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Burma corrects state media report on UN ‘agreement’ to help house refugees

A burnt house is seen in a village near Maungdaw, in the north of Rakhine State, on 12 September 2017. (Photo: Reuters)

A Burmese state-run newspaper on Saturday corrected a report that a UN settlement programme, UN-Habitat, had agreed to help build housing for people fleeing violence in the west of the country, where an army operation has displaced hundreds of thousands.

The development underscores tension between Burma and the United Nations, which in April criticised the government’s previous plan to resettle Rohingya Muslims displaced by last year’s violence in “camp-like” villages.

More than 600,000 have crossed to Bangladesh since 25 August attacks by Rohingya militants sparked an army crackdown. The UN says killings, arson and rape carried out by troops and ethnic Rakhine Buddhist mobs since then amount to a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya.

The state-run Global New Light of Burma (GNLM) newspaper said it had “incorrectly stated that UN-Habitat had agreed with the Union government to provide technical assistance in building housings for displaced people in northern Rakhine.”

“Union officials say that the issue is still under negotiation. The GNLM regrets the error,” said the newspaper.

In its report on Thursday, the daily said UN-Habitat had agreed to provide technical assistance in housing the displaced and the agency would work closely with the authorities to “implement the projects to be favourable to Burma’s social culture and administrative system.”

But the UN told Reuters in an email that no agreements had been reached “so far” after the agency’s representatives attended a series of meetings with Burmese officials this week in the capital Naypyidaw.

Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi has pledged that anyone sheltering in Bangladesh who can prove they were Burmese residents can return, but it remains unclear whether those refugees would be allowed to return to their homes.

Rohingya who return to Burma are unlikely to be able to reclaim their land, and may find their crops have been harvested and sold by the government, according to Burmese officials and plans seen by Reuters.

Buddhist-majority Burma in August suggested that UN agencies such as the World Food Programme have provided food to Rohingya insurgents, adding to pressure on aid groups which had to suspend activities in Rakhine and pull out most of their staff.

Thousands of refugees have continued to arrive cross the Naf River separating Rakhine and Bangladesh in recent days, even though Burma says military operations ceased on 5 September.