UPDATED at 11:36 A.M. EDT on 2018-11-01
A group of Rohingya Muslim refugees living in Bangladesh have called for recognition as an ethnic group and restoration of their Myanmar citizenship rights as key conditions for accepting repatriation to Rakhine state presented to officials from the two countries who visited their camp on Wednesday.
Myint Thu, permanent secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, led an 11-member team from Myanmar which was joined by an 11-member group from Bangladesh during visits to Kutupalong — the world’s largest refugee camp — and to a settlement housing Hindu refugees from Myanmar.
About 85 Rohingya leaders who met with members of the delegation handed Myint Thu a letter of demands addressed to Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, outlining the refugees’ position before some of them return to Rakhine.
Among the demands are the acceptance of the Rohingya as an official Myanmar ethnic group, the restoration of full citizenship rights for the Rohingya, and the establishment of an international security mechanism to protect them when they return, according to the letter written by the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace & Human Rights on behalf of the refugees.
The Rohingya maintain that they were recognized as an ethnic group in Myanmar with rights to full citizenship prior to the Citizenship Law of 1982, which does not include them among the country's 135 distinct ethnic groups officially acknowledged by the government.
"Before enacting this controversial law, which rendered us stateless within our own country, we were officially recognized as an ethnic group, and our rights, including full citizenship, were upheld," the letter said. "Our group's ethnic status using the name Rohingya was mentioned in many official documents, including encyclopedias, and even in school textbooks."
The Rohingya also called for compensation and reparations for lives lost, injuries inflicted, and property confiscated; the release of Rohingya prisoners being held arbitrarily in Myanmar and the removal of innocent people from lists of terrorists; the return of original homes and lands to refugees from Bangladesh and internally displaced Rohingya living in camps in Rakhine; and the lifting of restrictions on their movement and access to services.
“We demand to see evidence of your political commitment to treat us as equal citizens and human beings,” the letter said. “We hereby inform you that we will not agree to be repatriated from Bangladesh to Myanmar until we see evidence of our above demands being fulfilled.”
“You have presided over one of the most violent and catastrophic episodes our country and indeed the world has ever seen,” the letter concluded. “But you now have the opportunity to bring about a sustainable and just settlement for the communities in Rakhine state, which will help guide Myanmar back onto a path to peace.”
A brutal crackdown by the Myanmar military in northern Rakhine state in 2017 drove about 720,000 Rohingya across the border and into Bangladesh, where they now live in sprawling refugee camps.
The government has largely denied that its military committed atrocities, including indiscriminate killings, torture, rape and arson, against the Rohingya, even though the United Nations and several countries have said the campaign amounted to ethnic cleansing and genocide.
Instead, Myanmar officials have justified the crackdown as a legitimate response to attacks by a Rohingya militant group.
Repatriations to begin
Myanmar and Bangladesh signed an agreement nearly a year ago to repatriate Rohingya refugees who could be verified as eligible to return, though the program has yet to begin in earnest.
During the visit to the camps in southeastern Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar, Myint Thu, who is also head of the Myanmar team of a joint working group for repatriation, pledged during a news conference to meet the demands and to begin repatriations in mid-November, the Dhaka Tribune reported.
Myint Thu also said that Myanmar had verified 5,000 Rohingya eligible for repatriation from a list of 8,032 names that Bangladesh submitted in February, and that the first batch would consist of 2,000 Rohingya.
Myanmar has said that it was prepared to begin repatriating refugees in January, but officials blamed Bangladesh for ongoing delays.
“Myanmar officials told us that they will receive us at the border crossing, and we will have to stay in two reception centers for a few days,” said Islam, a Rohingya representative who met with Myanmar and Bangladeshi members of the delegation.
Myanmar officials will give those who are repatriated National Verification Cards to put them on the path to obtaining full citizenship, he said.
“We must be given full citizenship rights and allowed to live in our old villages,” Islam said. “The government should compensate us for all the property we lost. For our safety, we must be taken care of by the international community. We told them that we will return only after the Myanmar government accepts all our demands.”
Buddhist-majority Myanmar considers the Rohingya illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and subjects them to systematic discrimination by denying the “Bengalis” access to jobs, education, and health care, and refusing to grant them citizenship though many have lived in the country for generations.
