Myanmar will begin accepting back Rohingya Muslim refugees from Bangladesh on Jan. 22, a senior minister said Wednesday.
Myanmar signed an agreement with Bangladesh in November to repatriate refugees who wished to voluntarily return to the country after fleeing across the border to escape a brutal military crackdown in northern Rakhine state.
“We signed a memorandum of understanding on Nov. 23 and agreed to begin accepting refugees back within two months,” Win Myat Aye, the country's minister of social welfare, relief and resettlement, told Radio Free Asia (RFA), a sister entity of BenarNews. “It will be two months on Jan. 22, and we will begin accepting them on that date."
“We can accept only those who want to come back, and we have been preparing for that,” Win Myat Aye said, adding that the refugees will be resettled as close to their former places of residence as possible.
The government plans first to accept refugees at two reception centers in Taung Pyo Let Wae and Nga Khu Ya villages, he said.
People whose houses are still standing can move back in, and the government will build new homes for those whose houses were destroyed, he said.
“These houses will be close to farms and forests where they can work and make a living,” said Win Myat Aye who also heads a government committee created in September to implement the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, a group led by former U.N. chief Kofi Annan.
The commission’s report called for reviews of the country’s 1982 Citizenship Law, which prevents the Rohingya from becoming citizens, and an end to restrictions on its Rohingya Muslim minority to prevent further violence in the region.
Win Myat Aye told diplomats last week that the Rohingya who return to Rakhine will receive identification cards that will allow them to participate in the national verification process and apply for citizenship if they qualify for it.
An estimated 646,000 Rohingya fled during the crackdown which began following deadly attacks on police outposts by Muslim militants in northern Rakhine on Aug. 25. The government military stands accused of committing atrocities against the Rohingya, which the United Nations, United States and rights groups say amount to ethnic cleansing.
Rights groups contend that the likelihood that many of the Rohingya refugees will want to return to northern Rakhine appears very low, because most of their villages have been burned and their farmland taken. They also say the Rohingya will continue to face repression and discrimination in Myanmar, where they are considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and denied citizenship and access to basic services.
Still heading to Bangladesh
Despite the repatriation plan, some Muslims are still leaving the region for Bangladesh to join others who live in sprawling displacement camps in the southeastern part of the country.
Officials from the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission met with more than 100 Rohingya about to go to Bangladesh, said Yu Lwin Aung, one of the 11 members of the independent human rights body.
“We saw more than 100 Bengalis who are getting ready to go to Bangladesh on a beach near the mouth of Gawdu Tharra Creek,” he told RFA on Wednesday, using a derogatory terms for the Rohingya.
When the commissioners asked the Rohingya why they are leaving for Bangladesh and whether the police or the military abused them, they responded that they had not been abused and that they needed to find work, he said.
“They are facing difficulties with surviving in Myanmar because people hired them to work before, but no one is hiring them now,” Yu Lwin Aung said, adding that the Rohingya told the commissioners that their houses were still intact and undamaged by the violence.
He went on to say that the Rohingya should not leave the region, though the commission does not know if they have received any threats from individuals or organizations to move out of the area.
“When we asked those people their reason for leaving to go to Bangladesh, they didn’t know how to answer,” he said. “They are to be pitied. They don’t know the kind of situation they will encounter when they get to Bangladesh. They just said they are leaving because they think lives will be better in Bangladesh.”
Ethnic Rakhine return
Besides the Rohingya exodus, the crisis also forced the displacement of more than 27,000 non-Rohingya villagers and government employees in northern Rakhine, according to a report issued by the International Crisis Group on Dec. 7.
Some ethnic Rakhine nationals who fled the region when Muslim militants unleashed attacks on non-Muslims have arrived in Maungdaw township to resettle.
More than 60 people Rakhine Buddhists from Thandwe, Ramree and Munaung townships are now living in Indin village in Maungdaw, one of three areas affected by the violence, said Indin village resident Myint Soe who is helping the ethnic Rakhine resettle.
“People from Ramree arrived in our village first,” he said. “We received them at our houses first, and we will place them in the village school when we get more people.”
The returnees said they will make a living by fishing and performing other jobs, he said.
Ten more households from Thandwe will arrive on Thursday, and 11 households from Pauktaw township are on their way to northern Rakhine’s Rathedaung township where they will be placed in houses by the Western Border Rakhine National Territory Reconstruction Committee led by Rakhine historian Aye Chan.
Some of the hundreds of Hindus who fled attacks in northern Rakhine have also begun returning to the region.
This report was produced by Radio Free Asia.