Hindu Rohingya refugees who fled a 2017 military crackdown in Myanmar have appealed to State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi to let them leave refugee camps in Bangladesh and return to Rakhine state, according to a mobile phone video obtained by Radio Free Asia (RFA), a BenarNews sister service.
Several hundred Hindus along with more than 740,000 Muslim Rohingyas fled to safety in southeastern Bangladesh after deadly attacks on border police outposts by Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) insurgents provoked a brutal military crackdown in Rakhine two years ago.
Though the governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh have agreed to repatriate refugees now living in sprawling displacement camps, none have returned under two previous attempts, failing to show up at the border for re-entry processing.
The stateless Rohingya, who face systematic discrimination in Myanmar because they are viewed as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, have refused to return unless they are granted full citizenship, recognition as a national ethnic group, and basic rights, as well as guaranteed a safe environment. The Rohingya say they had Myanmar citizenship, but it was stripped away in 1982.
Aye Lwin, a Muslim leader in Myanmar who was a member of a commission headed by former U.N. chief Kofi Annan that called for an end to restrictions on the Rohingya minority to prevent further violence in Rakhine state, said the Rohingyas’ demands were untenable.
“They demand to be recognized as a national ethnic group without any verification,” he said. “There is a huge difference between granting citizenship and recognizing a national ethnic group.”
“But this demand has prevented the reaching of a resolution, so we have suggested that they make these demands later,” he said.
Hindu refugees in Bangladesh camps, however, told BenarNews, that they were willing to return to Myanmar.
Some of those who wish to return have government-issued National Verification Cards that identify them as “foreigners,” but unlike the Muslim Rohingya, they are not making any demands linked to repatriation.
Shishu Shil, a 32-year old Hindu refugee who lives at the Kutupalong camp in Cox’s Bazar District told BenarNews that he and some of the other hundreds of Hindus there were prepared to return to their homes in Myanmar.
“If Myanmar takes us back, we will go,” he said. “The reason we want to go back is because the Myanmar government did not bother us. And the Bangladeshi government is also not bothering us.”
“We don’t want to stay in a foreign country,” Shishu Shil added. “We have no demands for Myanmar or for this country for our return. But during our return and afterwards when we are living Myanmar, we want only one assurance – that al-Yaqin [ARSA] will not bother us.”
‘We have no demands’
Minto Rudra, a 51-year-old Hindu refugee, also said he was willing to return to Myanmar.
“The Myanmar government did not abuse us, rather those people dressed in black [ARSA militants] did,” he said. “Then we came to Bangladesh. The Bangladeshi government provides us food and protects us well, but now we want to go back to Myanmar.”
“We have no demands,” he added. “We will go any place where the Myanmar government will let us. … Even if everyone doesn’t go, I think at least 400 to 450 of us will want to go back.”
Sonabala, a 57-year-old Hindu who lives in the camp with her daughter, said they both wanted to return to Myanmar because of the hardship they face in Bangladesh where refugees must deal with dengue fever, rainwater in their shelters, damaged roofs, and low food supplies.
“The World Food Program provides us with food once a month,” she said. “They give us food worth 770 Bangladesh taka (U.S. $9). How can we manage with this?”
Min Thu, minister for the Office of the Myanmar Government, said his country had been waiting to repatriate the Hindus in Bangladesh.
“We are also willing to bring them back, especially the 444 Hindus there, so we will continue to discuss this with the Bangladeshi government at the ministerial level,” he said.
‘We don’t differentiate’
On the day that ARSA carried out its attacks, a group of extremists invaded Hindu villages in northern Rakhine state and massacred about 100 Hindu men, women, and children.
They also abducted a handful of women and took them to the Bangladeshi refugee camps where they forced them to convert to Islam.
The violence and the subsequent crackdown by the Myanmar military prompted about 30,000 Hindus and other non-Muslims living in northern Rakhine to flee south to Mrauk-U, Sittwe, Kyauktaw, and Minbya, according to the Myanmar government, while hundreds of other Hindus headed west to Bangladesh.
In January 2018, Myanmar agreed to take back the 444 Hindus and nearly 780 Muslim Rohingya living in Bangladeshi camps without verification of their identities, but Dhaka turned down its proposal.
M. Shamim Ahamad, press minister for the Bangladesh Embassy in Washington, said his country did not differentiate among the various refugees in the massive displacement camps.
“Clearly, we don’t differentiate who is Hindu, who is Muslim, who is Christian … All are Rohingya, and there is a process of repatriation.”
Since then, thousands of other Rohingya have been approved for return under the terms of a November 2017 agreement between Myanmar and Bangladesh, but they have refused to go back.
Rohingya trust in Myanmar remains low, because the government has not acknowledged or held soldiers accountable for the well-documented campaign of rape, murder, and the burning of Rohingya homes during the army’s counteroffensive in response to the ARSA attacks.
United Nations investigators have called for the prosecution of Myanmar’s top military commanders on charges of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court.
“[The Rohingya refugees’] demands include full citizenship and recognition as a national ethnic group. This is an illogical demand,” said Hau Do Suan, Myanmar’s permanent representative to the United Nations. “National ethnic groups are already designated and cannot be changed. It will make the repatriation process impossible.”
“But the Hindu refugees haven’t made any demands,” he said. “They accept the status we can grant them upon their return. That makes it work.”
‘They have a right to return’
Though the displaced Hindus in Bangladesh told BenarNews that they wanted to go back to Myanmar, the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) said none of the refugees had indicated that they would like to return voluntarily.
“If refugees want to return, they have a right to return. We have always made that clear,” Caroline Gluck, an UNHCR spokesperson based in Bangkok, told RFA's Myanmar Service on Sept. 6.
“But as far as I am aware, our office has not received any requests from any refugees whether they are Muslims or Hindus wanting to go at this stage.”
Some of the displaced Hindus who fled to safety in other parts of Rakhine state during the August 2017 crackdown have said they do not want to return to their former homes.
Dozens of Hindus ordered by authorities to return to their community sent a joint letter to Myanmar’s Ministry of Livestock, Fisheries and Rural Development on Jan. 21, imploring officials not to send them back to the township where their entire village was destroyed by ARSA.
The nearly 70 who were staying at a temple in Rakhine’s capital Sittwe said they were concerned about their safety if forced to return to their community.
During the Hindu refugees stay in Bangladesh, a new safety threat has emerged in Rakhine — a low-intensity but deadly conflict throughout 2019 between the Myanmar military and Arakan Army, which is fighting for more autonomy for Buddhist Rakhine people in the state.
Sunil Barua contributed to this report from Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.