YANGON – The Myanmar President’s Office is trying to determine who uploaded to Facebook a classified Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on the repatriation of Rohingya refugees recently signed between the government and two UN agencies, spokesman U Zaw Htay told The Irrawaddy.
On June 29, a Facebook page named “Yangon Informer” posted a number of documents described as the “Full text of the recent ‘secret’ MoU between the Myanmar government, UNDP and UNHCR,” referring to the UN agencies for development and refugees. The following day, Reuters published a story based on the documents headlined “Secret U.N.-Myanmar deal on Rohingya offers no guarantees on citizenship,” but it did not mention where it saw the documents. Some officials at the UN agencies speculated the posted documents were draft versions of the MoU, as the phrase “clean text as of 30 May” appeared on the first page.
The documents were disclosed ahead of the launch of a plan — the first involving the UN agencies — to bring back nearly 700,000 displaced Rohingya from neighboring Bangladesh. The Rohingya were driven out by Myanmar security forces’ clearance operations in 2017. The UN Security Council described the mass exodus as “ethnic cleansing” after a Council delegation paid a visit to northern Rakhine. Rights groups and credible non-government watchdog groups have demanded that military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing appear before the International Criminal Court (ICC) to take responsibility for the operation.
The leaked papers contain 35 points grouped into General Principles; Scope of Cooperation; the Responsibilities of the Ministry of Labor, Immigration and Population (MoLIP); Responsibilities of the UNDP and UNHCR; Implementation Arrangements; Confidentiality, Monitoring and Evaluation; Review, Suspension and Termination; and Entry into Force of the MOU.
The President’s Office spokesman declined to confirm the authenticity of the leaked papers but said officials had learned that the Facebook page is followed by many journalists. According to an analysis by The Irrawaddy, the facts in the Reuters report match those in the documents posted by the Yangon Informer page.
U Zaw Htay said, “We will examine whether it [the Facebook page] was created by people from UN circles, the diplomatic community or journalists. If it was someone linked to those groups, it’s a breach of ethics and they must take responsibility. This is a classified document.”
He said the government would gather concrete evidence relating to the disclosure and then officially lodge a complaint with the UN though official channels if anyone from the UN was found to be involved. He acknowledged that this is not the first such leak; a leaked copy of a bilateral agreement between Myanmar and Bangladesh also went viral on Facebook. The spokesman said the moves were systematic and aimed to destabilize the situation in northern Rakhine State.
“We won’t lodge a motion with the UN unless we get concrete evidence that is good enough to prove our case. We were initially informed that the documents were given to some reporters. I hope the UN [agencies] are not involved in this case, and we don’t believe they would act in that way.”
Some exiled Rohingya refugees have expressed their dissatisfaction with and objection to the tri-party MOU in several reports, and even claimed they would not participate in the repatriation process as the agreement does not mention the contentious term “Rohingya”. Most Myanmar residents refer to Rohingya as “Bengalis”, implying that they were brought to Burma by British colonial authorities to address a labor shortage in the agriculture sector. Additionally, the document does not guarantee citizenship status for Rohingya or freedom of movement and education.
U Zaw Htay said, “Citizenship status should be determined according to the Constitution and existing laws. We must clearly understand that the government should not reach beyond the laws. There is no automatic citizenship scheme in any country in the world.”
The Irrawaddy asked government spokesman U Zaw Htay whether the disclosure of the MOU could greatly impact the two nations’ agreed repatriation process for displaced Rohingya, who have already rejected the agreement. He said it would not negatively affect the deal, as it will be carried out in accordance with 1992-93 bilateral agreements. He assumed the Rohingya rejection of the document was a political tactic aimed at undermining the activities of the Myanmar government in order to raise pressure on Naypyitaw on the international stage.
The Irrawaddy on Tuesday contacted the UNHCR’s media officer for Myanmar, who briefly replied that he is on leave from June 29 to July 8 and not in contact with his colleagues. Some political commentators were also hesitant to speak on the issue, as the National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government has not publicly announced whether the leaked documents are fake or real.
Arakan National Party (ANP) Lower House lawmaker U Oo Hla Saw said Arakanese lawmakers are very interested in the MOU, but most knew very little about it. He said the Union government needed to officially clear the issue up first.
“Criticizing the government without knowing whether the documents are authentic could draw criticism of being overly pessimistic,” U Oo Hla Saw said.
He said some points in the MOU are acceptable, though some were the subject of significant concern among the public. He reiterated that his party’s perspective on refugee repatriation was that it generally accepted the voluntary return of refugees as well as the granting of basic rights to those who have already successfully met the conditions included in the 1982 Citizenship Law. However, he claimed that ANP lawmakers and Arakanese locals would not accept resettling the returnees in southern Rakhine State and expected that the Army might have the same stance, because southern Maungdaw is geographically important for security reasons.
“The government should analyze whether its earlier policies on refugee repatriation and the agreements in the recent MOU are contradictory or consistent. If we speculate on this too early, we will be caught between the refugees and the government, and viewed as obstructionist,” he said.