Army for greater autonomy in Rakhine state.
Following a deadly attack on four police outposts by the AA in northern Rakhine state on Jan. 4, Myanmar’s Independence Day, de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint’s office called on military forces to put down the insurgency and demanded that ethnic Rakhines stop supporting the armed group.
Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay has accused the AA of having ties to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a Muslim militant group that carried out deadly armed assaults on police outposts in the same region in August 2017.
Those attacks sparked a savage crackdown on Rohingya Muslim communities by Myanmar security forces in northern Rakhine state, which included killings, torture, and mass rape, and drove more than 725,000 members of the minority group to Bangladesh.
The AA has denied having connections to ARSA, which purports to speak for the Rohingya, and analysts have said that any link between what are effectively enemy groups is improbable.
Yanghee Lee in Bangladesh
On Monday, Yanghee Lee, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, met with Rohingya refugees who fled the crackdown in northern Rakhine in displacement camps in southeastern Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district.
Lee spoke with 20 refugees about sexual abuse in the camps and about agreements between the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Myanmar government, said one displaced Rohingya who declined to be identified out of safety concerns.
“We told her what we want, and she said she will discuss our needs with the Bangladeshi government and the UNHCR,” the refugee said.
The UNHCR and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) are working with the Myanmar government on the repatriation of refugees.
Lee, who has been banned by the Myanmar government from entering the country to conduct her work since December 2017, said she was also meeting with Bangladeshi government and UNHCR officials to discuss the Rohingya issue, the refugee said.
Myanmar’s government has accused Lee of being biased and unfair in her evaluation of the situation in Rakhine, and said it would no longer cooperate with her or allow her into the country for periodic visits for the remainder of her tenure.
In a statement issued on Jan. 18, Lee expressed alarm at what she called the Myanmar military’s “disproportionate response to the [Jan. 4] attack,” and its impact on civilians, and urged the government military and ethnic armies to show restraint and protect civilians in Rakhine and adjacent Chin state.
She also warned that blocking humanitarian access to the troubled region is a serious violation of international law.
“Yanghee Lee is a person whom our country doesn’t recognize [as a U.N. special rapporteur],” said Myint Thein, director of the Relief and Resettlement Department under Myanmar’s Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement.
“That’s why Myanmar doesn’t even allow her to enter the country,” he said. “So, I don’t want to comment on her visit in Bangladesh.”
Myanmar signed an agreement with Bangladesh in November 2017 to repatriate some of the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees, but the program has yet to get underway.
Though an initial group of refugees had been approved for return in mid-November 2018, they failed to show up at the border for processing.
Rohingya camp leaders have demanded that the Myanmar government accept the Rohingya as an official ethnic group and restore their full citizenship rights as two of several key conditions for their return to northern Rakhine.
“Regarding the repatriation program, we are ready not only for it, but also for the resettlement of refugees,” said Myint Thein whose ministry is overseeing the repatriation program.
“During the [previous] time, objections occurred, and it was said that the refugees didn’t want to return,” he said. “We don’t want that kind of problem this time. That’s why we have asked refugees who want to return to sign forms saying they want to return voluntarily.”
Despite the recent clashes between the Myanmar military and the AA, the government has indicated that it wants to proceed with the repatriation program.
Four days after the AA killed 13 police officers and wounded nine others in the Jan. 4 attacks on four police outposts in Buthidaung township, Myanmar's Foreign Affairs Ministry requested a meeting with Bangladesh’s ambassador to the country to discuss the immediate return of verified refugees, the Myanmar Times said.
Myanmar officials handed over a list of more than 600 verified refugees, including Hindu families, to the Bangladeshi envoy and urged the country to begin returning them as soon as possible, the report said.
IOM distributes kits
Meanwhile, the U.N.-affiliated International Organization for Migration (IOM) on Tuesday began distributing 10,000 household kits to vulnerable Bangladeshi families living in Ukhia sub-district of Cox’s Bazar where roughly 1 million Rohingya refugees are now living after fleeing violence from the 2017 violence and earlier crackdowns in Rakhine state.
The kits are being handed out as a community stabilization measure amid the massive strain on infrastructure and inflated prices that the influx of people has created in the impoverished and underdeveloped area.
The IOM is distributing the kits, which include two blankets, two floor mats, one kitchen set, and three bamboo baskets, amid colder weather, especially at night along the Bay of Bengal, the organization said in a statement issued Tuesday.
They are being given to female-headed households, single-parent families, families with members suffering from a disability or serious illness, pregnant or lactating women, child-headed households and those with a separated or unaccompanied child, families that rely on irregular or casual labor, and those whose income has dropped due to the impact of the refugee crisis, the statement said.
“The local community in Cox’s Bazar has been remarkably generous during the refugee crisis, and we know that the need for support extends beyond those in the refugee camps,” said Manuel Pereira, IOM’s emergency coordinator in Cox’s Bazar.
“IOM is committed to extending our support to the host community, and these kits will help make life more comfortable for some of Ukhia’s most vulnerable families,” he said.
Reported by Thiri Min Zin, Min Thein Aung, and Htet Arkar for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.