Rohingya leaders have called on the U.S. government to ensure that refugees from the Muslim minority who fled to southeastern Bangladesh from a military offensive in Myanmar’s Rakhine state not be forced to return there unless officials could guarantee their security and restore their citizenship.
The Myanmar military launched a brutal crackdown targeting the Rohingya in response to deadly attacks by a Muslim insurgent group in August 2017. During the campaign the Rohingya allegedly endured killings, arson, rape, and torture, which forced at least 655,000 of them to flee to safety in Bangladesh.
“Rohingyas must not be sent back to the genocide zones of Burma without security and citizenship,” said Abdul Malik Mujahid, chairman of Burma Task Force USA, a coalition of 19 U.S. and Canadian Muslim organizations dedicated to advocating for the Rohingya and ending genocide in Myanmar.
He was one of several Rohingya leaders from across the U.S. who participated in a panel discussion in Washington D.C. on the situation in northern Rakhine state and were part of a delegation that met on Capitol Hill.
The government of Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, could not resolve the problems in ethnically and religiously divided Rakhine without the collaboration of military leaders and the nation’s former leaders, Saw Hlaing, executive member of the California-based Burmese American Muslims Association, told the Myanmar Service of Radio Free Asia (RFA), a sister entity of BenarNews.
He said a relative told him how Myanmar army soldiers and ethnic Rakhine mobs had attacked Rohingya villages during the crackdown.
“My sister saw with her own eyes in her village that the Myanmar army and [ethnic] Rakhine extremists set fires and killed people,” Saw Hlaing said. “The village’s name is Vasala in the Rohingya language.”
The Myanmar government and army have denied allegations of atrocities committed by soldiers against the Rohingya, although both the United Nations and United States said that the crackdown amounted to ethnic cleansing.
Citizenship Law ‘unfair’
In November, Bangladesh and Myanmar signed an agreement to repatriate Rohingya refugees who wished to return voluntarily to Myanmar and could prove prior residency there.
Myanmar is in the process of issuing the Rohingya national verification cards as part of a citizenship eligibility process for undocumented people in Rakhine.
But the Rohingya community rejects the cards because all Rohingya who live in Myanmar have other forms of identification and official lists documenting all family members, said Kyaw Soe Aung, executive director of the Rohingya American Society.
“We would like to ask the Myanmar government to determine citizenship according to these documents,” he said.
Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law denies the Rohingya citizenship because they are not among the country’s 135 official ethnic groups.
Kyaw Soe Aung told RFA that the Citizenship Law was unfair.
“That law was issued without people’s consent,” he said. “We want to ask whether this law was issued just for Muslims or all people in Myanmar. If it is only for Muslims, then it is discrimination.”
He suggested that the government accept the Rohingya refugees back, help them resettle because most of their villages and homes were burned during the crackdown, and give them back their rights.
“If this is done, the problems in Rakhine state will disappear,” he said.
Myanmar plans to begin repatriating about 100,000 Rohingya refugees on Jan. 22, though rights groups, the U.N., and Rohingya leaders themselves have warned against a hasty return. They said that the Rohingya may not be able to produce documents proving prior residency, since many had fled in haste to escape violence by security forces.
They also have cautioned that Rohingya who return will continue to face repression and discrimination in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, where they are considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and are denied access to basic services.
The plan that Myanmar and Bangladesh have come up with does not take into account the rights of the returning Rohingya, Kyaw Soe Aung said.
“The agreement said Myanmar will accept those who have documents or evidence that shows that they previously lived in Rakhine state before,” he said. “Most of them don’t have any documents or evidence because the Myanmar army and security guards burned their houses, and they had to flee to Bangladesh.”
Myanmar officials, however, say they have documents to verify the residency of Rohingya who want to return but no longer possess official papers.
“The Myanmar government has to receive the Rohingya back by checking its immigration data and giving them their full rights,” Kyaw Soe Aung said.
Kyaw Soe Aung added that the Myanmar government must also implement the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, a body led by former U.N. head Kofi Annan that called for reviews of the country’s Citizenship Law and for an end to restrictions on the Rohingya to prevent further violence in the region.
“I completely accept the suggestions in his report,” he said. “If Daw [honorific] Aung San Suu Kyi’s government and military can implement the Annan commission’s suggestions, the problems in Rakhine State will be resolved, I believe.”