Myanmar has started checking names on a list of more than 8,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees who want to voluntarily return to Rakhine state where they were driven out by a brutal military crackdown that began six months ago, a government official said Tuesday.
Bangladeshi Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal gave the list to Kyaw Tint Swe, minister of the Myanmar State Counselor’s Office, on Feb. 16.
Myint Kyaing, permanent secretary of Myanmar’s labor, immigration, and population ministry, said the home affairs ministry has been scrutinizing names on the list to ensure there are no militants among the returnees.
The immigration ministry will verify if the Rohingya on the list previously lived in northern Rakhine state, he said.
Refugees are allowed to return if they can prove they lived in the region prior to Oct.9, 2016, when the Myanmar military launched a smaller-scale crackdown in response to raids on border guard stations by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a Muslim militant group. ARSA also claimed responsibility for deadly attacks on 30 police outposts, which prompted another crackdown on Aug. 25, 2017.
“We will inform the Bangladeshi government after checking the list and, after that, the Bangladeshi government will send the refugees back,” Myint Kyaing said. “This is the process.”
“The immigration ministry’s process will not take as long because we have the lists of families with their photos, names, and the number of people in each family, which we have collected every year since 1992,” he said. “We will check the photos and data with computer software as well.”
Myanmar signed an agreement with Bangladesh in November to repatriate some of the roughly 700,000 Rohingya who fled across the border to escape the crackdown, which the international community has said amounts to ethnic cleansing and genocide, with reports of indiscriminate killings, torture, rape, and arson.
Rohingya refugees were supposed to begin returning to Myanmar in January, but the program experienced delays, with each side blaming the other for a lack of preparedness.
Refugees in no-man’s-land
More than 6,500 Rohingya refugees living in a no-man’s-land between Myanmar’s Tambru and Bangladesh’s Konarpara border areas are among the initial 8,032 whose names are included on the repatriation list.
The refugees on the strip of land have been protesting against the repatriation process, demanding that United Nations peacekeepers be sent to Rakhine and that aid agencies and independent media outlets be given unfettered access to the region.
Representative from both countries visited the unclaimed land on Tuesday and held discussions with some of the refugees, Reuters reported.
Myint Kyaing said the Myanmar government has warned people living along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border areas to return home, saying that the home affairs ministry will take action against them if they fail to do so.
The U.N.’s refugee agency has voiced concern over the well-being of the refugees if they are forced back to Myanmar without proper safety precautions to prevent further attacks and atrocities against them.
Buddhist-majority Myanmar considers the Rohingya illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, and denies them citizenship as well as access to basic services such as health care and education.
Eight protesters charged
Meanwhile, in another part of Rakhine state, authorities on Tuesday charged eight protesters for damaging public property during a protest in the ancient town of Mrauk U on Jan. 16, when thousands of ethnic Rakhine Buddhist marking a nationalist religious anniversary converged on a government office after authorities tried to stop the event.
Police shot dead seven ethnic Rakhine protesters and wounded 13 others who were later arrested.
Eight of the 13 charged were arrested on Jan. 23 but did not appear in court on Tuesday because of health issues, lawyer Aye Nu Sein said.
They are being held in a jail in Rakhine’s capital Sittwe where they were sent after they were discharged from a local hospital on Feb. 2.
“They have been charged under Act 602 for damaging public property,” she said. “We heard that the eight detained people were brought to the court, but they were sent back to jail soon afterwards because of their health conditions.”
The other five were being treated at a hospital in Mrauk U for injuries they sustained during the crackdown, but escaped and are now considered fugitives.
Family members of the eight detainees have requested legal assistance from the Arakan National Party (ANP), a political party representing the interests of the ethnic Rakhine people in religiously divided Rakhine state, reports RFA.