Myanmar’s moves could mean the Rohingya never go home
NAYPYITAW (Reuters) – Myanmar’s leaders are promising to bring home hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who fled a brutal military crackdown. But the government, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, is taking steps that make their return increasingly unlikely.
The areas where the Rohingya lived in Myanmar’s western Rakhine State before the army ousted them are being dramatically transformed. The northern reaches of this region were once a Muslim-majority enclave in the overwhelmingly Buddhist nation.
Hundreds of new houses are now being built in villages where the Rohingya resided, satellite images show. Many of these villages were burned, then flattened and scraped by bulldozers. The new homes are being occupied mainly by Buddhists, some from other parts of Rakhine. The security forces are also building new facilities in these areas.
A clear picture of the changes on the ground has been elusive, however, because of restrictions on travel to the region. To document Myanmar’s plans for the Rohingya, Reuters analysed satellite photographs of construction work in the region from the past year and an unpublished resettlement map drafted by the government. Reporters also interviewed national and state-level government officials in charge of resettlement policy, aid workers, refugees in the camps in Bangladesh, and Rohingya still living in northern Rakhine.
The government is both building some of the new homes and helping to facilitate the Buddhist resettlement push, according to local officials and new settlers. The campaign is being spearheaded by Buddhist nationalists who want to establish a Buddhist majority in the area.
And the Rohingya resettlement map drafted by the government, described here for the first time, reveals that many refugees who do return to Rakhine won’t go back to their homes or even their original villages. The map shows they would be herded into several dozen Rohingya-only settlements, segregating them from the rest of the population.
Many of the Rohingya who stayed behind say conditions are growing intolerable. A scattered community of more than 200,000 Rohingya remains in northern Rakhine, according to an internal UN document reviewed by Reuters. More than two dozen people who recently fled to Bangladesh told Reuters they faced intimidation and beatings by security forces, as well as curfews and travel restrictions that made it difficult to work or obtain food. The result is a continued flow of Rohingya into Bangladesh. Almost 15,000 have fled so far this year, according to the United Nations.
Yanghee Lee, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, said the Reuters findings showed the actions of the authorities in Myanmar were making the expulsion of the Rohingya irreversible. The aim, she said, is to change the terrain by removing “any remnants” of Rohingya villages. “For people to go back to their places of origin, identify landmarks to go back to, it’s become impossible.”
The Myanmar authorities “wanted to get everyone out,” she added. “Now they’ve got them out, they sure aren’t going to give it back to the Rohingya.”
Myanmar has been ready to take back the refugees since January, the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement said in reply to questions from Reuters. The government was investing “all physical (efforts) and wisdom to overcome the challenges that we faced in Rakhine State,” it said in a statement.
Aung San Suu Kyi told an audience in Singapore in August that Myanmar is pursuing “the voluntary, safe and dignified return” of the displaced Rohingya. A return of some refugees is possible, to be sure, as Myanmar tries to ease international pressure over the crisis.
Across the border in Bangladesh, however, refugees are skeptical. Plans to begin the repatriation on Nov. 15 with a group of some 2,200 Rohingya collapsed when they refused to go unless they were granted citizenship and allowed back to their original homes.
Myo Nyunt, a spokesman for the ruling National League for Democracy, said the Rohingya were to blame for delays in their return because of their demand for citizenship as a prerequisite for their repatriation. “We absolutely can’t accept this,” he said.
He also said that bureaucratic obstacles in Bangladesh were holding up repatriation. “The longer it takes for people to return, the greater the possibility that other people will take their place,” he said.
Hussein Ahmed says if he can’t recover his land, there’s no point returning. Sitting in a shack in Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh, he examines satellite photos of Inn Din, the village where he was born 73 years ago and fled during the army crackdown last year.
It’s almost unrecognizable. All the Muslim homes are gone. The Buddhist homes remain. Hussein Ahmed points to where his once stood, a newly built two-story structure. In its place, there’s a long, red-roofed building.
“This was my village,” says Hussein Ahmed, who was the village chairman in Inn Din. “All our homes were burned,” he said. “The army has occupied our land. So I don’t think we’ll get it back.”
