Updated at 9:55 a.m. ET on 2019-08-26
Tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees rallied in southeastern Bangladesh on Sunday to mark the second anniversary of violence that caused three quarters of a million people to flee Myanmar, as officials in Dhaka blasted the neighboring country over the latest failed repatriation bid.
Rohingya activist Muhib Ullah, chairman of the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights, said that refugees offered a special prayer Sunday at Kutupalong, the world’s largest refugee camp, seeking peace in Myanmar’s Rakhine state so that they could return there.
“Two years have elapsed since we crossed into Bangladesh to escape the torture of the Myanmar military. We want to go back to our homeland,” he told BenarNews.
“This is not our land. We want the international community including the U.N. to ensure our rights in Myanmar,” he said.
Meanwhile, Bangladesh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs bitterly pushed back after Myanmar claimed that an effort to begin repatriation on Aug. 22 had failed because Dhaka did not follow “accepted procedure.”
“Accusing Bangladesh of non-cooperation in the repatriation effort by a party who is fully responsible for the protracted crisis is baseless, ill-motivated and totally unacceptable,” said a statement signed by Md. Marzuk Islam, an assistant secretary at the ministry.
Dhaka handed the list of 3,450 individuals approved for repatriation to UNHCR on Aug. 8, and the refugee agency interviewed 332 families comprising 1,276 individuals, the statement said.
“Almost all the families interviewed expressed their deep concern over the security situation in Rakhine. Overwhelming majority of the families underscored the lack of progress in addressing justice and rights related issues including citizenship, freedom of movement, and land-use rights,” it said.
“It is Myanmar’s responsibility to create a conducive environment in Rakhine through decisive actions and to reduce trust-deficit of Rohingyas through appropriate measures,” the statement said.
On Friday, Myanmar’s Ministry of Information said UNHCR was late in starting to interview refugees about repatriation although a list of verified names was sent to Dhaka “in seven batches since January 2019.” It further accused Dhaka of ignoring requests to repatriate 444 Hindus who entered Bangladesh during the Rohingya Muslim exodus.
Myanmar considers Rohingya Muslims illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, denies them citizenship, and subjects them to systematic discrimination including a failure to recognize their ethnicity and use the word “Rohingya” to describe them.
‘Abuses Continue Today’
Attacks on guard posts by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a Rohingya insurgent group, on Aug. 25, 2017 unleashed a campaign of violence by Myanmar forces targeting the Rohingya, including killings, torture, rape, and village burnings in northern Rakhine state.
More than 740,000 Rohingya Muslims crossed the border into Bangladesh in the weeks and months that followed. Hundreds of thousands were already sheltering in Bangladesh due to earlier rounds of violence against them.
The United States has described the 2017 violence as “ethnic cleansing,” and U.N. investigators have said the actions reflected “genocidal intent,” but Myanmar military officials have vehemently denied all claims of atrocities.
Discrimination and military abuses against Rohingya and other minorities continue in Myanmar, the U.S. government said in a statement marking the anniversary.
“The lack of accountability and civilian oversight of the military means that military abuses continue today in Rakhine state, as well as Kachin and Shan states and elsewhere in Burma,” said the statement, referring to Myanmar by its alternate name.
“We call upon all those involved to respect human rights, allow unhindered humanitarian access, and engage in political dialogue to pursue peace,” it said Saturday.
Last month, Washington imposed a U.S. travel ban on Myanmar’s military chief and three other generals over their alleged roles in the 2017 offensive, but Bangladeshi and Rohingya leaders who welcomed the move also declared that it was not tough enough.
In a recent statement, Human Rights Watch noted that an estimated 500,000 Rohingya still live “in appalling conditions” in Rakhine state. Security forces have confined them to camps and villages and severely restricted their freedom of movement, the watchdog group said.
“Two years since the Myanmar military carried out ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya population, the government still denies its troops committed any atrocities,” said Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy Asia director. “The bulldozing of Rohingya homes to destroy evidence after the ethnic cleansing is emblematic of the government’s campaign to whitewash its crimes.”
Shootings near the camps
Residents of Cox’s Bazar, the district in southeastern Bangladesh where many of the sprawling refugee camps are located, say they were facing “disaster” due to the protracted refugee crisis. Concerns heated up this week when Rohingya refugees were accused of killing a local politician.
“The arrival of the Rohingya in Cox’s Bazar has seriously affected the lives of the local people. The law and order situation deteriorated, prices of essentials skyrocketed, agricultural activities almost stopped, the environment [is] the seriously damaged, whole development process in Cox’s Bazar has stalled,” Kanan Paul, a community leader, told BenarNews.
“If this situation drags on, we are sure to face a disaster in Cox’s Bazar in coming years,” said Paul, vice-president of a group called Cox’s Bazar Civil Society.
Late Thursday, armed Rohingya men allegedly shot dead a youth wing official of the ruling Awami League party, Omar Faruk, near his residence in Teknaf, the southernmost sub-district of Bangladesh, police said.
Local people protested the next day, blocking the Cox’s Bazar-Teknaf highway for three hours, and vandalizing shops and houses inside a Rohingya camp, local media reported.
During a manhunt Saturday, police shot dead two Rohingya suspects in what they described as a “shootout” near the Hilna refugee camp in Teknaf.
“We encircled the area and asked them to surrender. But they refused our call and shot at us instead,” Pradip Kumar Das, officer-in-charge of Teknaf police station, told BenarNews.
“We gave them shelter on humanitarian grounds. But now a section of these Rohingya people has been attacking and killing us,” Paul alleged, referring to the shooting Thursday. “This is a big concern for the local people.”
Updated to correct that three quarters of a million people fled Myanmar in 2017.