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Rohingya Muslims Fear Return Home to Myanmar

Boys search for useful items among the ashes of burnt houses after fire destroyed shelters at a camp for internally displaced Rohingya Muslims in the western Rakhine State near Sittwe, Myanmar, May 3, 2016.

By Maaz Hussain
February 22, 2017

Many Rohingya Muslims who fled alleged killings and other rights abuses during a Myanmar military crackdown in northern Rakhine state say they are not willing to return to their homes, despite last week's announcement that the military operation in the region has ended.

A statement from de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi's office last week said the situation in northern Rakhine had stabilized and the clearance operation by the military had been halted.

But many Rohingya say the situation in Myanmar, also known as Burma, continues to remain hostile for them.

Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi delivers a speech during Union Day celebrations in Panglong, Myanmar, Feb. 12, 2017. Suu Kyi has called on all armed ethnic groups to sign a nationwide cease-fire.

Too scared 

“That military operation might have ended, but the oppression of the Rohingyas in Burma has not ended," said Dil Mohammad, a 30-year-old Rohingya refugee living in a shanty-colony in Cox’s Bazar district. "Rohingyas still cannot freely go for livelihood-related activities like fishing, farming and collecting firewood in Burma. If some Rohingyas are found in such work, they are being arrested by police.”

Mohammad says life continues to be full of hardships for Rohingyas in Myanmar.

“In such a situation I shall not return to Burma," he said. "I think as many as 96 or 97 percent of the new refugees in Bangladesh will not return to Burma.”

Mohammad isn't alone in his thinking. Most of the Rohingya who fled Myanmar during the recent military crackdown were so petrified by the killings and torture they witnessed that they are too scared to go back to their homes in Rakhine, according to Rohingya community leader Nurul Islam, the Britain-based chairman of the Arakan Rohingya National Organisation.

Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi delivers a speech during Union Day celebrations in Panglong, Myanmar, Feb. 12, 2017. Suu Kyi has called on all armed ethnic groups to sign a nationwide cease-fire.

"Since violence subsided in Rakhine in the past weeks, some Rohingya from Bangladesh began returning to their homes," said Islam during a visit to Cox’s Bazar. "They are mostly those who had left part of their families in Rakhine while suddenly fleeing violence. They are going to Burma mostly to wind up their livelihood-related activities there and to bring the rest of their families back to Bangladesh."

Islam tells VOA that crackdowns against the Rohingya are ongoing "in many other ways."

"All Rohingya refugees are aware of the risks and hardships they will face in Burma," he said. "So Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh are largely not willing to return to Burma."

Abuse allegations

After nine policemen were killed in Rakhine on October 9 in an armed attack blamed on Rohingya insurgents, the Myanmar military launched a “clearance operation” in the area to ferret out the insurgents.

Soon after the operation started, Rohingya began fleeing the area, accusing soldiers, police and local Buddhist groups, who accompanied the forces during the raids, of abuses, including rapes, killings and arson.

A Rohingya refugee girl wipes her eyes as she cries at Leda Unregistered Refugee Camp in Teknaf, Bangladesh, February 15, 2017.

Community leaders estimate that up to 100,000 Rohingya have crossed into Bangladesh.

Earlier this month, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said the action of the security forces in northern Rakhine were very likely “crimes against humanity.” 

A week later, two senior U.N. officials working among the Rohingya refugees said more than 1,000 Rohingya may have been killed during the four-month security operation in northern Rakhine.

However, Myanmar presidential spokesman Zaw Htay said last week that less than 100 people had been killed during the operation. The Myanmar government has also consistently denied allegations of widespread abuses against the Rohingya people during the military operation.

Yanghee Lee (C), the UN's Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, visits the Balu Khali Rohingya camp in Cox's Bazar, Feb. 21, 2017.

A question of status

A controversial 1982 law renders members of the Rohingya community ineligible for citizenship.

The community was excluded from the 2014 census because the government refused to identify them as "Rohingya" and the Rohingya refused to be listed as "Bengalis."

In recent weeks, Myanmar authorities have resumed issuing National Verification Cards (NVCs) to Rohingya community members in Rakhine. Those who hold NVCs are identified as residents of Myanmar, but their citizenship status is under scrutiny.

Rohingya are being coerced by authorities to accept NVCs and those who refuse are arrested, according to Rakhine-based Rohingya rights activist Aung Aung.

"For a Rohingya holding an NVC, [that] virtually means he is not a citizen of Myanmar, but a declared Bengali immigrant," Aung said. "So, most Rohingyas are not willing to accept NVCs."

Aung says security forces are not allowing the Rohingyas to leave their villages if they cannot produce their NVCs.

"With this new restriction on movement, the Rohingyas are unable to perform many livelihood-related activities in Rakhine," Aung said, "which has brought new miseries to them."

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