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Rohingya repatriation may begin soon -- but it will be slow

Myanmar minister says process can begin in November, but indicates a glacial pace

Win Myat Aye, Myanmar's minister for social welfare, relief and resettlement, says repatriating Rohingya refugees "is not difficult." (Photo by Thurein Hla Htway)

NAYPYITAW Myanmar plans to begin letting Rohingya Muslims who fled to neighboring Bangladesh during a military crackdown back into the country as early as November, but at a glacial pace that would not see the process completed for nearly a decade.

Win Myat Aye, Myanmar's minister for social welfare, relief and resettlement, discussed the plans in an interview with the Nikkei Asian Review in the Myanmar capital on Oct. 11. In addition to heading the ministry in charge of repatriation, he is also responsible for implementing recommendations compiled in August by a commission on the Rohingya issue led by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar's de facto leader, said in a Sept. 19 speech that the country is ready to begin verifying the residency of Rohingya refugees -- a prerequisite for repatriation -- "at any time."

SLOW GOING But little headway has been made, with Myanmar and Bangladesh only recently setting up a working group for planning.

Win Myat Aye acknowledged that an agreement between Naypyitaw and Dhaka will be needed in order to start returning refugees, and said the working group will hold its second meeting in the last week of October.

"If we reach an agreement, we can start repatriation from next month," he said. "It is not difficult."

But while Bangladesh has pushed for repatriation to begin soon, the two sides remain sharply at odds on how to go about it.

An estimated 520,000 Rohingya have crossed the border into Bangladesh since clashes between government security forces and armed Rohingya groups began on Aug. 25, the International Organization for Migration said on Oct. 8.

"We don't know the number" of refugees in Bangladesh, Win Myat Aye said, but he stressed that "all refugees who want to return and can be verified as former residents will be allowed to return."

But Myanmar expects to take in "100 to 150 [refugees] per day based on our past experience," Win Myat Aye said. Processing more than 500,000 at that rate would take nearly a decade, at a minimum.

This is not a proposal Dhaka is likely to accept. The Bangladeshi government and international organizations have been conducting relief operations on an unprecedented scale, and law and order issues are arising in some areas.

PAPERS REQUIRED Win Myat Aye cited three main conditions for accepting refugees. Repatriation must be voluntary, returnees' refugee documentation must match the Myanmar government's residency information, and those separated from their families should bring confirmation from a Bangladeshi court. Even those lacking proof of identity will be allowed back if the name, former residence and parents' names reported by Bangladesh match those in Myanmar's records.

Returnees will remain at the border checkpoint for around a day to a day and a half while their information is checked again, then allowed to return to their former residences, if they still exist. Those who lived in one of the many villages burned to the ground during the military crackdown will be relocated to a temporary camp until the government rebuilds their homes.

Regarding alleged human rights abuses by government forces, Win Myat Aye denied any deliberate persecution and said anyone found to have used excessive force during the crackdown will be "punished." He added, however, that the matter will be investigated mainly by the ministries of home affairs, defense and border affairs. The leaders of these bodies are all nominated by Myanmar's security chief, raising questions about how neutral the probe is likely to be.

As for the U.N. advisory commission, Win Myat Aye indicated that some of the 88 recommendations made in its August report may be skipped.

"We do not have to implement all of them," he said. "They are just suggestions."

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