Myanmar, Bangladesh vow to cooperate to return Rohingya

Rohingya refugees rest after crossing into Bangladesh from Myanmar at Kutupalong refugee camp in the Bangladeshi district of Ukhia on Oct 24, 2017.
Rohingya refugees rest after crossing into Bangladesh from Myanmar at Kutupalong refugee camp in the Bangladeshi district of Ukhia on Oct 24, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

YANGON (AFP) - Myanmar and Bangladesh have agreed to work together to repatriate hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslim refugees, officials said, but details remain thin as the humanitarian crisis deepens.

Ties between the neighbours have been severely strained by army-led violence in Myanmar's Rakhine state that has driven more than 600,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh since late August.

The exodus has saddled one of Asia's poorest nations with a massive humanitarian crisis, with refugees too terrified to return to Rakhine.

Dhaka and the UN have accused Myanmar's army of ethnic cleansing and called for the full repatriation of the Muslim minority, who have crammed into makeshift camps in Bangladesh's Cox's Bazar district.

Washington is also pressing for targeted sanctions against Myanmar military officers involved in the violence.

After talks in Myanmar's capital Naypyidaw on Tuesday, Bangladesh's Home Ministry said Myanmar had agreed to stop the outflow of Rohingya and take back all refugees.

"Myanmar has agreed to stop continuous entry of displaced Myanmar nationals in Bangladesh and to bring normalcy back to the Rakhine State," the Home Ministry said in a statement.

But Myanmar offered a more measured commitment, saying only that refugees would need to be scrutinised for proof of their roots in Rakhine state.

"We cannot say when we are going to receive (the refugees)," Tin Myint, from Myanmar's Home Ministry, told reporters after the meeting.

"We will accept after scrutinising... we will check whether they really stayed in Maungdaw and Buthidaung," he said, referring to the hardest-hit districts in Rakhine that are now nearly empty of Rohingya residents.

That criteria may be difficult to fulfil for the Rohingya who bolted from Myanmar soldiers and Buddhist mobs who they allege drove them out with a massive campaign of arson, murder and rape.

Also, Myanmar has rendered the Rohingya stateless with the government refusing to recognise them as a distinct ethnic group.

Myanmar has vehemently rejected accusations of ethnic cleansing and defended the army campaign as a legitimate response to the Aug 25 attacks by Rohingya militants.

Previous Myanmar government statements have suggested that any Rohingya with links to the militants would be barred from returning home.

Even if the reparation plan goes forward, there is widespread concern over what the Rohingya will return to, since many of their villages have been razed by fires.