Myanmar minister says Rohingya repatriation is priority during landmark trip to refugee camp

Myanmar Social Welfare Minister Win Myat Aye (left) arrives at Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh's Ukhia district on April 11, 2018.
Myanmar Social Welfare Minister Win Myat Aye (left) arrives at Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh's Ukhia district on April 11, 2018.PHOTO: AFP

KUTUPALONG, Bangladesh (REUTERS, AFP) - A Myanmar minister told Rohingya Muslim refugees in Bangladesh on Wednesday (April 11) their repatriation was a priority, during the first visit by a top Myanmar official to victims of what the United Nations says was "ethnic cleansing" by the Myanmar army.

Social Welfare Minister Win Myat Aye, who is leading rehabilitation efforts in Rakhine State, met about 50 newly arrived refugees in the Kutupalong refugee camp in southeast Bangladesh, according to Mohammed Shamsud Douza, the deputy Bangladesh government official in charge of the refugees.

A Bangladesh foreign ministry official said his country wanted to show the visiting minister the challenges it was facing in hosting the refugees.

It is the first time a Myanmar Cabinet member has visited the fetid and overcrowded camps since a military crackdown that began last August in response to a spate of insurgent attacks forced some 700,000 of the Muslim minority to flee across the border.

They added to the 300,000 Rohingya refugees Bangladesh already hosted from previous bouts of violence.

Win Myat Ayat is expected to meet Bangladesh's foreign minister in Dhaka on Thursday (April 12).

Bangladesh wants the refugees to go home as quickly as possible and officials said this week they hoped the minister's visit would speed up repatriation.

But many refugees say they are reluctant to go back to Buddhist-majority Myanmar, fearing persecution.

"The most important thing is to the start the repatriation process as soon as possible. We can overcome all of the difficulties," Win Myat Aye said as he left a meeting with Rohingya representatives at the Kutupalong camp near the border city of Cox's Bazar.

When asked about whether Rohingya could be granted Myanmar citizenship, which they had been long denied, the minister replied: "We are trying to have that."

Myanmar has rejected accusations of ethnic cleansing in its western state of Rakhine, saying its security forces launched a legitimate counter-insurgency operation on Aug. 25 in response to Rohingya militant attacks.

Refugees arriving over the months since then have reported killings, burnings, looting and rape by members of the Myanmar security forces and Buddhist vigilantes.

Myanmar has dismissed most such accounts but the army said on Tuesday seven soldiers had been sentenced to 10 years in jail with hard labour for participating in a massacre of 10 Rohingya Muslim men in a village in September.

The two countries reached a deal in November to begin repatriation within two months, but it has not begun, with stateless Rohingya, who face restrictions on their movements in Myanmar, still arriving in Bangladesh.

Bangladesh police in camouflage uniforms were stationed along the road to the Kutupalong camp to provide security for the Myanmar minister.

Plainclothes police patrolled on foot and ordered vehicles away from the camp administrator's office.

Huts of bamboo and plastic sheets will provide meagre shelter for refugees when the heavy rain and storms hit Cox's Bazar, the low-lying coastal strip bordering Myanmar where the camps are located, when the monsoon arrives in June.