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Bangladesh to press for Muslim refugees’ return to Burma

Rohingya refugees queue for aid in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, on 1 October 2017. (Photo: Reuters)

DHAKA — Bangladesh opens talks with neighbouring Burma on Monday with the aim of securing the return home of more than half a million Rohingya Muslim refugees from Burma, most of whom have arrived since late August.

The United Nations has called the exodus of 507,000 Rohingya since 25 August the world’s fastest-developing refugee emergency, and says Buddhist-majority Burma is engaging in ethnic cleansing against its Rohingya Muslim minority.

Burma rejects that. Its forces launched an offensive in the north of Arakan State in response to coordinated attacks by Rohingya insurgents on 25 August.

Burma blames the insurgents for attacks on civilians and for setting most of the fires that have reduced more than half of more than 400 Rohingya villages in the north of Arakan to ashes. The insurgents deny that.

Burma says more than 500 people have been killed in the latest violence, most of them insurgents.

Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has called for an end to the violence and for safe zones to be set up in Burma to enable refugees to return.

She has also called for a UN fact-finding mission to go to Burma and for Burma to implement recommendations on solving problems in Arakan drawn up by a team led by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Bangladesh will focus on those five proposals in talks in Dhaka on Monday with Burmese government official Kyaw Tint Swe, in particular the sustainable return of the refugees, a Bangladeshi foreign ministry official said.

“We don’t think this crisis is going to be resolved in just one meeting,” said the Bangladeshi official who declined to be identified as he is not authorised to speak to media on the record.

The crisis over Burma’s treatment of the Rohingya is the biggest problem national leader Aung San Suu Kyi has had to face since forming a government last year after winning a landmark election in late 2015.

Suu Kyi, in an address to the nation last month, said Burma was ready to start a verification process under a 1993 agreement with Bangladesh and “refugees from this country will be accepted without any problem.”

There were already about 300,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh before the most recent exodus.

The Nobel peace laureate Suu Kyi has been accused by Western critics of not speaking out strongly enough on behalf of the long-persecuted minority and of defending the army’s actions.

The Rohingya are denied citizenship in Burma and classified as illegal immigrants, despite claiming roots there that go back centuries, with communities marginalised and occasionally subjected to communal violence.

Suu Kyi has no power over security policy under a military-drafted constitution and the public in Burma, where Buddhist nationalism has surged over recent years, largely supports the offensive against the insurgents.

The United States, in its strongest criticism of Burma over the crisis, called last week on countries to suspend providing weapons to Burma’s military. But it stopped short of threatening to reimpose US sanctions, which were suspended under the Obama administration.

A protest against Western pressure and foreign media coverage of the crisis is planned in the biggest city of Rangoon on Monday.

Burma has refused to grant access to the UN fact-finding mission but Suu Kyi appointed Annan last year to lead an advisory commission and propose solutions.

The commission presented its recommendations on 24 August, a day before the insurgent attacks sparked the latest crisis, among them a review of a law that links citizenship and ethnicity and leaves most Rohingya stateless.

The panel also recommended that the government hold perpetrators of serious human rights violations accountable, ensure the right to freedom of movement for all residents of Arakan State and investment in infrastructure such as roads electricity, water and internet access to lift the state out of poverty.

Suu Kyi, in her address to the nation last month, said she was committed to the recommendations.