Myanmar was ruled for half a century by a succession of repressive military leaders. The junta yielded in 2011 to a nominally civilian government, now led by the National League for Democracy of Suu Kyi. The military retains great power, however, and the generals and Suu Kyi’s cabinet have shown a united front on Rohingya policy.
Northern Rakhine is home to multiple ethnic groups. The two largest are the Rohingya and a Buddhist people, the Rakhine, who share the name of the state. The junta tried for decades to alter the population balance by bolstering the number of Buddhists there. The aim was to stop “an incursion of people,” said Sai Tun Nyo, a spokesman for the military-controlled Ministry of Border Affairs, referring to Muslims. “We need a human fence to stop it.”
The Rohingya trace their roots back centuries in the Rakhine area, a reading of history supported by independent scholars. Buddhist nationalists see the Rohingya as Muslim interlopers who invented an ethnic identity after migrating from the Indian sub-continent. They want to curb the number of Muslims in northern Rakhine.
The expulsion of the Rohingya on Suu Kyi’s watch has gone a long way to achieving that goal. There is now more or less numerical parity between Buddhists and Muslims in northern Rakhine, according to the internal U.N. document.
The Rohingya exodus has produced the world’s biggest refugee camp, the result of “ethnic cleansing” with “genocidal intent,” according to the United Nations. An offensive by Myanmar security forces last year in northern Rakhine that has driven out more than 730,000 Rohingya included mass killings and gang rapes, the United Nations said. Myanmar rejects these accusations, saying the crackdown was a legitimate response to “terrorism.”
In August last year, a group of Rohingya insurgents attacked security posts in the region, killing 13 members of the security forces. Almost 400 Rohingya villages were damaged or destroyed in the ensuing military-led offensive.
With many of the villages still smoldering, the government signaled its intent to reshape northern Rakhine.
Win Myat Aye, the minister responsible for resettlement, invoked a law on natural disasters under which, he said, “burnt land becomes government-managed land,” according to state media.
Within a few months, the government sent in bulldozers to flatten what was left of Rohingya homes, mosques and other buildings in dozens of villages, satellite images showed. In aerial photographs taken over northern Rakhine in February, scrape marks in the sand from the bulldozers are visible.
A UN fact-finding mission said reports about the destruction of villages raised “serious concerns” that Myanmar was trying to destroy evidence of its actions. The government says the bulldozing was done with good intentions – to make way for new development and improved living conditions for the Rohingya.
“When the news of that misunderstanding came out, we were surprised,” said Win Myat Aye, the minister in charge of resettlement.
One of those villages is Inn Din, the site of a massacre of 10 Muslim men amid the 2017 offensive that was reported by Reuters this February. The 6,000 Rohingya who lived there, almost 90 percent of the population, are all gone. So are their homes.
More new dwellings in Inn Din, also earmarked for Buddhists, have been built by a group called the Ancillary Committee for the Reconstruction of Rakhine National Territory in the Western Frontier. The group, made up of Buddhist nationalists, has resettled more than 130 families from elsewhere in Rakhine. These families are now in Inn Din and Koe Tan Kauk, another village that also had a large Muslim majority until the Rohingya fled.
“Muslims are a worldwide disease. Anyone who says different is lying,” said Than Tun, one of the group’s founders. “My desire, and what any Rakhine would say, if I’m not being diplomatic, is that we only want Rakhines.”
Than Tun is one of many Rakhine Buddhist leaders who strongly oppose any repatriation of Rohingya to Inn Din and the surrounding coastal region along the Bay of Bengal. They say it is a strategically important part of northern Rakhine – a buffer separating Muslim-majority Bangladesh and Myanmar’s Buddhist heartland.
A senior official in Rakhine’s General Administration Department told Reuters that his office signed off on the resettlement of families vetted by Than Tun’s committee and that the group was operating with government approval. The department falls under the central government’s Ministry of Home Affairs, which is controlled by the military.
Kyaw Soe Moe, Inn Din’s administrator, said he was helping newly arrived Buddhists to settle on what he said was “vacant land” in the village.
Across the Bangladeshi border in Kutupalong refugee camp, Noor Islam lives with 20 members of his extended family in a shack. He said he carried his 90-year-old mother for much of the journey to Bangladesh.
In Rakhine, he used to own several pharmacies. “My shops were filled with medicines when I fled,” he said.
Now, he sells medicines from a rickety bamboo table.