Myanmar is willing to take back Rohingya refugees who fled to southeastern Bangladesh, the Bangladeshi foreign minister said Monday, after ending daylong talks with a trio of diplomats from Naypyidaw.
No timeframe was set for the repatriation process, nor did officials clarify how many of the 900,000 Rohingya refugees sheltering in Bangladesh would be able to participate.
“Myanmar has proposed taking back the Rohingya refugees. For the supervision of overall repatriation process, the two sides have agreed to form a Joint Working Group,” Foreign Minister A.H. Mahmood Ali told reporters at the Padma State Guest House in Dhaka, where the meeting took place under tight security.
Kyaw Tint Swe, the minister for the Office of the State Counsellor of Myanmar, led Naypyidaw’s delegation, but did not speak to reporters. The Myanmar delegation was due to return home early Tuesday, after arriving in Bangladesh early Monday.
Ali said the two sides had reached a “consensus” on the issue in their first high-level diplomatic encounter since violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state beginning in late August drove half a million new refugees into Bangladesh, triggering a humanitarian crisis.
“We, both the sides, want to resolve the problem in a peaceful way. And both the sides have reached a consensus,” said Ali.
On multiple occasions in recent weeks, Bangladesh’s foreign ministry summoned Myanmar’s ambassador to complain about incursions by Burmese military aircraft into Bangladeshi airspace as well as reports that Myanmar troops were planting land-mines along the frontier to prevent Rohingya from fleeing.
Officials close to the negotiations told BenarNews that neither of these issues was raised during Monday’s talks.
“One meeting will not resolve all problems ... No timeframe has been set. But it [the Joint Working Group] will be formed very soon,” Ali said, adding that he was “very optimistic” about future talks between the two neighboring countries.
“Very fruitful talks took place. Bangladesh reiterated its zero tolerance on terrorism,” he said, apparently referring to insurgents from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) whose attacks on police outposts in Rakhine state on Aug. 25 resulted in a brutal military crackdown.
‘Our next immediate priority’
In Geneva, meanwhile, Win Myat Aye, Myanmar’s union minister of social welfare, relief and resettlement, told the U.N. refugee agency on Monday that “[o]ur next immediate priority is to bring back the refugees who have fled to Bangladesh.”
“The repatriation process can start any time for those who wish to return to Myanmar,” the minister said, according to Agence France-Presse.
“The verification of refugees will be based on the agreement between the Myanmar and Bangladesh governments in 1993,” he said, adding, “Those who have been verified as refugees from this country will be accepted without any problem and with full assurance of their security and their access to human dignity.”
Last week, Myanmar’s government said it would build two repatriation camps in Rakhine state for Rohingya who had fled to Bangladesh.
Myanmar’s minister of labor, immigration and population told reporters on Thursday that the government would send forms to Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh to start the process, according to a report by Radio Free Asia (RFA), a sister entity of BenarNews.
In Rakhine on Monday, three helicopters ferried some 50 foreign diplomats on a tour of areas of state that were hit by the recent violence, RFA reported.
Diplomats from Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, India, Pakistan, the United States, France, Denmark and the European Union took part in the visit to the villages of Khamaungsake, Nurular and Shwe Zar in Maungdaw Township where violent attacks had occurred, as well as Pantaw Pyin Muslim village, where no violence had been reported.
A statement issued by the U.N. office in Yangon expressed appreciation for the government-organized visit, in which three U.N. representatives took part.
“The scale of human suffering is unimaginable and the U.N. extends its deepest condolences to all those affected,” the statement said.
“The U.N. advocates for the end to the cycle of violence and for establishing law and order and the rule of law; to allow unfettered access for humanitarian support; and to ensure the safe, voluntary, dignified and sustainable return of the refugees to their areas of origin.”
It also urged Myanmar to grant the media and human rights advocates greater access to the area to assess “the concerns and needs of all communities in affected areas.”