In interviews with BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service, Rohingya refugees expressed skepticism about Myanmar's promises.
Mohammad Rafiq, chairman of the refugee camp in Ukhia sub-district of Cox's Bazar, said he and other Rohingya did not believe the Myanmar officials.
“We are skeptical about their willingness to take us back,” he told BenarNews. “They never act according to their promises.”
Aman Ullah, a leader of Unchiprang camp in Teknaf, another sub-district of Cox’s Bazar, said Myanmar must first grant civil rights for those still living in Rakhine.
“If they give it, then we will believe that Myanmar is genuinely interested in giving us the civil rights,” he said. “Then we will return.”
'They must give us all civil rights'
Others expressed similar concerns.
“We are very happy that Burmese officials came to talk to us, but we will only go when all of our demands are met,” Hazi Shafiullah, a Rohingya who attended one of the meetings, told BenarNews.
Another refugee remarked that the Rohingya fled to escape abuses allegedly committed by Myanmar’s security forces.
“If they want us to return, they must compensate our losses,” refugee Sekufa told BenarNews. “They must give us all civil rights. Otherwise, we will not return.”
Hau Do Suan, Myanmar’s permanent representative to the U.N., told RFA’s Myanmar Service on Wednesday that some of the refugees’ demands can be met, while others cannot.
“There are possible demands and impossible demands,” he said. “If they don’t want to return because they won’t get their impossible demands, then let them wait. We are ready to receive every refugee who wants to return, and we will do our best [to ensure] their survival here. We can’t ask them to return by force.”
He also denied a report by Britain’s The Guardian on Monday that the Myanmar government has been destroying traces of Rohingya villages in Rakhine state along with physical evidence of state-sponsored violence committed against Rohingya there.
The report came less than a week after Marzuki Darusman, chairman of a U.N. fact-finding mission investigating human rights violations against the Rohingya, told reporters before a briefing to the U.N. Security Council that “ongoing genocide” was occurring against Rohingya living in Myanmar, and that thousands were still fleeing to Bangladesh.
Darusman also said that the estimated 250,000-400,000 who remained in Rakhine state after the crackdown continue to suffer severe repression.
“The Myanmar government is working with bulldozers to build houses for refugees who are returning because the international community is urging Myanmar to take them back, and Myanmar has already agreed with Bangladesh to accept them back,” Hau Do Saun said.
“We can’t let them live in empty fields,” he said. “The media have to understand this.”
Amnesty protest in Australia
The European Union, Canada, the United States, and Australia have imposed travel and financial restrictions on Myanmar military officers seen as responsible for orchestrating the violence against the Rohingya in 2017.
On Wednesday, activists from the London-based rights group Amnesty International called on Australian Defense Minister Christopher Pyne to end government financial and training support for the Myanmar military during a protest outside his electorate office in Adelaide, the Australian Associated Press reported.
The Australian government set aside about A$400,000 (U.S. $284,000) in assistance for the Myanmar military in its 2017-2018 fiscal budget, primarily for emergency and disaster response, humanitarian aid, and peacekeeping, though an arms embargo introduced in 1991 remains in place.
“Our main call today is for the Australian government to immediately suspend all cooperation with the Myanmar military, which has been accused of crimes against humanity, war crimes, and possible genocide against the people of the country,” said Laura Haigh, Amnesty’s Myanmar researcher,
The group also called on the Australian government to publicly support a referral of the situation in Myanmar to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
“The abuses committed by the Myanmar military are some of the gravest under international law,” she said. “The international community — including Australia — must send a clear message that impunity will not be tolerated and that those responsible will be brought to justice.”
In early September, a pretrial chamber of the ICC ruled that the court could exercise jurisdiction over Myanmar for the alleged deportation of the Rohingya during the crackdown, because Bangladesh is a member of the international tribunal, even though Myanmar is not.
Later that month, chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda opened a preliminary probe into whether Myanmar’s “forced deportations” of Rohingya to Bangladesh could constitute war crimes or crimes against humanity.
Reported by Khin Khin Ei, Khin Maung Soe, and Nandar Chann for RFA’s Myanmar Service, and by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.