BANGKOK - Doubts hang over the return of refugees from Bangladesh to Myanmar - originally slated to start on Tuesday (Jan 23) - amid warnings that conditions remain unstable some five months after almost 700,000 Rohingyas fled Rakhine state.
The Muslim minority fled to Bangladesh after an Aug 25 militant attack triggered a military crackdown which has been described by the United Nations as "ethnic cleansing".
While both countries had earlier reached an agreement for the repatriation to begin on Tuesday and continue over the next two years, Bangladesh told Reuters on Monday that the process will be delayed.
"There are many things remaining," said Mr Abul Kalam, Bangladesh's refugee relief and rehabilitation commissioner. "The list of people to be sent back is yet to be prepared, their verification and setting up of transit camps are remaining."
The Bangladesh statement came amid a chorus of warnings that conditions in Rakhine state, the site of deadly communal clashes between the Rohingyas and ethnic Rakhines, are not stable for the refugees.
"This is not a peaceful atmosphere," Mr Oo Hla Saw, a Member of Parliament in Rakhine state from the Arakan National Party, told The Straits Times. "Coming back is not going to be easy."
Chief executive Matthew Smith of human rights group Fortify Rights said in a statement that "any repatriation now would be premature and dangerous".
"Repatriation should be safe, truly voluntary, and dignified, but the current situation fails to come close to this standard."
According to Myanmar's Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement, returnees will be staying in a transition camp in Hla Pho Khaung, in northern Rakhine, while their new homes are being built. State media says the site can accommodate about 30,000 people.
Dr Ko Ko Naing, the ministry's director-general for relief and resettlement, told The Straits Times that returnees can earn a living helping to build these new homes.
"When they finish building their houses, they can just go back home," he said. "If they don't want to stay at the transit centre, they can stay in tents at their construction sites (where their new homes will be)."
It is not clear if Rohingyas will get to return to their original dwellings. During the turmoil last year where scores of Rohingya were shot, killed and gang-raped, large swathes of their villages were burnt to the ground. The military has denied any wrongdoing, save for an admission earlier in January that troops took part in an extrajudicial killing of 10 Rohingyas in a village called Inn Din.
The Rohingyas, who many in Myanmar regard as interlopers from then Bengal during British colonial rule, elicit little sympathy in the country. Communal riots in Rakhine state displaced over 100,000 Rohingya in 2012 and left them confined to camps where mobility and income opportunities were severely restricted.
Local suspicion of Rohingya hardened last year after militants calling themselves the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army staged a coordinated attack on security posts on Aug 25. In the ensuing violence, the Rakhines as well as minority Hindus, Mro and Diagnet mostly fled inland, while the Rohingyas fled across the border into Bangladesh.
According to the latest report by the Inter Sector Coordination Group, 688,000 refugees have crossed from Myanmar to Bangladesh since Aug 25. They are hemmed into a temporary settlement in Cox's Bazar which has put enormous strain on the local environment.
Some local officials have mixed feelings about the repatriation. "We prepared everything, such as medical and humanitarian assistance," Mr Tin Maung Swe, secretary of the Rakhine state government, told The Straits Times.
"This is the voluntary return. They have to sign a document saying they will follow and respect the rules of the country."
But he added: "I don't think Rakhine state would be a good place for them. They want to go back to their original homes but we can only provide a place near their original homes, because we have security and other concerns."