Union officials explain cause for exodus, ARSA threats, repatriation obstruction
A press conference on developments in Rakhine State including an update on the repatriation effort and clarifications on illegal settlements on the border between Myanmar and Bangladesh was held in Nay Pyi Taw yesterday.
In opening address at the press conference, U Aung Hla Tun, the Deputy Minister for Information, said the major reasons for the mass exodus of mostly Muslim residents of northern Rakhine State to Bangladesh were fear of arrest, and also threats from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which attacked border guard outposts in August 2016, sparking a military response. ARSA has been termed a terrorist organisation.
“According to information from reliable sources on the ground, most of these people fled in panic just after the military operation following the terrorist attacks, for fear of being arrested for their involvement or on suspicion. The second reason was threats by ARSA and its supporters. The third reason was many of them were persuaded to flee by the expectations such as chances of resettlement in a third country or better livelihood in the camps in Bangladesh”, said U Aung Hla Tun. Since that time, officials said, concerted efforts at repatriation have been made by Myanmar, but delays have occurred due to documentation and misinformation, U Aung Hla Tun said.
Union Minister U Kyaw Tint Swe and Bangladesh Foreign Minister Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali signed an agreement in Nay Pyi Taw on 23 November, 2017 that allowed repatriation of displaced residents who could produce proof of residency in Myanmar.
“So far as I understand, ‘proof of residency ‘ is very liberal. It can be citizenship identity cards, national registration cards, temporary registration cards, business ownership documents, school attendance certificate as well as the name of the village, etc.”, Deputy Minister U Aung Hla Tun said.
“In the middle of February, Bangladesh government sent back over 8,000 forms to us. However, the forms were lacking essential information and all important requirements for biometric verifications. We are doing our best to make this process a success and we sincerely hope Bangladesh government will reciprocate in the same manner.”
U Aung Hla Tun added that discussions are ongoing with the UNHCR and UNDP for their involvement in assisting the government in the repatriation process.
U Myint Thu, the Permanent Secretary for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said Myanmar has been ready to receive verified returnees from Bangladesh.
U Myint Thu said there have been problems involving prospective returnees and the people illegally living on the border between the two countries. “We have explained intensively to those people that they cannot lawfully occupy and inhabit the area between the boundary line and the 150 feet from it. We also told them that in line with the physical arrangements, Myanmar will repatriate them after verification process. At that time, they said that they would abide by the laws and wanted to return to the places of origin. While Myanmar authorities decide to address their reasonable concerns, they came back with demands with pre-conditions”, U Myint Thu said.
“We must stress here that the area occupied by them, under Border Treaty and Law, cannot be inhabited by anyone. More importantly, it will be extremely dangerous as this area is bound to become a foothold of ARSA terrorist”, he said.
There are many areas where the international community can play a constructive role in the endeavours in Rakhine State, U Myint Thu said.
“We call for a constructive approach and understanding on the complexity of the challenges in Rakhine State. We also seek support from the international community to help our efforts in finding a durable solution.
The international community can best help us by understanding the prevailing situation and supporting the long-term reconciliation and sustained socio-economic development in Rakhine State”, he said.
As part of that effort, Myanmar authorities met with the UNHCR Representative and UN Resident Coordinator in Nay Pyi Taw on 23 February.
The agreement signed on 23 November 2017 between Myanmar and Bangladesh states that “the Government of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar agree that the services of the UNHCR could be drawn upon as needed and at the appropriate time”.
“We consider that the appropriate time is now to invite the UNHCR and UNDP to get involved in the repatriation and resettlement process of displaced persons as well as in carrying out livelihood development for all communities in Rakhine State”, U Myint Thu said.
Dr. Aung Tun Thet, Chief Coordinator of the Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Aid, Resettlement and Development in Rakhine State, reiterated the readiness for repatriation with providing human rights, diversities, tolerance and security for them, adding the UEHRD has built reception centres and accommodation for the returnees.
UEHRD is also working for creating economic opportunities for returnees while working for effective humanitarian aid, holding negotiation for resettlement and for development socio economy and long-lasting peace there.
In the Q and A session, Deputy Minister for Information U Aung Hla Tun said I would like to request the international media that our country was in successful democratic transition because of the help of the international media. That’s why in the future, I would like to request the international media to support our democratization process and the development of our country.
Asked which charges were filed against detainees in Maungtaw, Police Adjutant-General Police Brig-Gen Win Tun said out of 384 detainees, 248 have been charged under the anti-terrorism law and five are under the arm law. Some were facing for two to three charges.
Regarding the question on some media reports talking about the repatriation that the Myanmar Government verified already that there are 300 persons will the government soon announce that they can go back to the Myanmar side, Director-General U Htay Hlaing of the Immigration Department, replied that the Bangladesh Government had returned forms to us, not the same type we gave them, back in February. It was for 1,673 households consisting of 8,032 people. Up till yesterday, we have verified 93 households consisting of 456 people and we discovered three people with connections to terrorist activities.
Regarding the question on the three hundred people coming back and arrangement for them and when they are coming back, the Director-General replied that as we’ve mentioned before, the Bangladesh side gave us forms that did not have fingerprints or mention of former residences or individual photos, they simply give us the family photo so we cannot easily verify them. The Bangladesh side has said they will report back using the forms that both sides have agreed to use, so I hope that answers your question.
We’ve already sent to the Bangladesh side that these 374 are verified and they can immediately start their repatriation at their own convenience, he added.
Regarding the question on how the government will provide security and safety for returnees who tell the media that they are not willing to go back because they are afraid, U Myint Thu replied that actually they are not refusing to return due to fear. There are high expectations that have lured them into that and there also expectations from ARSA and their supporters. Concerning their security, we have done all we can but we are alone are not responsible to take care of their security.
Because it is ARSA who tried to interrupt the process by setting off explosions like landmines while we were starting our repatriation process.
Regarding the questions on responsibility to be taken by the government, Deputy Minister U Aung Hla Tun said I don’t think the international media did enough to make our correct narrative known. Instead of blaming the international media, I’d rather say our media wasn’t strong enough to make the proper narrative among the international community.
Chief Coordinator of the UEHRD Dr Aung Tun Thet said there are two things. For security what we can guarantee is that anyone who comes back will have a secure an environment as anywhere else in the country. It’s always the perception and therefore when you asked the second question about the narrative, I think there is a three part narrative in this sequence of events.
The first part is the insurrection or the attacks on the outpost by the extremists. The second part of the narrative is the response from the armed forces. The third part is the actions taken after this for resettlement, repatriation, reconciliation, harmony and peace. What is very tragic is that although there is a three part narrative, in the international media you only hear of the second part; the part where the armed forces’ response as disproportionate and as robust, these are the acquisitions made. But if you want the whole narrative then I hope emphasis is given to all the three parts. We are not saying ignore the second part, we are saying please put into consideration the first part which is equally very important for us, as well as the third part where we want to reestablish harmony and reconciliation between the two communities.
So I implore the media to get the whole narrative rather than cherry picking and choosing those that are very sensational and can be put in headlines but please try to put in more balanced views and that is all we can hope and that is the purpose of this press conference.
Regarding a question on the government’s response to rumors of malnutrition of children being linked to slow ethnic cleansing, Permanent Secretary of Ministry of Health and Sports Prof. Dr. Thet Khaing Win said that the accusations on Muslim children lacked sound data and the ministry is conducting nutritional statistics survey and micro nutrient survey for children in the whole nation. He said that Rakhine State is not the only area with low nutrition levels for children.
He said they have been giving prioritized nutrition programs to Rakhine State such as supplying food with help from the World Food Programme (WFP), supplementary programs, vitamin programs, and micro-nutrient programs. He also said that malnutrition is caused by contagious diseases, infestations, and infections which would be the responsibility of the concerned military to provide vaccinations for. He said all the ministries concerned are working together to address this situation and they are also providing surveys for the returnees.
Regarding the question on the government’s response to western media labeling the Rakhine situation as ethnic cleansing and genocide, Dr. Aung Tun Thet stated there is no ethnic cleansing and it is a serious accusation.
Also present at the press conference were permanent secretaries and heads of departments of the ministries, diplomats and local and foreign journalists.—Myanmar News Agency (Full Text of the speeches delivered by Deputy Minister U Aung Hla Tun and Permanent Secretary U Min Thu are available at www.gnlm.com.mm)