Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Abdul Hassan Mahmud Ali shakes hands with Myanmar's Kyaw Tint Swe after signing an agreement in Naypyitaw, Myanmar on Thursday.
Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Abdul Hassan Mahmud Ali shakes hands with Myanmar's Kyaw Tint Swe after signing an agreement in Naypyitaw, Myanmar on Thursday.

Rohingya allowed a 'safe' return

MYANMAR and Bangladesh have signed an agreement to potentially repatriate hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees, a senior official in Myanmar's ministry of population has said.

At least 620,000 Rohingya from Myanmar's Rakhine state have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh, seeking refuge from what Myanmar's military has called "clearance operations”.

"We are ready to take them back as soon as possible after Bangladesh sends the forms back to us,” said Myint Kyaing, a permanent secretary at Myanmar's ministry of labour, immigration and population, referring to registration forms the Rohingya must complete before they are repatriated.

Myanmar provided no details on how many Rohingya refugees would be allowed to return home. Bangladesh said the repatriations are to begin within two months.

Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar's State Counsellor, a position akin to a Prime Minister, has previously promised repatriation would be "safe and voluntary”, but humanitarian workers have expressed concerns the country's powerful generals could obstruct the process.

The crisis started in August, when Rohingya insurgents attacked Myanmar security forces, triggering a brutal crackdown in which soldiers and Buddhist vigilante groups killed men, pack raped women and girls and burned homes to force the Rohingya to leave.

The Myanmar-Bangladesh agreement comes after the US on Wednesday described the ongoing violence against the Muslim minority as "ethnic cleansing” and threatened penalties for military officials.

"After a careful and thorough analysis of available facts, it is clear that the situation in northern Rakhine state constitutes ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya,” US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a statement.

On Thursday the US embassy in Myanmar suspended official travel to parts of Rakhine and warned citizens against visiting the areas, citing fears of a backlash against Mr Tillerson's comments.

Myanmar is seeking to ease international pressure with the new memorandum, while Bangladesh is keen to ensure refugee camps - which have sprung up in the Cox's Bazar region in recent months - do not become permanent.

Humanitarian workers have previously raised concerns that the repatriation efforts could be hindered by the military, over which Suu Kyi has no control.

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing said in a statement last week: "The situation must be acceptable for both local Rakhine ethnic people and Bengalis, and emphasis must be placed on the wishes of local Rakhine ethnic people who are real Myanmar citizens.”

His use of the term Bengali for the Rohingya Muslims implies they are from Bangladesh and Buddhists in the Rakhine region fiercely object to a Bangladeshi presence.

- Harriet Agerholm, The Independent



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