Government officials have moved to distance themselves from media reports that Myanmar would resettle thousands of Rohingya currently residing in Bangladesh, highlighting the continued rift between the countries on the repatriation process, which has been stalled since 2005.
Reports from Bangladesh and Myanmar media over the weekend said that Myanmar had agreed to allow around 2000 Rohingya refugees to be repatriated following discussions between Bangladesh Foreign Secretary Md Shahidul Haque and Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs U Thant Kyaw in Dhaka.
The Daily Star, an English-language broadsheet based in Dhaka, hailed the development in an editorial, calling it a “very positive move”.
While Myanmar officials have confirmed the country is considering accepting 2415 confirmed Myanmar nationals for repatriation, U Thant Kyaw has since denied the term Rohingya was used by Bangladeshi officials during their meetings.
“With regard to the term ‘Rohingya’ I explained to the state minister for home affairs during our meeting that we have never had ethnic nationals called ‘Rohingya’ according to the officials list of indigenous ethnic groups of Myanmar as well as our historical records,” U Thant Kyaw was quoted as saying in state media on September 4.
His comments followed a post by U Zaw Htay, a director in the President’s Office, who on September 2 took to Facebook to discredit reports that those being resettled were “Rohingya”.
“Myanmar will not accept this as what was agreed between our countries, no matter what they announce in the media,” he said.
“At the meeting Myanmar just agreed to form a joint committee to check the 2415 people agreed [for repatriation] in 2005," he said, adding that it was not certain Myanmar would accept them.
He said the use of the term “Rohingya” by Bangladeshi officials could damage relations between the two countries.
This latest disagreement in the long-delayed repatriation process centres around 2415 individuals who were verified as Myanmar citizens by the Myanmar authorities in 2005 but refused to be repatriated. Myanmar has said that it is now open to taking them back if they meet four criteria, including that they return of their free will.
U Thant Kyaw said that due to the amount of time that had passed, the verification process would have to be re-conducted to ensure they are still eligible. A joint working group would also need to be established with Bangladesh for the process to move forward, casting considerable doubt on claims from Bangladeshi officials that the process would be able to start within the next two months.
Myanmar refuses to recognise the Rohingya as an ethnic group, describing it as a recently created name rather than an ethnic designation. It refers to them instead Bengalis and characterises them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh who have arrived since the British occupation. However, Bangladesh appears wary of using the term as well: Mr Haque objected to its use during an interview with The Myanmar Times last year, insisting instead that they be called “undocumented Myanmar nationals”.
Large numbers of Rohingya Muslims entered Bangladesh from Myanmar in 1978 and again in 1991-92, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). More fled to Bangladesh during clashes in Rakhine State during October and June 2012, although many were turned back by border forces.
The repatriation process started after the 1991-92 influx when the UNHCR helped broker a deal between the two countries.
However, UNHCR pulled out of the program in December 1992 over concerns that there was a lack of security for those returning to Myanmar. It also found cases of forced repatriation and the Bangladesh government blocked UNHCR officials from accessing refugee camps.
The UN agency returned the following year when it signed a new agreement with both the Bangladesh and Myanmar governments to monitor repatriations. Between mid-1992 and 1997, more than 230,000 Rohingya were sent back to Myanmar.
But the process stopped completely in July 2005 when the Myanmar government refused to extend the deadline for the original agreement and blocked some repatriation efforts. Plans to restart it in 2009 ground to a halt when about 9000 refugees cleared for repatriation refused to return to Myanmar.
According to the UNHCR, there are between 200,000 and 500,000 self-described Rohingya in Bangladesh. About 32,000 refugees are documented and living in two government camps near Cox’s Bazar, on the Myanmar-Bangladesh border, while the rest are stateless.
However, concerns remain over the repatriation process, particularly for Muslims returning to Rakhine State. Judith Cefkin, US senior adviser on Myanmar, said in February that Myanmar is not yet ready to accept repatriated Rohingya refugees and warned that pushing Rohingya to return to Rakhine State would place them in “a very dangerous situation”.
But U Hla Win, a Rakhine State Hluttaw representative for Myebon, said he welcomed the government’s decision to repatriate Myanmar nationals from Bangladesh. He said members of some ethnic groups, including Rakhine, Dinet, Myo, Thet, Khami and Chin – are living in poor conditions in refugee camps in Bangladesh.
"The government should not only invite them to come back, but also make sure there is a plan for resettlement and rehabilitation," U Hla Win said. "The government should also check very carefully whether they are Myanmar citizens because others are waiting to take this chance to become Myanmar citizens.”