Myanmar says Rohingya are returning, but evidence is thin

Government officials claim many Muslims burned their own houses before fleeing

Rohingya Muslims behind barbed wire in the Taung Pyo border area where they are stranded between Myanmar and Bangladesh. Photograph: Adam Dean/The New York Times

Rohingya Muslims behind barbed wire in the Taung Pyo border area where they are stranded between Myanmar and Bangladesh. Photograph: Adam Dean/The New York Times

 

We waded through floodwaters, past soldiers hefting rifles, and climbed into a prefabricated hut. Inside, a row of men sat huddled against the wall as armed police and immigration officers stood over them. They were, we had been given the impression, among the 700,000 Rohingya Muslims who had fled northern Rakhine state in Myanmar for Bangladesh last year in an exodus the United States and other countries condemned as ethnic cleansing.

Now, dozens have been repatriated, officials said, thanks to the goodwill of the Myanmar government, eager to demonstrate its commitment to welcoming back the Rohingya with rows of barracks prepared for the returnees.

But like nearly every interaction on a recent government-led trip for journalists to the epicentre of the crisis, cracks appeared in the official storyline. The men at one of the country’s three repatriation centres shook their heads when asked if they had peacefully come back to Myanmar from Bangladesh.

They said they had not been repatriated. In fact, they said, they had never even left this waterlogged stretch of marsh and mountain in Myanmar, and had been swept up in the government’s broad repression of the Rohingya minority.

One day, last year, three of the men said, soldiers had arrested them in their village in northern Rakhine state. Five and a half months later, they were released and charged with illegal immigration. “They accused us of coming from Bangladesh, but we have never been to Bangladesh,” Abdus Salim said. “Rakhine is our home.”

Win Khine, the lead immigration officer, looked apologetic. Maybe they were liars, he said. He refused to call the men Rohingya, referring to them as Bengali to imply they belonged in neighbouring Bangladesh. “Bengalis are not from our country because they have different blood, skin colour and language from us,” Win Khine said. “We have no Rohingya here.”

Outside of Myanmar, the tragedy of the Rohingya is clear. Over the decades, the Muslim minority has been stripped of its rights – to attend college, to access medical care, to move freely – by a Buddhist-chauvinist, army-dominated government. Most have no citizenship.

When Rohingya insurgents attacked police posts and an army encampment last August, killing a dozen security personnel, a paroxysm of violence against Rohingya civilians followed within hours: mass executions, rapes and village burnings by security forces that United Nations officials have suggested could constitute genocide. Rakhine Buddhist mobs abetted in the bloodletting.

But on this rare trip to northern Rakhine, under the watchful eye of armed guards, the official narrative diverged from the internationally accepted reality. The Rohingya had burned their own residences, we were told by officials and civilians alike. They were terrorists – and if they were not terrorists, they were women and children manipulated by shadowy groups in Bangladesh and elsewhere in the Islamic world.

Yet even as we were shepherded through the muddy, still charred countryside of Rathedaung and Maungdaw, two townships in northern Rakhine, the discussions grew sticky with contradictions.

‘That’s stupid’

We stopped in a village once populated by Rakhine Buddhists, Rohingya Muslims and the Mro, a formerly jungle-dwelling ethnic minority. Eight Mro were killed last August by Rohingya insurgents, the Myanmar authorities have said. Why hadn’t the international media covered these murders, local officials on our tour asked? But they didn’t address the thousands of Rohingya who human rights groups say were killed last year.

Like everywhere else we went, officials in the village insisted that the Rohingya here had torched their own houses to garner global sympathy. But at one point we spoke freely with local residents, and a girl, who would be in danger if her name were revealed, said she missed a Muslim friend who had lived a few houses down.

“The Rakhine burned their houses down,” she said, referring to civilians from the Buddhist ethnic group that gives Rakhine state its name. “My friend is gone forever.”

A man corrected her quickly. “You’re supposed to say the reverse,” he admonished. “You should say they burned their own houses down.”

Outside, another child, playing soccer barefoot in the rain, was more emphatic. “I saw it with my own eyes, how the Rakhine burned down all the Muslim houses,” he said, detailing how a car belonging to a Rohingya family was lit on fire because the looters didn’t know how to drive.

“Who would burn down their own houses?” the boy added. “That’s stupid.”

‘Bengali issue’

A new school and Buddhist pagoda had been built on what was once the village’s Muslim quarter. The remaining residents have been gifted new homes by the government, rows of prefabricated houses that looked incongruous in one of the poorest places in Asia.

A villager walks past prefabricated huts that the Myanmar government said it had prepared for the returning Rohingya Muslims, in Maungdaw Township, Myanmar. Photograph: Adam Dean/The New York Times
A villager walks past prefabricated huts that the Myanmar government said it had prepared for the returning Rohingya Muslims, in Maungdaw Township, Myanmar. Photograph: Adam Dean/The New York Times

In the town of Maungdaw, Kyaw Win Htet, the assistant director of the Maungdaw District General Administration Department, gave a briefing on the area’s changing demographics. A year ago, Maungdaw district had a population of 800,000. Now, there were 416,000 people. Before, the township was 90 per cent Muslim. Now it was barely half.

Why did the Muslims leave? Kyaw Win Htet, a Buddhist, said he wasn’t sure. “I think they didn’t want to live here anymore,” he said. “But the reason why, only they themselves know.”

Did the local government have death tolls from last year’s violence, broken down by ethnicity? Kyaw Win Htet said he did not know. Had he ever visited any of the hundreds of burned Rohingya villages? No, he had not. Did he know of any Muslim employees of his government department, given that nearly most of the district’s population had been Rohingya? No, he did not.

Later, Kyaw Win Htet admitted that the “Bengali issue” was not his bailiwick. His expertise was flood control. He had been assigned to talk to us only because his boss was away.

Earlier this week, the Myanmar government formed yet another commission to investigate what exactly had happened in northern Rakhine. Half a dozen such committees have been convened so far; none has determined anything substantive. Meanwhile, the country’s leadership continues to deny there was any state-sponsored campaign to remove the Rohingya from Myanmar.

At one swollen river crossing, a few Rohingya ventured through the murky water. We had gotten out of the car because it wasn’t clear whether the vehicle could manage the current, and an elderly woman, Suma Bibi, and her husband splashed by. I wanted to talk to her so we ducked under the roof of a border guard hut to escape the rain. She was shaking.

“I am afraid,” she whispered, jutting her chin at the armed policeman standing behind me. “I don’t want to be close to people like that.” Bibi said she had tried unsuccessfully to escape to Bangladesh when her village was destroyed by fire. “I want to leave,” she said. “But I cannot.”

Stateless and homeless

The final day of our government tour, we stopped at the Taung Pyo border between Myanmar and Bangladesh, where thousands of Rohingya have been caught behind barbed wire in a kind of buffer zone between the two countries. The Myanmar government claims Muslim militants operate from this narrow strip of territory, a charge these displaced Rohingya deny.

On earlier occasions, from the Bangladesh side, I had talked with Dil Mohammed, the leader of this marooned community. Mohammed had gone to the University of Yangon, Myanmar’s finest. He once had a nice house. Now he was stateless, homeless and soaked by the monsoons and the occasional surge of sewage.

But he laughed when he saw me peering through the fence from Myanmar. “Before, you were on that side,” Mohammed said in his courtly English, pointing to Bangladesh. “Now you are on this side.”

A Myanmar border guard shifted the aim of his muzzle, and Mohammed stepped aside into a squelch of mud. “But I am still here in the same place,” he added. “Do you think that will ever change?” – New York Times

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