MNA Exclusive Desk: After facing international outrage and charges of ethnic cleansing, Myanmar made a pledge: Rohingya Muslims who fled the country by the hundreds of thousands would start their journey home within weeks.
With so many obstacles, however, and no real sign of good will, few believe that will happen, AP reports.
The returns are supposed to be voluntary. But many members of the religious minority, now living in sprawling refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh, are afraid to go back.
They don’t trust the nationalist-led government and feel widely hated by the general population. Meanwhile, the military – which violently ousted them – says the refugees shouldn’t expect to return in large numbers.
Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist nation of 60 million, was basking in international praise just a few years ago as it transitioned to democracy after a half-century of dictatorship.
Since then, a campaign of killings, rape and arson attacks by security forces and Buddhist-aligned mobs have sent more than 850,000 of the country’s 1.3 million Rohingya fleeing.
Their home for generations, the northern tip of Rakhine state, is now virtually empty, prompting the United Nations, the United States and others to label it ethnic cleansing.
In an apparent effort to quiet criticism, Myanmar reached an agreement with Bangladesh last month saying refugees would start returning home before Jan. 23.
There is “no way” that will happen, says Chris Lewa, a leading expert on the Rohingya and the policies that have made them one of the world’s most persecuted minorities. The government, she notes, has done almost nothing to prepare.
While Myanmar said the Rohingya would be allowed to settle in their original homes, few of which remain standing, some officials have talked about putting them in “camps” in northern Rakhine.
International aid agencies are effectively banned and the Rohingya have little access to food, education or basic medical care. Mothers regularly die in childbirth. Babies and children have clear signs of malnutrition.
Though many Rohingya have been living in Myanmar for generations, they are seen by most people in the country as “foreign invaders” from Bangladesh. They have been denied citizenship, effectively rendering them stateless.
In addition to saying the Muslim minority should be allowed to return freely, safely and in dignity, Myanmar’s agreement with Bangladesh says Rohingya will need to provide evidence of their residency – something many say they do not have.