SITTWE, Rakhine State — Union Minister for Religious Affairs and Culture Thura U Aung Ko told Arakanese Buddhist monks “not to worry” about the repatriation process of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh during a meeting in Rakhine State capital Sittwe on Tuesday.
The minister visited the abbots of Pathein and Dhamma Thukha monasteries—both based in Sittwe—and said Daw Aung San Suu Kyi would “keep the interests of the country and people at the forefront” despite international pressure to repatriate the refugees.
More than 600,000 Rohingya Muslims fled military clearance operations marred by allegations of extrajudicial killings, rape and arson that the UN described as part of an ethnic cleansing campaign. The operations followed Muslim militant attacks on police outposts in northern Rakhine on Aug. 25.
U Aung Ko assured the abbots the government would accept only those refugees holding valid documents and who meet criteria listed in a 1993 agreement on repatriation between Myanmar and Bangladesh.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been drawing up detailed plans to protect the interests of the country and ethnic Arakanese, he told the abbots.
He said Myanmar would not open several centers to verify and take back Rohingya refugees as demanded by the Bangladeshi government, but would open only one center.
The senior monks said ongoing measures from Daw Aung San Suu Kyi are acceptable, but urged the minister to be “as good as his words” in handling the crisis.
The abbots refused to accept Muslim refugees back in Rakhine State if the refugees demanded “Rohingya ethnicity.” Many people in Myanmar reject the term “Rohingya” and instead refer to the community as “Bengalis.”
The abbots also suggested starting repatriation only after border fencing is complete.
Human rights organizations and media have reported that since the Aug. 25 attacks roughly 604,000 people have fled to neighboring Bangladesh, where they have joined more than 300,000 who fled previous outbursts of ethnic violence over the past three decades. With thousands of Rohingya crossing the border each day, the number is expected to pass 1 million Rohingya refugees altogether in Bangladesh.
U Zaw Htay, director-general of State Counselor Office, has called the these figures “impossible.”
The Myanmar Police Force chief asked the Bangladeshi home affairs minister during the latter’s visit to Myanmar last month to provide a list of Rohingya refugees in Bangladeshi camps. But the Bangladeshi government has not replied yet, said U Zaw Htay.
“If we get that list, it will be easier for us to verify them. We have immigration documents to check if they have lived in Myanmar or not. So, it would be easier to check them against the documents if we get the list,” said U Zaw Htay.
According to the 1993 agreement, refugees must have lived in Myanmar, or if they were born in Bangladesh, one of their parents must have been born in Myanmar, and must want to return voluntarily.
Following the meeting between the Myanmar and Bangladeshi home affairs ministers last month, Union minister for Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement, U Thein Swe, said the two governments would amend some of the criteria in the 1993 agreement.
Myanmar’s opposition party the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) then said it would take legal actions against any changes to the criteria it finds unacceptable to citizens.
Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko.