Myanmar makes proposal to take back Rohingya refugees

Dhaka (AFP) –


A senior Myanmar minister proposed Monday to take back the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who have fled across the border after a military crackdown, Bangladesh said, but gave no details of how the huge task could be achieved.

More than half a million Rohingya have arrived in Bangladesh over the last five weeks after militant attacks on police checkposts there sparked violent reprisals, with entire villages burned to the ground.

Most are now living in desperate conditions in overcrowded camps in impoverished Bangladesh, which has repeatedly urged Myanmar to repatriate them.

On Monday Foreign Minister A.H Mahmood Ali held talks in Dhaka with a representative of Myanmar's civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and said the two countries had agreed to set up a working group to coordinate the repatriation of the Rohingya.

"The talks were held in a friendly atmosphere and Myanmar has made a proposal to take back the Rohingya refugees," the minister told reporters after meeting Myanmar's Minister of the Office of State Counselor Kyaw Tint Swe in Dhaka.

"The two sides have agreed to a proposal to set up a joint working group to coordinate the repatriation process."

Suu Kyi, who has been severely criticised for her failure to curb the military crackdown on the Rohingya, said in a speech last month that Myanmar would take back "verified" refugees.

This would be done according to the criteria set between the two countries in 1993, when tens of thousands of Rohingya were repatriated, she said.

The Bangladesh minister gave no timeframe for repatriation and did not say whether Myanmar would also take back the 300,000 Rohingya refugees who fled to Bangladesh during earlier violence.

He said the refugees would be verified by the joint working group, with the United Nations not involved.

"Bangladesh has proposed a bilateral agreement (with Myanmar) to help implement the repatriation," he said.

There was no immediate comment from Suu Kyi's representative, who arrived in Bangladesh early Monday and is expected to leave later in the day.

The Rohingya, a Muslim minority, do not qualify for Myanmar citizenship even though many have lived there for generations.

The army insists they are interlopers from across the border in Bangladesh.

With the latest influx, there are now more than 800,000 refugees living near Bangladesh's border with Myanmar.

The desperate conditions in the overcrowded camps have sparked concerns that epidemics, including cholera, could spread.

It remains unclear where the Rohingya would go if they were returned to Myanmar -- many of their villages have been burned down in a military operation which the United Nations has called a "textbook case of ethnic cleansing".

In a speech to the UN General Assembly last month, Bangladesh's Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina proposed creating UN-supervised safe zones inside Myanmar to protect them.

Hasina accused Myanmar authorities of laying landmines on the border to prevent the Rohingya from returning and said the UN must take immediate measures to find a solution to the crisis.