Myanmar has called on Bangladesh to repatriate more than 400 Hindu refugees who were among the 2017 exodus of 740,000 Rohingya fleeing a brutal army campaign in Rakhine state, a spokesman of Naypyidaw’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs told RFA.
The demand came during a meeting between Myanmar, Bangladesh and China Tuesday that was conducted online due to COVID-19 concerns. Myanmar urged that verified refugees, including the Hindus, be returned in the first phase of repatriations after the coronavirus pandemic subsides.
About a million Rohingya have fled Myanmar to Bangladesh, most living in 34 refugee camps in and around Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district, including more than 740,000 who escaped a brutal crackdown in nearby Rakhine state in 2017.
In late 2017, Bangladesh and Myanmar officials agreed to begin repatriating Rohingya in early 2018.
The countries had set two dates to begin the repatriation – November 2018 and August 2019 – but the Muslim Rohingya refugees were unwilling to return to what they said was a hostile environment in Rakhine.
Hindu religious leaders in Myanmar, however, are urging both governments to come to an agreement, saying that the refugees suffer in unsafe conditions and are at high risk of abuse.
“We requested the repatriation of Hindus as early as possible, but not only them. We requested all the verified refugees,” Aung Ko, the director general of Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“We did not single them out specifically, but they are part of the refugees verified by our government who should be repatriated as soon as the process resumes,” said Aung Ko.
The ministry said in 2019 that there were 444 Hindus among the refugees. They are believed to have taken shelter in Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar.
A Hindu community leader in Rakhine’s Maungdaw township told RFA that the refugees long to return to their homeland.
“The Hindus over there want to come back to our side as soon as possible. They want to come home. They have expressed their wishes to return to Myanmar to the Bangladeshi authorities,” said Ni Maw.
“They expressed this to the Myanmar authorities too. We also want them to be repatriated and have the people of our ethnic group back in their homeland,” Ny Maw said.
But a Yangon-based Rakhine Hindu humanitarian group told RFA that the decision to repatriate should be made on a case-by-case basis.
“Those who don’t want to return have rights not to return. Those who want to return should come home after negotiations,” said Rague Nay Myint, the humanitarian group’s leader.
“Over 400 Hindus in Bangladesh have been longing to return to Myanmar for quite some time. We want the authorities to repatriate the people who completed their verifications. We have been appealing that they are allowed to return. That’s all,” he said.
The Rohingya issue came up twice recently at a U.N. General Assembly committee tasked with discussing social and humanitarian affairs and human rights issues around the world.
At meetings in November, the committee approved a draft resolution on Myanmar, expressing “grave concern at reports of serious rights violations by the military and security forces against the Rohingya.”
The draft resolution was passed with 131 countries voting in favor. The nine nations who voted against it included Myanmar and China.
The resolution drew attention specifically to reports of rights violations in Myanmar’s Kachin, Rakhine, and the southern Chin and Shan states, “leading to the forced displacement of more than 860,000 Rohingya and other minorities to Bangladesh.”
RFA attempted to contact the Bangladeshi embassy in Yangon for comment on claims by the Myanmar government and Hindu groups that the Dhaka government has delayed the repatriation of Hindu refugees but did not receive a reply.
The Chinese embassy in Yangon was not available for comment, but in a press statement said the participants agreed to hold more tripartite meetings and to go forward with the first batch of repatriations as soon as possible.
Myanmar’s deputy minister for International Cooperation Hau Do Suan urged Bangladesh to comply with the bilateral agreements between two countries on the repatriation process while Myanmar prepares to receive the refugees.
According to government announcements, more than 170 men and 290 women have returned to the Nga Khu Ya refugee welcome center in Maungdaw between 2018 and October last year but none of the repatriated refugees were Hindu.
Reported by Kyaw Lwin Oo for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Eugene Whong.