By Kamran Reza Chowdhury
The situation in Myanmar’s Rakhine state still is not conducive for the return of Rohingya refugees sheltering in Bangladesh, according to Bangladesh officials who accompanied their foreign minister on his first visit to the troubled state recently.
The official said the conditions in Rakhine’s capital Sittwe and in Maungdaw and Buthidaung – from where most of the Rohingya Muslims fled following violence – raised questions over safety, security and employment opportunities for the refugees if they opted to return home.
“I would say the situation for a sustainable return of the Rohingya is yet to be created,” Habibul Kabir Chowdhury, chief of a Ministry of Disaster Management unit that handles Rohingya-related matters, told BenarNews.
This is the first media comment by a Bangladesh official following the Aug. 9 to 12 visit by the Bangladesh delegation led by the Foreign Minister AH Mahmood Ali.
It was also the first visit by Bangladesh officials to Rakhine state since the Rohingya refugee crisis erupted in August 2017.
Ali and his delegation visited Rakhine to look into Myanmar’s preparation for a planned repatriation of the 700,000 Rohingya refugees who fled to southeastern Bangladesh following the Myanmar military’s brutal crackdown in response to attacks by Rohingya insurgents.
The military has been accused of waging a campaign of extrajudicial killings, rape and burning villages of the Rohingyas, who are regarded by Myanmar as illegal immigrants and have long been denied citizenship and basic rights even though some families have lived there for generations.
The United Nations, United States and other western countries have condemned the military campaign as ethnic cleansing.
Chowdhury said he and a group of officials were taken under tight security to five locations in Sittwe, including an area inhibited by Rohingya Muslims.
“The houses of the Muslims were under barricade. The commercial establishments of the Muslims were completely shut. There is no livelihood opportunity for them,” he said.
The ethnic Rakhine Buddhists, meanwhile, have been running their businesses as usual.
He said interpreters and people they talked to referred to the Rohingya as just “Muslims.”
A Bangladesh foreign ministry official who visited Sittwe with Chowdhury said they were taken under tight security to a neighborhood in Sittwe inhibited by relatively well-off Rohingya Muslims, some of whom owned five- to six-story buildings.
“The road leading to the houses had several police check posts. The people inside the houses have practically been under house arrest,” said the official. The entire area had been under constant police guard, he said speaking on condition of anonymity.
“None of the residents is allowed to go out or nobody is permitted to enter the houses. Aid agencies have been providing food to the people inside the houses,” the official said.
Minister Ali and five other officials were flown to Maungdaw and Buthidaung, areas where most of devastation was reported during the military crackdown.
The situation in Maungdaw and Buthidaung was “far from conducive for the return of the Rohingyas,” said another Bangladesh official who visited the areas.
In one village where the Rohingyas used to live, “we saw mosques burned while the pagodas of the Buddhists were intact,” he said.
“We saw some areas were encircled by coconut trees but nothing was in in the middle. Signs of fire were there. This means these were Rohingya settlements,” the official said.
He said he saw no sustainable livelihood opportunities for returning Rohingyas in Maungdaw or Buthidaung.
“I think no Rohingya will return unless there was guarantee of livelihood options or safety and security,” he said.
He also said that Myanmar Social Affairs Minister Win Myat Aye, who accompanied Ali’s visit to Maungdaw and Buthidaung, said efforts were underway to set up infrastructure to accommodate returning Rohingya refugees, most of whom now live in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district.
Md. Arif, a Rohingya leader at the Balukhali camp in Cox’s Bazar, told BenarNews that the refugees would not return unless Myanmar provided them citizenship.
Dr. Uttam Kumar Das, a refugee lawyer and a former senior official serving at the Dhaka branch of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office, said any repatriation of the refugees would be a complex exercise.
“Myanmar does not want to promise them citizenship unless the Rohingya [first] accept the NVC (national verification card). On the other hand, the Rohingya do not want to accept the NVC; they want restoration of their citizenship,” Das told BenarNews.
The NVC is the first step for any foreigner interested in getting Myanmar citizenship.
At present, besides denying Rohingya citizenship, Myanmar prevents them from traveling without permission and denies them access to education, employment and health care.
“But Rohingyas are not foreigners; they have been living there for centuries. If the Rohingya accept the NVC, they would leave their historic claim on Arakan. So, they do not want to take the NVC,” Das said.
He said Rohingyas could face further repression if they returned without citizenship.
“Bangladesh should work closely with the international community to put up pressure on Myanmar to settle the citizenship issue.”