COX'S BAZAR (Bangladesh) • A Myanmar minister told Rohingya Muslim refugees in Bangladesh yesterday that 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 south-east Bangladesh, according to Mr Mohammed Shamsud Douza, the deputy Bangladeshi government official in charge of the refugees.
A Bangladeshi 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, which 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 already in Bangladesh after previous bouts of violence.
Mr Win Myat Aye is expected to meet Bangladesh's Foreign Minister in Dhaka today.
Bangladesh wants the refugees to go home as quickly as possible and officials this week said they hoped the minister's visit would speed up repatriation. But many refugees say that they are reluctant to go back to Buddhist-majority Myanmar, fearing persecution.
"The most important thing is to start the repatriation process as soon as possible. We can overcome all of the difficulties," Mr Win Myat Aye said as he left a meeting with Rohingya representatives at the Kutupalong camp.
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."
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.
Mr Syed Ullah, a Rohingya community leader who met the minister, said the refugees were upset that Mr Win Myat Aye referred to them as "Bangladeshis". "We showed my parents' national verification card, saying that they are Rohingya who lived in Myanmar. Yet the minister said I am a Bangladeshi. That's completely illogical," he said.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE