Returning Rohingya may lose land, crops under Myanmar plans

  • persecution
- Reuters, SITTWE (Myanmar)

Oct 23, 2017-

Rohingya Muslims who return to Myanmar after fleeing to Bangladesh are unlikely to be able to reclaim their land, and may find their crops have been harvested and sold by the government, according to officials and plans seen by Reuters.

Nearly 600,000 Rohingya have crossed the border since Aug 25, when coordinated Rohingya insurgent attacks on security posts sparked a ferocious counteroffensive by the Myanmar army.

The United Nations says killings, arson and rape carried out by troops and ethnic Rakhine Buddhist mobs since late August amount to a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya.

Civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has no control over the military, has pledged that anyone sheltering in Bangladesh who can prove they were Myanmar residents can return.

Reuters has interviewed six Myanmar officials involved with repatriation and resettlement plans. While the plans are not yet finalised, their comments reflect the government’s thinking on how Suu Kyi’s repatriation pledge will be implemented.

Nearly all the more than 1 million Rohingya who lived in Myanmar before the recent exodus are stateless, despite many tracing their families in the country for generations.

Officials have made plans to harvest, and possibly sell, thousands of acres of crops left behind by the fleeing Rohingya, according to state government documents reviewed by Reuters.

Myanmar also intends to settle most refugees who return to Rakhine state in new “model villages”, rather than on the land they previously occupied, an approach criticised in the past by the United Nations as effectively creating permanent camps.

The government has not asked for help from any international agencies, who are calling for any repatriation to be voluntary and to the refugees’ place of origin.

The exodus of 589,000 Rohingya—and about 30,000 non-Muslims—from the conflict zone in northern Rakhine has left some 71,500 acres of planted rice paddy abandoned and in need of harvesting by January, according to plans drawn up by state officials.

Kyaw Lwin, the state minister, confirmed the plans, and said there was a total of 45,000 acres of “ownerless Bengali land”.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) deputy Asia director Phil Robertson, said the government should at least guarantee that the rice would be used for humanitarian support and not for profit.

“You can’t call a rice crop ‘ownerless’ just because you used violence and arson to drive the owners out of the country,” 

he said. 

Many refugees are fearful to return and are sceptical of Myanmar’s guarantees. Those who do decide to cross back into Myanmar will first be received at one of two centres, according to government plans reviewed by Reuters, before mostly being relocated to model villages.

International donors, who have fed and cared for more than 120,000 mostly Rohingya “internally displaced persons” (IDPs) in supposedly temporary camps in Rakhine since violence in 2012, have told Myanmar that they will not support more camps, according to aid workers and diplomats.

Those who decide to cross back into Myanmar will first be received at one of two centres, according to government plans reviewed by Reuters.

At the centres, officials said, the returnees will fill out a 16-point form that will be cross-checked with local authorities’ records. Immigration officials have for years visited Rohingya households at least annually for checks, photographing family members.

For refugees who lost all their documents, the government would compare their photos to those that immigration authorities have on file, said Myint Kyaing, the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Labour, Immigration and Population.

Officials will accept as evidence “national verification” cards handed out in an ongoing government effort to register Rohingya that falls short of offering them citizenship. The card has been widely rejected by Rohingya community leaders, who say they treat life-long residents like new immigrants.

Published: 23-10-2017 09:45

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