Myanmar agrees to return of Rohingya who fled violence
Myanmar and Bangladesh signed an accord yesterday over terms for the return of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who have fled to Bangladesh, a government official said, amid concern that Myanmar's powerful army could prove obstructive.
Rights groups have accused the military in mostly Buddhist Myanmar of carrying out mass rape and other atrocities during a counter-insurgency operation launched in late August in retaliation for attacks by Rohingya militants in Rakhine State.
On Wednesday, the United States said the military operation that drove 620,000 Rohingya to seek sanctuary in neighbouring, largely Muslim Bangladesh, amounted to "ethnic cleansing", echoing an accusation first levelled by top UN officials in the early days of the humanitarian crisis.
Myanmar - also known as Burma - is seeking to ease international pressure by striking an initial agreement on returns, while Dhaka wants to ensure overstretched refugee camps in the Cox's Bazar region don't become permanent.
"We are ready to take them back as soon as possible after Bangladesh sends the forms back to us," Myint Kyaing, a permanent secretary at Myanmar's ministry of labour, immigration and population, told Reuters, referring to forms the Rohingya must complete with personal details before repatriation.
The signing took place after a meeting between Myanmar's civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and Bangladesh foreign minister Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali in Myanmar's capital, Naypyitaw.
The forms that the refugees will have to fill include names of family members, their previous address in Myanmar, date of birth and a disclaimer that they are returning voluntarily, he said.
Diplomats and aid workers have said the key elements of the deal will be the criteria of return and the participation of the international community, such as the UN refugee agency, in the process.
Other important points include safeguards for the Rohingya against further violence, a path to resolving their legal status and whether they would be allowed to return to their own homes and farms. Mr Kyaing declined to elaborate on those points.
Speaking at a military event in Dhaka, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina called on Myanmar "to start taking back soon its nationals from Bangladesh".
Human rights groups have accused Myanmar's military of atrocities, including mass rape.
Myanmar said the operation was necessary for national security after Rohingya militants attacked 30 security posts and an army base in August.
On August 25, militants belonging to the extremist Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army attacked outposts of Myanmar security forces. According to human rights groups, those forces responded with a brutal and indiscriminate crackdown on Rohingya communities, drawing in local Buddhist mobs as they went.
Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, as well as many who remain in Myanmar, have provided chilling testimony of the campaign, which they say was accompanied by widespread arson, rape and summary executions.
An exact death toll is unknown, and most aid groups and journalists have been prevented from travelling freely to the affected areas. Satellite imagery shows hundreds of Rohingya villages reduced to ashes.
"We are not hearing of any violations going on at the moment," Ms Suu Kyi told reporters at the Asia-Europe Meeting in Naypyitaw. "We can't say whether it has happened or not. As a responsibility of the government, we have to make sure that it won't happen."
In early November, members of the US Congress proposed targeted sanctions and travel restrictions on Myanmar's military officials. Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley, who was among the sponsors of the legislation, led a congressional delegation that visited Rakhine, a state on Myanmar's west coast.
"Many refugees have suffered direct attacks including loved ones, children and husbands being killed in front of them, wives and daughters being raped, burns and other horrific injuries," Mr Merkley told reporters.
"We are profoundly disturbed by the violent and disproportionate response against the Rohingya by the military and local groups," he said. The delegation called for Myanmar to allow an international investigation into the alleged atrocities.
"We want to emphasise that the world is watching," Mr Merkley said.