Bangladesh and Myanmar signed agreements on Tuesday to beef up security cooperation and set up border liaison offices to deal with an exodus of Rohingya Muslims who fled recent violence in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state.
Bangladeshi Home Secretary Mostafa Kamal Uddin and Myanmar Home Affairs Minister Lt. Gen. Kyaw Swe signed two memorandums of understanding in Naypyidaw, where they met to discuss plans to repatriate hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees who fled to southeastern Bangladesh after a military crackdown in Rakhine following insurgent attacks on Aug. 25.
Last month, Myanmar and Bangladesh agreed to begin a process to repatriate the refugees under a 1993 agreement that allows the return of Rohingya who can prove residency in Myanmar.
At an Oct. 2 meeting in Dhaka, Myanmar and Bangladeshi government officials agreed to form a joint working group comprised of officials from the two countries to work on the process of repatriating the refugees.
“The Myanmar authorities have informed our honorable minister that the joint working group will be formed by Nov. 30,” Sharif Mahmud Apu, a spokesman for Bangladesh’s Home Ministry, told BenarNews on Tuesday.
“They have also assured us that they will take the Rohingya refugees back,” he said.
A statement issued later in the day said Bangladesh’s Home Ministry had said that Myanmar authorities agreed to a “sustainable” repatriation of Myanmar citizens from Bangladesh, but avoided referring to the refugees as Rohingya.
Officials from both sides who participated in the ministerial-level meeting earlier on Tuesday also discussed implementing recommendations by the Myanmar government-appointed Advisory Commission on Rakhine State led by former United Nations chief Kofi Annan, employing counterterrorism measures, taking action against separatists, eliminating cross-border human trafficking and drug smuggling, and maintaining a peaceful border, the statement said.
“It is agreed that the chiefs of the border security forces of both countries will meet once a year, and the regional level official will meet on a quarterly basis to resolve border concerns,” it said.
Army’s version of events
Also on Tuesday, the Myanmar military issued a 10-point statement laying out its version of events during attacks by the militant group Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on Aug. 25, and defending its actions amid heavy international criticism, including charges of ethnic cleansing and threats of sanctions.
About 4,000 “extremist Bengalis” led by ARSA carried out simultaneous attacks on 30 police outposts and one army unit headquarters “using superior force under well-hatched plot,” the statement said, using a derogatory term for Rohingya Muslims who are considered in Myanmar as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
The office of President Htin Kyaw declared a military operation zone immediately after the attacks, and military commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing received directives from the president on Sept. 4 to make reinforcements to ensure adequate troop strength and to strengthen the fence along the border with Bangladesh, it said.
Some military units performed area clearance operations acting on tip-offs that militants were performing training activities to carry out additional attacks, it said.
No further incidents occurred after Sept. 5 because the militants had fled the country, the statement said.
The military also said that its security forces took action “in accordance with the law, and did not overstep the law.”
“One-sided statements and accusations against Myanmar and security members over the terror attacks of extremist Bengalis in the west of Rakhine state are totally untrue, and the intentional acts done under the pretext of the facts such as human rights and humanitarians may hamper national security and national interest,” the statement said.
U.N. agencies and aid workers in Bangladesh, however, say they have tracked tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees that have continued to flee Rakhine since mid-October.
The Myanmar military issued its statement a day after the United States imposed additional restrictions on it for its alleged abuse of Rohingya Muslims during the recent violence in northern Rakhine.
Rights groups, the U.N., and the international community have hit out at the army for committing atrocities against the Rohingya, which they say amount to ethnic cleansing.
The U.S. State Department announced that, as of Aug. 25, it had stopped consideration of travel waivers for current and former senior military leaders under the 2008 Junta’s Anti-Democratic Efforts (JADE) Act of 2008, which prohibits U.S. imports of jadeite and rubies from Myanmar, even if the gems are processed in and exported from another country.
The government also said it was “assessing authorities under the JADE act to consider economic options available to target individuals associated with atrocities.”
The U.S. government has also rescinded invitations for senior military officials to attend U.S.-sponsored events and deemed units involved in operations in northern Rakhine ineligible to receive or participate in any U.S. assistance programs, the statement said.
“It is imperative that any individuals or entities responsible for atrocities, including non-state actors and vigilantes, be held accountable,” it said.
The new restrictions have been imposed in addition to existing restrictions on the U.S.’s already-limited engagement with the Myanmar military and its long-standing embargo on all military sales.
The Associated Press reported on Tuesday that U.S. officials are preparing a recommendation for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to declare that “ethnic cleansing” is occurring against Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims, a move that would put pressure on the Trump administration to consider new sanctions against Myanmar.
At a Senate hearing on Tuesday, outraged U.S. lawmakers pressed the administration to unequivocally adopt the term.
The administration of former President Barack Obama lauded Myanmar’s progress in its transition to democracy under Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s de facto leader whose government has been in power for more than 18 months.
She has been sharply criticized for not speaking out on the treatment of the Rohingya and not doing enough to stop the violence against the minority group at the hands of state security forces following the Aug. 25 ARSA attacks and deadly smaller scale raids by the same group in October 2016.
Kamran Reza Chowdhury in Dhaka contributed to this report by Radio Free Asia (RFA), a sister entity of BenarNews.