YANGON -- Myanmar and Bangladesh seek to repatriate the Rohingya villagers who have fled the Southeast Asian country within two years, the two governments agreed Tuesday, marking the first firm goal agreed to for resolving the refugee crisis.
A statement from the Bangladeshi side said the pact "stipulated that the repatriation would be completed preferably within two years." Processing of returnees will begin next Tuesday, a senior Myanmar official confirmed, as the date had been agreed on in November.
The United Nations estimates that 650,000 Rohingya, a Muslim minority, have fled Myanmar since last August following what the government calls "clearance operations" by security forces in Rakhine State in the west of the country. De facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi's government appears to be trying to deflect further international condemnation of alleged abuses by security forces and its handling of the refugee crisis. Bangladesh fears that the overflowing refugee camps on its side of the border will become permanent settlements.
Tuesday's repatriation agreement does not involve international bodies, such as the U.N. refugee agency, and doubts remain that the repatriation will be voluntary and the returnees' safety guaranteed.
According to the Myanmar government, returnees will be held at two so-called reception centers -- Taung Pyo Letwe and Nga Khu Ya -- for one or two days to verify their identity. The government says people will be allowed to return to their villages, but the many whose homes were burned down will be housed temporarily in camps.
Rohingya seek the same rights as citizens that are afforded to Myanmar's officially recognized ethnic minorities -- something the government has never granted. Many refugees fear reprisals by the security forces that raided their villages. Myanmar may have opened the door a crack, but whether the repatriation process goes smoothly remains to be seen.