Myanmar is ready to receive back all the Muslim refugees who have fled to Bangladesh, who want to return. Preparations are in place for their immediate return, said Dr Win Myat Aye, the minister in charge of the repatriation and resettlement programme. And the minister insists that the Myanmar side has done all they can to show their good faith.
“We are ready, we have been ready since the bilateral agreement came into force at the start of this year, and we are still ready to receive the refugees,” Myanmar’s social welfare mister told the South Asian Monitor (SAM) in an exclusive interview. But we can only accept those who have been verified, he said. The hold up, he insisted, was on the Bangladesh side.
For whatever reason, the Bangladesh authorities are not fulfilling the agreement on documentation that would allow the Myanmar government to verify whether they are legitimate residents of Rakhine, and able to return, the Minister said. “They have not filled in the ‘agreed’ form,” he insisted many times throughout the interview. “This means they are not permitting the process to be voluntary.”
But – as agreed in the bilateral agreement between the two countries – the repatriation must be voluntary, safe and dignified. The biggest hold up at present, according to the Minister is that the refugees in Bangladesh camps are ignorant of the repatriation procedures and process.
“They don’t know about the form, they didn’t see the form and they didn’t know anything about the form,” said Dr Win. Last month he even made a personal trip, in face of some opposition from within the Cabinet, a government insider told SAM. But he wanted to see for himself what the hold up was in starting the process.
He met the refugees in Bangladesh, who all told him they want to return to Myanmar but did not know how to start the repatriation process. “Actual first step is to fill in the ‘agreed’ forms, I told the refugees, but they didn’t know anything about the forms or procedures for the repatriation process,” the Minister said emphatically.
The list seems to have been compiled by the local or camp authorities and the refugees did not fill in the forms themselves. Bangladesh only sent a list, not the individual forms for verification, complained the minister. “There were no signatures or fingerprints, so they can’t have been filled individually,” he said. “So, it was not voluntary, and in four months no one has come back.”
The repatriation process is clear, according to the minister: returnees are guaranteed freedom of movement, the possibility citizenship and the closure of the existing camps in Rakhine. All according to the recommendations in the Kofi Annan report, tabled last August, and which has been adopted as the roadmap for reconciliation in Rakhine.
But they must enter the nation verification process before anything can happen. The first step is to hold a National Verification Card or NVC. The government has introduced smart cards and has already distributed more than a thousand to residents in Rakhine who have qualified.
“Most important is that these cards are non-discriminatory,” stressed the Minister. “No ethnicity nor religion is identified on the NVC.” If they hold that card it is strong evidence that they are residents of Myanmar, added Dr Win. “After verification – if they lived in Myanmar – they will get NVC.”
The repatriation process was supposed to have started earlier this year, within two months of Bangladesh and Myanmar signing the bilateral agreement, but has been repeatedly stalled, despite several meetings of the bilateral working committee, in Bangladesh and Myanmar. “Discussions are on going, said the social welfare minister. “And we keep telling the Bangladesh side that we want to start the repatriation process as soon as possible.”
Dhaka has sent a list of more than 8,000 refugees who say they want to be “voluntarily repatriated”, and although these names were not compiled from the ‘agreed’ form, Myanmar has formally accepted the return of over a thousand of them. But still nothing has happened, the minister lamented. No refugees have returned in March, April or May. “We fear that the Bangladesh authorities do not want to begin the repatriation process – although we want to start it — they must have their own reasons for dragging their feet,” he said.
Bangladesh of course disputes this. “We seek a durable and just solution to this protracted problem,” said a Bangladesh diplomat in the Yangon embassy on condition of anonymity. He implied that Myanmar was oversimplifying the problem. “The return of forcibly displaced human being — who suffered violence — is certainly different from sending commodities across the border.”
“When Myanmar citizens or residents are not encouraged to volunteer to return, while there is hardly any efforts made to restore the confidence among the prospective returnees — rather allowing an atmosphere of stoking fear by hate speech and propagating ultra-nationalist views, how it could be concluded that Bangladesh is not cooperating,” said the Bangladeshi diplomat.
But the State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, understands that the refugees also want justice and their immediate grievances addressed. The Minister also understands that Myanmar needs to tackle the mistrust, lack of confidence in the government and fear. There is a natural hesitancy on their part, the Minister conceded.
So, the government is now trying to tackle this by opening an avenue for individual claims to be recorded and investigated. “There are many allegations and accusations circulating — many of which are not true — but we will take action if they are true, Dr Win assured SAM. To help sort out any legitimate charges, arrangements are being made for individual complaints to be registered, at least initially, in Bangladesh.
This process is known as First Information Report (FIR) where a crime can be reported in Bangladesh, documents and evidence compiled and processed, to be filed later in the courts in Myanmar. Because of the sensitivity of some of these accusations, particularly rape, the Myanmar government accepts the need for confidentiality. A system of third party “referrals” is being explored, and it is understood that Aung San Suu Kyi herself has asked for assistance from the UN and international NGOs working in Bangladesh.
As part of this perceived need to bring some accountability and transparency to the violence unleashed in Rakhine after the first terrorist attacks in October 2016, the State Counsellor has formed an independent inquiry commission to probe human rights violations that occurred during the brutal military crackdown against the Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state, that reportedly left more than 1,000 dead and drove nearly a million cross the border into neighboring Bangladesh.
“The independent commission will investigate the violation of human rights and related issues following the terrorist attacks by ARSA,” said a statement issued by President Win Myint’s office. The commission is part of a “national initiative to address reconciliation, peace, stability and development” in ethnically and religiously divided Rakhine state, it said.
The commission will be composed of three members, including an international representative and will be assisted by domestic and international legal and technical experts, the statement said, while providing no further details. Still no further details have been released. But according to a government insider, a national and expected to be Tin Aye — a former general and chairman of the Union Electoral Commission (UEC) which oversaw the 2015 election, likely to head the commission.
To indicate the consensus approach of the government, and also possibly to illicit international support for the idea, the President’s statement alluded to the decision being taken as a result of advice from the Advisory Board for the Committee for the Implementation of the Recommendations of Rakhine state. This an international panel set up last December — headed by the former Thai deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Dr Surakiart Sathirathai — to advise the government confidentially on the implementation of recommendations of the earlier commission led by former UN chief Kofi Annan, regarding the situation in Rakhine.
While some skepticism has greeted the formation of yet another committee, this one could be significantly different. But as the British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson alluded to in his tweet, the proof of the cooking is in the pudding. When welcoming its formation, he warned: “Must be independent, transparent and go for an international investigation into all atrocities.”