No progress on aid, refugees' return in UN-Myanmar talks

A Rohingya refugee carrying an old man in an area near no-man's-land on the Bangladesh side of the border with Myanmar after crossing the Naf River, after being told by border guards they were not allowed to leave the area and reach the refugee camps
A Rohingya refugee carrying an old man in an area near no-man's-land on the Bangladesh side of the border with Myanmar after crossing the Naf River, after being told by border guards they were not allowed to leave the area and reach the refugee camps near Ukhia, on Tuesday. Some 582,000 Rohingya refugees have fled Myanmar for Bangladesh since late August.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
United Nations undersecretary-general for political affairs Jeffrey Feltman arriving at Sittwe Airport in Rakhine state on Tuesday.
United Nations undersecretary-general for political affairs Jeffrey Feltman arriving at Sittwe Airport in Rakhine state on Tuesday.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

UNITED NATIONS • A senior United Nations official has returned empty-handed from five days of talks in Myanmar where he appealed for the safe return of Muslim Rohingya sheltering in Bangladesh and access for aid workers.

Mr Jeffrey Feltman, the UN undersecretary-general for political affairs, discussed the plight of the 582,000 Rohingya who have fled an army campaign in Myanmar's Rakhine state since late August.

Mr Feltman met with Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and military commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing, and was taken on a plane to fly over Rakhine, where he saw torched villages, a UN spokesman said.

"He reiterated Secretary-General Antonio Guterres' call that humanitarian actors be given full and unhindered access to northern Rakhine state and that refugees be allowed voluntary, safe and dignified return to their place of origin," UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

The UN has for weeks demanded that its aid workers be allowed in Rakhine state and that Rohingya be given permission to safely return to their homes.

"I don't think in announcing the trip we had expected any quick wins. This is an ongoing discussion with the government of Myanmar," MrDujarric said.

Asked why Myanmar was still blocking aid deliveries to Rakhine, he said: "That's a valid question to ask to the authorities of Myanmar. We would like to see that access as soon as possible."

Earlier, the UN refugee agency said in Geneva that some 10,000 to 15,000 Rohingya were stranded near the Bangladesh-Myanmar border.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees spokesman Andrej Mahecic said many had chosen to remain in their homes in Rakhine despite repeated threats to leave or be killed.

"They finally fled when their villages were set on fire," he said.

The UN has denounced the army campaign against the Rohingya as ethnic cleansing but the Myanmar authorities argue that the military operations are to root out militants following attacks on police posts in late August.

In his talks with Myanmar officials, Mr Feltman stressed that "successful counterterrorism efforts do not rely exclusively on security measures", said Mr Dujarric.

The UN Security Council is weighing action, possibly a resolution laying out demands, but diplomats have said that China, a supporter of Myanmar's former ruling junta, and Russia are opposed to such a measure.

Meanwhile, Bangladesh has announced plans to build a refugee camp that could accommodate around 800,000 Rohingya pouring over the border from Myanmar. The camp would be the largest in the world and has raised concerns about the risks of concentrating vulnerable people, such as the risk of disease spread.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 19, 2017, with the headline 'No progress on aid, refugees' return in UN-Myanmar talks'. Print Edition | Subscribe