The recent visit to Bangladesh by a Myanmar government minister has left ill-feeling in the neighboring country, particularly in refugee camps near Cox’s Bazar where over a million Rohingya languish.
Two days after the visit by Win Myat Aye, Myanmar’s Minister for Social Welfare, officials in Bangladesh and aid workers in the country’s southeast were stunned to hear that a Rohingya family of five had been repatriated to their homeland.
The return of this one family has been derided by Bangladeshi officials as a “propaganda” and cheap “publicity stunt”, rather than an actual repatriation. It was the first such move since a murderous crackdown by the Myanmar Army last August, denounced by the United Nations as “ethnic cleansing”, forced at least 700,000 Rohingya to flee into Bangladesh.
Initially, the arrival of Win Myat Aye, the minister also responsible for relief and resettlement, was “perceived as an important visit which could potentially speed up the apparently stagnated repatriation process,” according to a senior Bangladeshi Foreign Ministry official, who preferred to be unnamed.
However, the Myanmar minister’s trip proved to be “nothing more than a usual diplomatic visit,” said the official, who admitting that the government of Sheikh Hasina had “wanted and expected more.”
Bangladesh and Myanmar signed a repatriation deal in November to send back “forcibly displaced persons” — as Myanmar calls the Rohingya — to their homes in Myanmar’s troubled Rakhine state.
Myanmar minister visits Rohingya camp
Media outlets and the Bangladeshi Foreign Ministry had been notified about Win Myat Aye’s visit to Dhaka and the Rohingya camps. And there had seemed to be reasons for optimism, as he was the minister handling the repatriation issue and no senior Myanmar official had ever visited the camps in Bangladesh.
Win Myat Aye came and saw the Kutupalong camp in Cox’s Bazaar. In a meeting with a group of 50 Rohingya refugees, he told them to prepare to “go back to your own residences”, and promised that new villages would be built for them with hospitals and schools.
However, as Reuters reported, when the refugees asked if they would be granted Myanmar citizenship, which they had been long denied, his reply did nothing to bolster confidence. “We are trying to have that,” he said, adding that Myanmar could currently only offer them national verification cards.
Some were not convinced by the minister’s words and later voiced their doubts about the Myanmar government’s sincerity.
“It got sort of unpleasant afterwards,” Abul Kalam, the Bangladesh government’s Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner, who accompanied Aye, told Asia Times later.
Kalam said the refugees had expressed their anger and disappointment in their meeting with Aye at the camp. “Their main concern, which they have told us too a number of times, is that without citizenship they will never be safe in Myanmar,” he said.
After his visit to the camp, Win Myat Aye met with senior Bangladeshi officials including Foreign Minister AH Mahmood Ali. The meeting between the two was described as “excellent” by Ali, who told media that it was held “in a friendly and cooperative” spirit.
Win Myat Aye said: “We had a fruitful discussion. Now we can overcome many difficulties and I am very sure that we can start repatriation process as soon as possible.”
Three days later, on April 15, Myanmar took back the five Rohingya from the “no man’s land” between Bangladesh and Myanmar. This was dubbed a “repatriation of first refugee family” since the last year’s crisis.
Repatriation or propaganda?
The Myanmar government posted a statement on the Facebook page of its Information Committee, saying, “The five members of a family came back to Taungpyoletwei town repatriation camp in Rakhine State.”
Photos posted beside the statement showed a man, two women, a young girl and a boy receiving the ID cards and getting health checks. It said the family had been sent to stay “temporarily” with relatives in Maungdaw town.
Use of the term “repatriation” angered Bangladeshi and United Nations officials. Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner Kalam told Asia Times “This was no repatriation; it was a publicity stunt and also propaganda set up by the Myanmar government.
“As the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner, I was not informed or made aware of [the family’s return]. I think it was sort of an insult that Myanmar government had made to our government.”
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said in a statement that their office had no direct knowledge of the event and was not consulted or involved in this reported return.
South Asia analyst Olof Blomqvist told Asia Times there were “many serious questions about how this supposed return was carried out, not least because there was no oversight by the UN whatsoever.” For the repatriation process to become reality, he said “Myanmar must commit to genuinely engaging with both Bangladesh and the international community, and to put the human rights of Rohingya at the heart of the process.”
Blomqvist said Myanmar’s assurances that “it is ready to start repatriating Rohingya refugees, has no basis in reality. Rohingyas will not be able to return to their homes in safety and dignity until conditions improve substantially inside Rakhine state.”
He said this must include ending the “entrenched and dehumanizing discrimination Rohingya have faced in Myanmar for decades, and also bringing to justice security forces that have been responsible for horrific human rights violations.”