Fearing fresh violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, at least 160 citizens – many of them Buddhists – have fled into Bangladesh over the last three days, government officials said Wednesday, while announcing that the South Asian nation was sealing its southeastern border.
The Myanmar citizens, members of 35 families, entered Bangladesh through a remote border area in Bandarban district, local official Jira Bawm told BenarNews. They are the first Buddhists to flee Myanmar since fighting broke out recently between the rebel Arakan Army and the Myanmar military.
“Those who are now trying to get into Bangladesh are mostly Buddhists and different ethnic groups,” Foreign Affairs Minister A.K. Abdul Momen said, adding, “but this time we have sealed our border and we will not allow any fresh entry.”
News of the exodus came on the same day that Christine Schraner Burgener, the United Nations Secretary-General’s special envoy to Myanmar, and American actress Angelina Jolie, who also serves as a U.N. envoy, met with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and other senior government officials in Dhaka to discuss the Rohingya refugee situation in the southeast.
Momen, who met with the two U.N. ambassadors, sought Burgener’s support in efforts to convince Myanmar to create safe zones in the country’s Rakhine state for Rohingya to return to their home villages there. More than 700,000 Rohingya fled to refugee camps in southeastern Bangladesh following a brutal military crackdown launched by the Myanmar military on the minority Muslim group in August 2017.
“We kept our border open for a long time. This time we will not open it, but will let others open their door,” the Bangladeshi foreign minister said.
In Bandarban, Bawm said many of the new arrivals took shelter at different houses and had not received any assistance from the government or NGOs.
“They can hardly afford their own food. The 160 are a burden,” Bawm told Benar.
On Tuesday, the foreign ministry summoned Myanmar’s ambassador to Dhaka, Lwin Oo, to lodge a formal protest over the exodus.
“Bangladesh officials said Myanmar refused to take back a single Rohingya in the last year and a half, and now they are again trying to push Buddhists and other ethnic groups out. This is unacceptable,” a senior ministry official who requested anonymity told BenarNews.
Hostilities between the Arakan Army rebel force and the Myanmar military escalated in northern Rakhine in the wake of deadly coordinated attacks by Arakan fighters on police outposts in Buthidaung township in early January.
Momen said Bangladesh would like to establish safe zones in Rakhine state so Rohingya could repatriate to Rakhine under the supervision of China and representatives of member-states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
After the meeting, Momen said Bangladesh wanted a peaceful resolution to the Rohingya crisis, but was not getting any support from Myanmar. He said Burgener confirmed that she had contacts with the Myanmar military.
“We told her our prime minister made the proposal and it can be effective,” he told reporters.
“We proposed a safe zone in Rakhine and if Myanmar wants, ASEAN members will look after that zone and China might even join the process,” he said, adding that the countries were friendly to Myanmar.
“So Myanmar might agree to this proposal. Why not try to initiate it?”
In Cox’s Bazar district, where most of the Rohingya refugee camps are concentrated, a Rohingya leader said refugees would be interested in a safe zone but only if the U.N. supervised it.
“We don’t believe anybody, but the U.N.,” Kutupalong camp leader Md Malek told BenarNews. "China is Myanmar’s friend. They won’t save us."
Following his meeting with Angelina Jolie, Momen said extremism could take hold if the Rohingya did not return to Myanmar soon. In November 2017, Bangladesh and Myanmar agreed to a repatriation process that was to begin in January 2018 but has remained stalled for 13 months.
“I told her we can’t afford keeping them for a long time. We are the most densely populated country in the world,” he said. “We have limited resources, but we have a lion’s heart.”
He said that Jolie, who addressed Rohingya refugees at the Kutupalong camp on Tuesday, responded that it was time to solve the repatriation issue.
Jolie and Burgener finished their day in a meeting with Hasina.