Updated at 5:44 p.m. ET on 2018-10-31
Many Rohingya cast doubt Wednesday over promises of protection by Myanmar’s visiting foreign secretary, just weeks before the process of repatriating refugees to Rakhine state from their places of shelter in southeastern Bangladesh was due to begin.
Myanmar Foreign Secretary Myint Thu co-led a high-level bilateral visit to a refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar district ahead of the planned repatriation of about 2,000 refugees. But Rohingya refugees who met him questioned his promises and demanded they be given citizenship before they could agree to leave Bangladesh.
“We told him that we all want to return to Myanmar. But we want to live at our villages, not at the camps. We want recognition as Rohingya and citizenship,” refugee Abdur Rashid, 50, told BenarNews.
He was one of about 100 Rohingya who met with Myint Thu and other visiting officials from a Bangladesh-Myanmar joint working group (JWG). The refugees handed Myint Thu a letter of demands addressed to Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
The demands include the acceptance of the Rohingya as a Myanmar ethnic group, the restoration of full citizenship for Muslims and the establishment of an international security mechanism to protect the refugees when they return, according to the letter written by the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights on behalf of the refugees.
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 a list of terrorists; the return of original house 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 in 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.”
On Tuesday, the joint group announced plans to start the repatriation Rohingya by the middle of next month. The next day, Myint Thu and his Bangladeshi counterpart, Shahidul Haque, led 16 of the 30-member JWG team on a visit to a refugee camp in Ukhia, a sub-district of Cox’s Bazar.
Myint Thu is the second high-ranking Myanmar official to meet Rohingya at the camps in Bangladesh. In April, Myanmar Social Welfare Minister Win Myat Aye urged the Rohingya to return to the country. But protesters among the refugee community rebuffed him, calling him a collaborator in genocide.
At noon on Wednesday, Myint Thu, Haque, and Bangladesh Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner Mohammad Abul Kalam met two groups of Rohingya to brief them about measures being taken to ensure their safety during repatriation.
Myint Thu, who spoke with the refugees in Burmese, the official language of Myanmar, promised to protect their civil rights if they were to return. He also vowed to present their concerns to the country’s leaders.
Reporters were not allowed to attend the sessions, but witnesses said many of the refugees loudly protested Myint Thu’s promises.
Kalam said the Rohingya raised their demands during the meetings.
“Myanmar has been assuring us that the Rohingya would get protection,” he told BenarNews.
But a U.N. refugee agency spokesman on Wednesday said conditions on the ground were currently "not conducive for the safe, dignified and voluntary return for refugees."
"We basically have advised that the returns should not be rushed or premature," UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic told Reuters. "We would advise against setting any timetable or any target number for the repatriation."
"It is very important to understand that the repatriation needs to be a free and voluntary choice of refugees," he said.
Hau Do Suan, Myanmar’s permanent representative to the U.N., told Radio Free Asia 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 for their survival here. We can’t ask them to return by force.”
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.
Rohingya refugees who were interviewed by BenarNews were forced to flee across the border to escape a violent crackdown in Rakhine state 14 months ago.
They were among about 720,000 Rohingya Muslims who crossed over in an unprecedented exodus, after the Myanmar military launched an offensive in late August 2017 to flush out insurgents belonging to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army.
The minority Rohingya are stateless because Myanmar military dictator Gen. Ne Win scrapped their citizenship in 1982. They have since seen their movements restricted by the government.
‘They never act according to their promises’
On Nov. 23, 2017, Bangladesh and Myanmar officials signed a deal to repatriate the Rohingya in a “voluntary, safe and dignified” manner beginning on Jan. 22, 2018. Following a series of missed deadlines, the two countries agreed on Tuesday that the first batch of refugees would return next month.
Myint Thu said Myanmar had cleared 5,000 names for repatriation from a list of 8,032 Rohingya presented by Bangladesh’s home minister in February.
“From that 5,000, the first batch will be about 2,000 people. And then a second batch will follow. So in mid-November we will receive the first batch,” he told reporters.
Mohammad Rafiq, chairman of the Ukhia refugee camp, said he and other Rohingya did not believe the Myanmar officials.
“We are skeptical about their willingness to take us back. They never act according to their promises,” he told BenarNews.
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. Then we will return,” he said.
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 Benar.
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. They must give us all civil rights. Otherwise, we will not return,” refugee Sekufa told BenarNews.
Radio Free Asia (RFA), a sister entity of BenarNews, contributed to this report.