YANGON – Rakhine civil society and state cabinet members told The Irrawaddy that visiting US delegates asked about the local perspective on the repatriation of Rohingya Muslim refugees who fled to neighboring Bangladesh following Myanmar Army security clearance operations in August.
According to UN estimates, more than 600,000 Rohingya Muslims have sought refuge in Bangladesh since the end of August.
Regional minister Kyaw Lwin of agriculture, livestock, forestry, and mining, spoke with The Irrawaddy over the phone on Monday and said that US delegates led by Senator Jeff Merkley landed in state capital Sittwe on their own aircraft on Sunday but did not visit the conflict-torn Maungdaw region.
The US delegates visited Bangladesh prior to Myanmar.
During their meeting with Rakhine cabinet members, the delegates encouraged state cabinet members to break the ice between Muslim and Rakhine communities by setting up informal meetings in which participants could discuss views and initiate trade and technical support for monitoring projects,” said Minister U Kyaw Lwin.
“They [the delegates] have expressed that they are not interfering in the internal affairs of Myanmar and that the purpose of visit was to observe the reality on the ground,” said Minister Kyaw Lwin.
The senators and officials also conducted an hour-long meeting with Rakhine civil society organizations (CSOs) in Sittwe on the same day. Rakhine Ethnic Congress (REC) secretary Zaw Zaw Tun who attended the meeting on Monday told The Irrawaddy that the discussion focused on the humanitarian crisis.
The US officials and legislators asked the opinion of CSO representatives regarding refugee repatriation.
The Rakhine CSOs said they had heard the reasons for the massive numbers of refugees was fear of future trouble in Maungdaw, difficulty receiving food supplies, the ability to receive international aid more easily in Bangladesh, and the opportunity to reach a third country under refugee status.
Zaw Zaw Tun said the delegates encouraged stakeholders to sympathize and accept repatriation, but that they understood there would be numerous challenges. He added that locals fear future attacks by Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army militant.
The senators also met with Arakan National Party (ANP) leaders in Sittwe. The US delegation highlighted the need to uphold human rights, as Myanmar is now a democracy.