Myanmar signs pact with Bangladesh over Rohingya repatriation

Working group will be set up within three weeks but rights groups raise concerns about where returnees will be resettled

Myanmar and Bangladesh have signed an initial deal for the possible repatriation of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who fled violence in Rakhine state.

More than 620,000 Rohingya have crossed the border into Bangladesh since August, running from a military crackdown that Washington said this week clearly constituted ethnic cleansing.

Rights groups have raised concerns over the repatriation process, including where the persecuted minority will be resettled since hundreds of their villages have been razed, and how their safety will be ensured in a country with raging anti-Muslim sentiment. Some aid workers fear they could be forcibly interned.

The signing took place after a meeting between Myanmars de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and the Bangladeshi foreign minister, Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali in Myanmars capital, Naypyidaw.

In brief remarks to the press,Mahmood Ali said: This is a primary step. [They] will take back [Rohingya]. Now we have to start working.

A joint working group will be set up within three weeks and an arrangement for repatriation will be concluded in a speedy manner, the Bangladeshi foreign affairs ministry said in a statement. The return of the refugees should start within two months, it added.

Myanmar said the deal was based on a 1992/93 repatriation pact between the two countries that followed a previous spasm of violence.

Myint Kyaing, the permanent secretary of Myanmars ministry of labour, immigration and population, said his country would accept people with identity documents issued by governments in the past.

Refugees would have to fill in forms with names of family members, previous addresses in Myanmar, birth dates and a statement of voluntary return.

We are ready to take them back as soon as possible after Bangladesh sends the forms back to us, he said.

The requirements for identification documents has been a contentious issue for the stateless Rohingya. Amnesty International released a report this week accusing Myanmar of effectively denying citizenship to Rohingya on the basis of their ethnicity, including engaging in an active policy of depriving Rohingya of vital identity and residency documentation. This includes blocking newborn babies from household lists, it said.

The London-based rights group said this week that Rohingya lived under state-sponsored, institutionalised discrimination that amounted to apartheid.

Q&A

Who are the Rohingya?

The Rohingya are Muslims who live in majority-Buddhist Myanmar. They are often described as "the world's most persecuted minority".

Nearly all of Myanmar's 1.1 million Rohingya live in the western coastal state of Rakhine. The government does not recognise them as citizens, effectively rendering them stateless.

In 2012, deadly clashes with Buddhists in Rakhine caused 140,000 Rohingya to flee their homes. Many have since paid people smugglers to take them on dangerous sea voyages to Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, where they are often exploited.

Extremist nationalist movements insist the group are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, although the Rohingya say they are native to Rakhine state.

Rights groups accuse Myanmar authorities of ethnic cleansing, systematically forcing Rohingya from the country through violence and persecution, a charge the government has denied.

Bangladesh has been overwhelmed by the influx of people, with crowded refugee camps growing drastically in the southern Coxs Bazar region.

Myanmar will hope to ease growing international pressure by striking the agreement. Pope Francis, who has spoken about his sympathy for the plight of the Rohingya, is due to visit both countries next week.

Aung San Suu Kyis office released a statement on Thursday appearing to condemn western countries and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation for having portrayed the matter as an international issue by passing resolutions at the UN human rights council and the general assembly of the United Nations.

The statement said Myanmars principled position was that issues that emerge between neighbouring countries must be resolved amicably through bilateral negotiations.

The present arrangement, which had been agreed to by both countries based on their friendly and good neighbourly relations demonstrate the steadfast position of Myanmar and is a win-win situation for both countries, it said.

The Rohingya have been the target of communal violence in mainly Buddhist Myanmar for years. The governmentseverely restricts their movement and access to basic services.

The latest unrest erupted after Rohingya rebels attacked police posts on 25 August. The army backlash inflicted violence across northern Rakhine, with refugees recounting scenes of soldiers and Buddhist mobs slaughtering villagers and burning down entire communities.

The military denies all allegations but has restricted access to the conflict zone. The Myanmar government has blocked visas for a UN-fact finding mission tasked with investigating allegations of military abuse.

Reuters and Agence France-Presse contributed to this report.

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