Updated at 2:55 p.m. ET on 2018-04-11
In an unprecedented interaction with Rohingya refugees in southeastern Bangladesh, a Myanmar government minister urged them to return to the country, a call rejected by Rohingya protesters who called him a collaborator in genocide.
Under tight security, Myanmar Social Welfare Minister Win Myat Aye and his entourage visited a camp housing hundreds of thousands of people who had fled violence in his country’s Rakhine state, and met separately with officials from the United Nations and other international groups.
Nearby, Bangladeshi police used batons to disperse more than 200 protesters who gathered by the camp’s main road.
“I am very glad to meet you,” Aye told a group of about 30 men, women and children gathered in a pavilion under tight security.
“First I would like to talk about our government. We are responsible to protect all the people living in our country. We will solve all the problems to have peace and stability. … Just cooperate with us, and return. In order to return, you should do so in a systematic fashion,” he said, speaking in Burmese.
Aye approached some of the refugees and assured them he was addressing their problems.
Abdul Haque, 5, started crying as Aye put his hand on the boy’s head, causing his mother to cry as well.
“The minister asked him about his father. His father, Yousuf, was slaughtered,” Minara Begum told BenarNews.
‘We sympathize with you’
Aung Tun Thet, chief coordinator of the Myanmar government’s Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement and Development in Rakhine, told the group Myanmar “wants all the people to come back.”
In addressing the group, he used neither the term “Rohingya,” an ethnicity not officially recognized in Myanmar, nor the derogatory term many there substitute for it, “Bengali.”
“We will start working to accept you as fast as possible. We understand you have many difficulties and we sympathize with you too. ... Please, those who want to return home, work together with us. But we do not suggest you to come back by force. Please return by your own will,” he said.
Afterward, Aye told reporters that the hour-long meeting with refugees had been a success and added, “The most important thing is to start the repatriation process as soon as possible.”
Some participants gave a different account of the interaction.
“He told us that we have to go to the camps in Arakan. If so, why will we go there? We want to get back to our homes,” Rohingya man Zahid Hossain told BenarNews, using another term for Rakhine state.
Participant Taslima Begum claimed that the minister did not listen to them.
“They only talked. They have not heard us. What is the sense of coming here?” she asked.
‘Denier of genocide’
Earlier, as Aye and his entourage headed toward the pavilion to meet the Rohingya under police escort, a group of men, women and children suddenly appeared along the path.
Some of the protesters unfurled a banner calling him a collaborator in and denier of genocide against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state, and chanted calls for justice. Police tried to disperse them, but others, including children, joined the protest.
“This man is one of the people responsible for our sufferings. He safely passed by us without listening to us. We do not want to see him here,” protester Mohammad Idris told BenarNews.
“They killed our brothers, fathers, children and husbands. Now, he has come to show us sympathy. We protest his visit,” said another demonstrator, Mahmuda Begum.
The situation turned tense as police shouted and snatched a mobile phone and refugees attacked the officer-in-charge of Ukhia police station, Abul Khayer. Other police, armed with batons, started striking protesters, forcing them to leave the area.
Aye and the dozen members of his entourage landed in Cox’s Bazar around 10 a.m. after arriving in Bangladesh hours earlier.
Police and Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion provided tight security on his trip to the Kutupalong camp in Ukhia, a sub-district of Cox’s Bazar. All shops near the camp entrance were closed and police blocked areas to prohibit Rohingya from gathering.
After arriving, Aye and Thet met behind closed doors with officials from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, International Organization for Migration and other stakeholders.
Bangladesh’s refugee relief and repatriation commissioner Mohammad Abul Kalam gave a presentation focusing on the challenges Bangladesh faces because of the influx of about 700,000 refugees since August 2017. At that time, members of the insurgent group Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) allegedly attacked Myanmar police and army posts, provoking a military crackdown on the Rohingya concentrated in the Rakhine state.
Aye did not say much during the meeting, which BenarNews attended, while Thet answered questions about Myanmar’s plan for the refugees.
Without using the term Rohingya, he said his country was not only focusing on return of the people, but was looking at ways to make their return “sustainable.”
Thet said the group came to Bangladesh to let refugees know what preparations are being made for their return, adding that returnees would be taken to a reception center and then relocated. He told the meeting that Myanmar as not setting up camps to house the Rohingya.
He also spoke about what he said were misconceptions tied to Myanmar’s national verification card (NVC), adding the returnees must accept an NVC as a first step before applying for citizenship.
The Rohingya see the NVC as unnecessary, a Bangladeshi diplomat told BenarNews.
“The displaced Myanmar nationals do not want to take the NVC; they demand citizenship as their forefathers had been Burmese citizens,” Bangladesh Ambassador to Myanmar Manjurul Karim Khan Chowdhury told BenarNews after the meeting.
Chowdhury said Aye was scheduled to meet in Dhaka with Bangladesh’s foreign and home ministers on Thursday.
In November 2017, the two countries agreed to repatriate hundreds of thousands of Rohingya to Rakhine state. The deal called for the process to begin in late January, but the two countries have yet to repatriate any Rohingya.
Earlier this year, Bangladesh authorities gave their counterparts a list of 8,000 Rohingya for verification by Myanmar. Only a few hundred had been authorized to return and none have started the process.