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Myanmar: Rights group wants gov't to allow Rohingya home

By Kyaw Ye Lin
February 25, 2016

Human rights group urges Myanmar's gov’t to facilitate right to return for more than 145,000 Rohingya Muslims, others confined to internment camps in Rakhine

YANGON, Myanmar -- A Southeast Asia-based human rights group is calling on Myanmar's government to immediately and unconditionally facilitate the right to return for more than 145,000 Rohingya Muslims and others confined to 67 internment camps in Rakhine State, now that a plan to sell their properties has been frozen.

In a statement released Friday, Fortify Rights said that the government should ensure safe and voluntary reintegration and return of displaced Muslims to their original homesteads, and provide reparations for lost property and livelihoods in accordance with international law and standards.

The government of the troubled western state had planned to sell Muslim-owned properties and commercial licenses in the state capital Sittwe but it recently put the plan on hold.

Fortify said in its statement that the plan to sell the properties was to be done without consent from or benefit to those forced into internment camps in fear of violence in 2012.

“[In putting the plan on hold] the authorities did the right thing. We applaud the decision,” said Matthew Smith, the group's executive director.

“Now is the time to end ongoing abuses and support all of the displaced to return home and restore their lives. The apartheid-like system in Rakhine State must be deliberately and carefully dismantled.”

Fortify said that it had asked government officials visiting the camps in Sittwe Township to facilitate Rohingya's return to their original homes, properties, and businesses.

Visiting officials have reportedly told displaced Rohingya from Sittwe there would be “no way” for them to reclaim their workplaces.

Many Rohingya in the camps -- around 145,000 Rohingya are confined to 67 camps -- now fear they will never return.

“We don’t know what they’re going to do with our shops now, because... there are no Rohingya in downtown Sittwe anymore,” Fortify quoted a 42-year-old displaced Rohingya man as saying in Thet Kae Pyin internment camp.

“Now the Rakhine are using our shops. Even though we have our documents -- licenses, tax papers, everything -- what can we do if they use our shops?”

Government officials claim the mass confinement of displaced Rohingya is for security purposes.

More than one million Rohingya Muslims -- who the government refers to as “Bengali” to imply they are interlopers from Bangladesh -- live in Rakhine, which has witnessed a series of violent outbreaks between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and minority Muslims since mid-2012.

Many Muslims were not allowed to stand in the Nov. 8 2015 election on dubious citizenship grounds, and hundreds of thousands of Rohingya were also unable to vote because the government bowed to calls from ultra-nationalists to exclude them.

Myanmar’s National League of Democracy (NLD) party, led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, subsequently swept the national elections, although she distanced herself from the Rohingya's cause for fear it could damage the party's relationship with Buddhist nationalist voters.

In June 2015, a senior researcher at the South Asia Institute, Siegfried O. Wolf, described Rakhine State to Germany’s international broadcaster Deutsche Welle as one of Myanmar's poorest areas, despite being rich in natural resources.

"The Rohingya are thus considered an additional economic burden on the state, as they compete for the few available jobs and opportunities to do business," he was reported as saying.

"The jobs and businesses in the state are mostly occupied by the Burmese elite. As a result, we can say that Buddhist resentment against the Rohingya is not only religious; it is also political and economically driven."

In 2015, Fortify said that the government of Myanmar reportedly facilitated the right to return for several thousand displaced Rohingya to new settlements located near their former villages in Rakhine State.

These relocated communities continue to be denied freedom of movement, it underlined Friday.

“Naypyidaw has deliberately stalled in restoring rights to displaced Rohingya, fomenting deeper divisions between Buddhists and Muslims,” said Smith.

“There is no defensible reason for the incoming Government of Myanmar to continue to confine Rohingya to these squalid internment camps.

“The international community should demand the authorities provide freedom of movement for all residents of Rakhine State and support the reintegration and voluntary return of all displaced persons to their original places.”

With the NLD currently transitioning into power, it is slated to appoint the Chief Minister and government of Rakhine State.

“The new government has an opportunity to break with the abusive legacy of the previous administration,” said Smith. “Lifting restrictions on freedom of movement and facilitating safe, voluntary, and dignified returns for displaced Rohingya would be an important step in the right direction for Rakhine State.”

The right to return is recognized as customary international law. Article 13(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides for the “right to freedom of movement and residence”, which also protects displaced persons’ right to return.

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