KUTUPALONG REFUGEE CAMP, Bangladesh — A Myanmar minister told Rohingya Muslim refugees in Bangladesh on Wednesday their repatriation was a priority during the first visit by a top Myanmar official to victims of what the United Nations says was “ethnic cleansing” by the Myanmar army.
Social Welfare Minister U Win Myat Aye, who is leading rehabilitation efforts in Myanmar’s western Rakhine State, met about 50 Rohingya gathered in a community center run by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in the Kutupalong refugee camp in southeast Bangladesh.
Acknowledging their mistrust and fear of Myanmar, U Win Myat Aye told the Rohingya to set aside the past and prepare to “go back to your own residences,” promising new villages would be built with hospitals and schools.
“The most important thing is to start the repatriation process as soon as possible. We can overcome all of the difficulties,” he said as he left the meeting.
A Bangladesh foreign ministry official said his country wanted to show the visiting minister the challenges it was facing in hosting the refugees. U Win Myat Ayat is expected to meet Bangladesh’s foreign minister in Dhaka on Thursday.
Bangladesh wants the refugees to go home as quickly as possible and officials said this week they hoped the minister’s visit would speed up repatriation.
But some refugees have said they are worried about going back to Buddhist-majority Myanmar, fearing persecution.
When asked about whether Rohingya could be granted Myanmar citizenship, which they had been long denied, the minister replied: “We are trying to have that.”
For now, Myanmar is offering Rohingya national verification cards (NVCs), which some refugees regard as inadequate.
The meeting became heated only when U Win Myat Aye tried to persuade the refugees to accept the NVCs, telling them they would be given an opportunity to apply for nationality later.
“Before, applying for the citizenship card took very long and [you] don’t get it in the end. Now, it won’t take long and you might get it. You might get it according to the law.”
Dozens crowded around the minister, showing him their parents’ and grandparents’ identity documents and raising their voices to be heard.
Some remained unconvinced by the minister’s words and later voiced their doubts about the Myanmar government’s sincerity.
“At first I was glad to hear the minister was coming here, but after hearing his speech I am very upset,” said Mohammed Showife, 29, from Buthidaung.
“The Myanmar government does not wish to solve the problem,” Showife told Reuters.
Myanmar has rejected accusations of ethnic cleansing in Rakhine, saying its security forces launched a legitimate counter-insurgency operation on Aug. 25 in response to Rohingya militant attacks.
According to UN officials, nearly 700,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh since then. Refugees have reported killings, burnings, looting and rape by members of the Myanmar security forces and Buddhist vigilantes.
Myanmar has dismissed most such accounts, but the army said on Tuesday that seven soldiers had been jailed for 10 years with hard labor for participating in a massacre of 10 Rohingya Muslim men in a village in September.
The two countries reached a deal in November to begin repatriation within two months, but it has not begun, with Rohingya, who face restrictions on their movements in Myanmar, still arriving in Bangladesh.
Huts of bamboo and plastic sheets will provide meager shelter for refugees when the monsoon rains and storms hit Cox’s Bazar, the low-lying coastal strip bordering Myanmar where the camps are located, in June.
The minister asked the refugees whether it was better for them to go to Myanmar or somewhere else. They responded in unison: “We want to go to Myanmar.”