YANGON -- Myanmar and Bangladesh agreed Thursday to start the repatriation of Rohingya Muslim refugees to Myanmar within two months, although a lack of specifics still clouds the plan's prospects.
Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali had remained in the Myanmar capital of Naypyitaw following an ASEM Foreign Ministers meeting earlier this week. He met with top Myanmar officials, including State Counselor and de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Despite reaching a broad agreement, including on the creation of a joint task force for the repatriation of the Rohingya within three weeks, Myanmar and Bangladesh appear to have ironed out few other details.
Ali said the Thursday agreement was just the "first step" and acknowledged the need for continued dialogue. Bangladesh is calling for the United Nations and other bodies to monitor the repatriation to ensure the safety of the Rohingya. It also wants to complete the process within a year or so. Myanmar, on the other hand, insists that verifying the residency of the refugees will take time.
A military crackdown following August attacks by Rohingya insurgents forced some 620,000 people to flee across the border into Bangladesh, according to U.N. estimates. Many in the global community have called out Myanmar for the systemic persecution of the minority.
"After a careful and thorough analysis of available facts, it is clear that the situation in northern Rakhine state constitutes ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya," U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Wednesday.
The Myanmar state counselor's office on Thursday stressed the country's position that issues between neighboring countries, such as the current refugee crisis, "must be resolved amicably through bilateral negotiations."
Uncovering the extent of the damage by Myanmar forces remains an issue as well. Many of the refugees claim that security forces killed a large number of residents and burned villages, which the military categorically denies.
The U.S. conclusion that the Rohingya faced ethnic cleansing "was made without any proven facts," a Myanmar government spokesperson said Thursday.
The majority of Myanmar citizens are Buddhist. The return of the Rohingya Muslims will likely be met by a strong backlash.