Sunil Barua and Kamran Reza Chowdhury
Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh and Dhaka
Bangladesh on Monday handed Myanmar a fresh list of 25,000 Rohingya for potential repatriation, after a high-level delegation from Naypyidaw visited Rohingya refugee camps and explained that full citizenship for the stateless minority was not an option.
Myint Thu, Myanmar’s permanent secretary for foreign affairs, led a 10-member team that met with Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar district during the weekend to discuss the prospect of their returning voluntarily across the border to Rakhine state.
The visit to Cox’s Bazar was the second interaction between Myanmar officials and refugees sheltering at camps in southeastern Bangladesh since more than 740,000 Rohingya Muslims crossed over after a brutal military crackdown in Rakhine in August 2017.
“Of course, according to the law, they may not be entitled to full-fledged citizenship, but they are entitled to apply for the naturalized citizenship,” Myint Thu told reporters on Sunday after a series of meetings with Rohingya leaders.
No assurances came out of the talks at the Kutupalong refugee camp, Rohingya leaders said.
Dil Mohammad, one of the Rohingya leaders who attended the meetings, expressed frustration afterward, indicating that the repatriation issue remained in limbo.
“The Myanmar delegation has presented before us the same old proposals,” Mohammad told BenarNews. “We reiterated that they must grant us citizenship, guarantee safety and allow us to return to our original homesteads. Only then we will return; otherwise not.”
He said Myint Thu had accepted proposals from the Rohingya group to carry on with a dialogue. Both sides did not set a time frame for future talks.
Before the Myanmar delegates wrapped up their trip to Bangladesh, Myint Thu met foreign ministry officials in Dhaka on Monday.
“We have handed over to Myanmar a list of 25,000 people belonging to 6,000 families for identity verification,” Acting Bangladeshi Foreign Secretary Kamrul Ahsan told reporters.
“With this list, we’ve handed over Myanmar three lists containing 55,000 Rohingya for verification,” he said. “Myanmar has so far cleared 8,000 names ready for repatriation.”
Although Rohingya Muslims have lived in Myanmar’s Rakhine state for decades, Naypyidaw had subjected them to hostilities, rights groups said. In 1982, Myanmar stripped the Rohingya of their citizenship, referring to them as “Bengalis” – an inference that they were illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
“The main problem of Rohingya repatriation is the deficit of trust. One or two visits will not bring back trust,” Kamrul Ahsan said. “We will not send them back by force.”
Rohingya: Same old, same old
Bangladesh and Myanmar signed a repatriation deal in November 2017, but so far no Rohingya have volunteered to return without safety guarantees from Naypyidaw. U.N. officials said about 1.2 million Rohingya were now living in squalid refugee camps in Bangladesh.
When Myanmar social Welfare Minister Win Myat Aye visited the camps in April 2018, he emphasized that the Rohingya refugees must go through Myanmar’s National Verification Card (NVC) program as a first step before applying for citizenship.
But Bangladeshi officials said earlier that the Rohingya refugees vehemently rejected the NVC and demanded citizenship, claiming it was their right since their forefathers had been Myanmar citizens.
During this weekend’s talks, the Myanmar delegation reiterated that the Rohingya must first accept the NVC as a condition before repatriation, said Muhib Ullah, chairman of Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights.
“The Myanmar government has given us the same old proposal for accepting NVC,” he said. “We listened to them and requested them to sit with us again.”
Khin Myaung Nyane of Radio Free Asia, a sister entity of BenarNews, contributed to this report.