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Tensions over Rohingya return highlight donor dilemmas

Moves to redistribute northern Rakhine land complicate refugee return plans

Gwen Robinson, Chief editor | Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos

SITTWE/YANGON -- Moves by Myanmar government officials to rezone and redistribute land previously occupied by Rohingya Muslims in northern Rakhine State suggest that plans to repatriate hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh are already being challenged within the government.

Abandoned lands would be reclassified under a recent initiative led by Myanmar's Home Affairs ministry to redraw the map of northern Rakhine, following the destruction of nearly 300 Rohingya villages and the exodus of an estimated 700,000 refugees from October last year. The exodus followed brutal military operations that saw villages razed, hundreds killed and maimed, and farming fields abandoned in Rohingya-dominated areas of northern Rakhine. The military action came after Islamic militants launched attacks last October and in late August.

Tin Maung Swe, Rakhine state secretary and a senior official with the military-backed General Administration Department, told the Nikkei Asian Review that government departments led by the Home Affairs ministry would reclassify or rezone land for purposes such as forestry and agriculture, as well as for new villages. These would be built for settlers within Rakhine State and further afield. Returning refugees, however, would not be entitled to return to their original villages, he added.

Government surveyors were redrawing the map of northern Rakhine in a process that would be completed "within months," he noted. "Our GAD will collect data [on land]... This will be a national plan, it will divide lands into villages, paddy fields, forests... Now we are surveying to make the new map, which will look at land use and ownership."

Rohingya returnees could be resettled and given access to farmland so they could grow crops, but they would have no claims on previous dwellings, he noted. "This is not their land, they are not the real owners, the owner is the nation, our ancestors, we never will give them away... There will be a relocation plan but of course that depends on national policy."

His comments -- together with similar remarks made by the influential military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who has repeatedly stressed that Rohingya do not belong in Myanmar -- contradict assurances by civilian government ministers that refugees could return to their original home areas and farming lands.

In mid-October, Win Myat Aye, minister for social welfare, relief and resettlement, told the Nikkei Asian Review that returning refugees could go back to their homes. Yet, he had affirmed in late September a national law that reclassifies land burnt in conflict as government-managed land. In mid-October, State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, the country's de facto leader, established a multi-agency body to oversee Rakhine reconstruction and refugee return. The body has rallied business and civil society behind reconstruction and development efforts. But government officials, particularly from the military-run Home Affairs ministry, have talked of building "model villages" -- a term that aid officials warn foreshadows "potential permanent camps."

A bilateral agreement signed Oct. 24 by Bangladesh and Myanmar to cooperate to halt the outflow of refugees and facilitate their return did not detail housing or other arrangements. "This just adds to fears that what we'll see is a showcase return of a handful of refugees, who will end up in Potemkin [or show] villages... and that will be it," said a U.N. consultant working on Rakhine State development.

The perception gap over the question of refugee return adds to concerns raised by recent moves by the Rakhine government to sell off farm animals left by fleeing Rohingya, and to harvest their rice and other crops to put in government stores and distribute among the local -- now Buddhist-dominated -- population.

More significant, they highlight the emerging dilemma for international organizations and donor governments, over whether, and how, to assist Rakhine reconstruction and refugee return. A diplomat from a donor country described the dilemma as "fear of rewarding ethnic cleansing." Among the leading multilateral organizations, the World Bank and the U.S. government are considering proposals to assist Rakhine reconstruction and preparations for refugee return.

Donor country divisions

The Rohingya exodus and reports of military abuses have highlighted deep divisions at the top of the world's biggest international financial institutions and donor countries over the issue. Central to the debate is the status of existing grant aid and loans to Myanmar.

The World Bank's board of governors, for example, has been bitterly divided over the suspension of a new $200 million budget support program to the central government, finalized in August, and proposals to channel an equivalent amount into Rakhine emergency support programs.

Donor organizations and governments have expressed concern about the military's powerful role in Myanmar's quasi-democratic system -- despite the position of Aung San Suu Kyi as state counsellor and head of the ruling National League for Democracy.

The big concern is the issue of ring-fencing any aid funds from military entities, and the fact that any assistance for Rakhine, even for refugee return, would involve the military, which controls all aspects of security in the country.

Further complicating the debate are growing calls in some Western and Islamic countries for sanctions at least against Myanmar's military over its campaign against the Rohingya. The specter of sanctions -- even targeted curbs -- would not only complicate assistance for Rakhine but also unnerve U.S. business after nearly all previous sanctions were lifted last year.

Aaron Hutman, trade attorney and sanctions expert with Washington D.C. law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, said the U.S. government is "showing it has a number of carrots and sticks for Myanmar, but is struggling to find a way to help the Rohingya and pressure the Myanmar military leadership without disrupting the civilian government."

He added: "U.S. officials have laid out a list of responses, and likely will proceed with a combination of sanctions designations for military leaders, visa bans, discouraging cooperation with the Myanmar military, and stepped up humanitarian aid. State Department officials seem to be floating planned U.S. responses both to assure the public of its attention to a troubling human rights issue, and to see if threats of sanctions impact the military's behavior."

Several Western diplomats said that this week's move by Britain and France to push for a draft U.N. Security Council resolution calling on Myanmar to halt violence against Rohingya and facilitate refugee return has made more progress than earlier efforts. However, China remains "highly unlikely" to support the resolution's call for implementation of proposals by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to consider citizenship for Rohingya, and other measures.

The U.S. is likely to push for the European Union, Canada and others to join in targeted sanctions such as asset freezes against key military figures. "If not multilateral, then probably we will see unilateral U.S. SDN [specially designated nationals] designations," noted Hutman, referring to the so-called "blacklist" which for decades imposed curbs on individuals and entities and forbade U.S. from doing any business with them.

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