Myanmar officials leave Bangladesh after Rohingya repatriation interviews

Kamran Reza Chowdhury and Abdur Rahman
Dhaka and Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh
Myanmar officials leave Bangladesh after Rohingya repatriation interviews Burmese junta officials leave for Myanmar from the Teknaf transit jetty after interviewing nearly 500 Rohingya for a repatriation project, in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, March 22, 2023.

Myanmar junta officials visiting Bangladesh for a Rohingya repatriation project returned home Wednesday on their own country’s boat, Dhaka said, after the U.N. refugee agency was criticized for transporting them across the border last week.

The 17-member delegation of junta officials arrived in Bangladesh on Feb. 15 to interview Rohingya in Cox’s Bazar’s camps for a China-mediated program to repatriate about 1,000 refugees to Rakhine state in Myanmar. 

Bangladesh Additional Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner Khalid Hossain said the Burmese delegation left Bangladesh by boat at 10 a.m. on Wednesday.

“It [the delegation] returned to Myanmar after interviewing about 500 Rohingya people in seven days. It has done what it came for,” Hossain told BenarNews.

“The delegation left in a Myanmar engine-driven wooden trawler. The trawler was guarded by the BGP [Myanmar’s Border Guard Police],” Hossain said.

The junta officials were in Cox’s Bazar to verify the identities of the men and women listed for repatriation and determine whether they lived in Rakhine state before fleeing to Bangladesh.

Junta spokesman Zaw Min Tun said repatriation would likely begin in mid-April, according to AFP.

The delegation had arrived on three unmarked UNHCR speedboats, said Hossain. The U.N. agency on Sunday confirmed it had assisted in this way, after earlier saying it was not involved in the pilot project.

It termed its involvement as “logistical support” of a verification process paving the way for “eventual return.”

In an earlier statement, the agency had said it was not safe for the Rohingya to return to Rakhine state, where most of Myanmar’s persecuted Rohingya lived before a brutal 2017 military crackdown forced some 740,000 of them to flee to neighboring Bangladesh.

London’s Myanmar Accountability Project NGO slammed the UNHCR’s involvement in the repatriation project, which Myanmar calls a pilot program.

The removal of the U.N. logo from the boats was a serious security violation, said Chris Gunness, the NGO’s director.

“That’s a serious breach of U.N. neutrality and it puts in danger U.N. convoys across Myanmar,” he told Radio Free Asia (RFA), a BenarNews-affiliated news service.

“It’s extraordinary that the U.N. on the one hand says it’s dangerous and then on the other hand is going ahead and supporting this pilot scheme. It doesn’t make sense,” Gunness said.

Bangladesh officials wait for unmarked United Nations refugee agency boats carrying Myanmar junta officials to dock at Teknaf transit jetty in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, March 15, 2023. [BenarNews]

‘Nothing but a trick’

Meanwhile, Asif Munir, a former U.N. official and independent researcher on refugees and migration, was highly skeptical of Myanmar’s intentions. 

He said the delegation that visited Bangladesh did not give details about the situation in Rakhine, which after the Myanmar military coup of Feb. 21 has been the site of months of intense fighting between junta forces and Arakan Army rebels.

“Actually, the sudden arrival of the Myanmar delegation in Bangladesh and the interview of the Rohingya refugees is a show to the international community,” he told BenarNews.

“The repatriation of Rohingya under the pilot project is basically nothing but a trick. The sudden move to take back the Rohingya is due to international pressure and the ongoing case at the International Criminal Court.”

The Rohingya, whose ethnicity is not recognized by the government, have faced decades of discrimination in Myanmar and are effectively stateless, denied citizenship. 

Some Rohingya who were interviewed by the Myanmar delegation told BenarNews they would only return if they were given the same citizenship status as other Burmese. But no Bangladesh or Myanmar junta official who spoke to BenarNews or RFA mentioned what the returnees’ citizenship status would be.

The repatriation project envisages bringing returnees through two reentry centers in Ngar Khu Ya and Hla Pho Khaung in Rakhine, according to a report last month in the junta-controlled state newspaper Myanmar Alinn.

Myanmar military officials gave tours of the centers to the heads of embassies from China, Bangladesh, India and eight ASEAN countries on March 8, Hla Thein, the junta’s attorney general and spokesman for Rakhine state, told RFA.

The returnees would receive assistance through education, livelihood and health programs at the two centers, he said.

The refugees who have battled decades of oppression want a longstanding solution to their plight.

 “Time will say if their visit was helpful for us,” Rohingya refugee camp leader Nurul Bashar told BenarNews.

“We want to return in such a way that we never have to be refugees again.”


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