Myanmar has rejected a Chinese offer to facilitate a visit by Rohingya refugees to its Rakhine state to investigate the situation there ahead of a possible repatriation from camps in Bangladesh, a senior Myanmar foreign ministry official confirmed Thursday.
Aung Ko, director general of the political affairs department at Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told the Myanmar Service of Radio Free Asia (RFA) that his government had never agreed to the offer and was waiting for Bangladesh to “allow” the refugees to return to the border, whereupon they would be accepted following individual assessments. BenarNews is affiliated with RFA.
“We never agreed to their suggestion, even though the media reported it as a formal proposal, and our position has not changed,” he said, calling the offer “one-sided.”
“We will stick to the bilateral agreement to accept returning refugees after they are assessed … We can’t do anything, as the other side hasn’t allowed the refugees to return yet. We have made all the necessary preparations for repatriation, but it will work only if we have the cooperation from the other side. The conditions are the same as before.”
A day earlier, Bangladeshi Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen told reporters in Dhaka that Myanmar’s government had dismissed the proposal. It was originally floated by Li Jiming, China’s new ambassador to Bangladesh, during talks with Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar last month.
According to Momen, the proposal was formally discussed during a meeting last week between Myanmar, Chinese and Bangladeshi delegates on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York.
Aung Ko did not provide a reason for why Myanmar’s government did not want a group of Rohingya refugees to visit Rakhine state or explain why this proposal was “one sided.”
After last week’s meeting in New York, Myanmar’s Union Minister Kyaw Tin said his government was working with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the U.N., and partner nations “to implement the repatriation process,” and that Myanmar, China, and Bangladesh had agreed to form a “working group” to address the situation.
More than 740,000 Rohingya fled to southeastern Bangladesh from Myanmar after government security forces launched a brutal crackdown in August 2017 in the wake of deadly attacks by Rohingya insurgents on police and army posts in Rakhine state. Various U.N. and international agencies and NGOs described the campaign as ethnic cleaning, if not genocidal.
Myanmar and Bangladesh have tried twice to repatriate Rohingya refugees who fled during the 2017 crackdown, but those efforts failed after no one showed up at the border for re-entry processing.
Most of the refugees have said that they would not return to Rakhine state unless the government could guarantee their safety, grant them citizenship, and allow them freedom of movement.
Plan to move Rohingya to island
In related news, a senior Bangladeshi official told BenarNews on Thursday that the government was hoping to begin relocating tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees from camps in southeastern Cox’s Bazar district to a flood-prone island in the Bay of Bengal, starting this month.
“We have set a timeline to relocate 100,000 Rohingya refugees to Bhashan Char [island] by the end of October this year. Let us see whether we can do so,” Enamur Rahman, the state minister in charge of disaster management and relief, told BenarNews.
During an inter-ministry meeting on Sept. 16, Rahman told participants that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had stressed “that we need to start the relocation” of 100,000 Rohingya refugees to Bhashan Char “by October 2019,” according to a transcript.
The minister said that officials from the ministries of Disaster Management, Home Affairs and Foreign Affairs would meet again soon to review the progress of the relocation plan.
“Our preparations for the relocation as planned will go on. We will again ask for permission from the Prime Minister on the relocation to Bhashan Char,” Rahman told Benar, adding that all necessary logistics and amenities would be ready by the middle of this month.
‘No difference for us’
At the time of Ambassador Li’s proposal last month about how China could facilitate a visit by Rohingya to Rakhine state, a Rohingya leader in Bangladesh named Mohammad Jasim told BenarNews that he and other members of the refugee community had given their consent.
But on Thursday, Mohammad Juharal, a Rohingya leader from the No. 20 Balukhali refugee camp, told RFA that he believed such an advance visit would “make no difference for us.”
“[We have heard that] in Myanmar, there has been no progress or changes for the Rohingya who remained,” he said, adding that “very few people want to participate in such a plan, because it won’t change anything.”
He said he was unaware of Myanmar having rejected the proposal, which the government of Bangladesh had encouraged the Rohingya to accept. But few refugees are interested, because “even those left in Rakhine state lack freedom of movement.”
Aye Lwin, a Muslim leader in Myanmar said that if Myanmar’s government was willing to consider the offer, the Rohingya refugees should accept.
“If it were to be implemented honestly and accurately, they should participate,” said Aye, 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.
“These refugees won’t return to their home because they lack trust. The best way to gain trust is to see the situation with their own eyes,” he said.
Kamran Reza Chowdhury in Dhaka contributed to this report produced by Radio Free Asia and its Myanmar Service.