A Myanmar minister on Wednesday toured one of the Bangladesh camps struggling to provide for nearly one million Rohingya Muslims, the first such visit since a Myanmar army crackdown sparked a massive refugee crisis.
Social welfare minister Win Myat Aye met with Rohingya leaders at the giant Kutupalong camp near the border city of Cox's Bazar, where a group of refugees tried to stage a protest during his visit.
It is the first time a Myanmar cabinet member has visited the fetid and overcrowded camps since a military crackdown that began last August in response to a spate of insurgent attacks forced some 700,000 of the Muslim minority to flee across the border.
They added to the 300,000 Rohingya refugees already in Bangladesh after previous bouts of violence.
An official said a group of refugees were prevented from unfurling a banner detailing a list of demands from the Rohingya.
“We cleared them out,” said Nikaruzzaman, a senior government official at nearby Ukhia township, who goes by one name.
A Rohingya leader, Abdur Rahim, said protests were held in roughly a dozen locations timed with the minister's visit.
Win Myat Aye met with some 30 Rohingya community leaders and was briefed on the situation in the sprawling refugee camps by Bangladeshi and United Nations officials, he added.
The minister, however, declined to answer questions from reporters after the briefing.
The leaders from the displaced minority group handed a statement to the Myanmar minister saying “it was not safe for them to return”.
Bangladesh and Myanmar signed an agreement in November to repatriate some 750,000 refugees.
Myanmar has approved several hundred Rohingya from a list of thousands to go back, but so far, not a single one has returned.
“The military is still abusing the Rohingya population in Arakan, there are many restrictions on Rohingya who still live there,” the statement said, using a local name for Myanmar's westernmost Rakhine state.
“There has been no punishment for soldiers and security officers who committed abuses,” it continued.
The Rohingya have faced decades of persecution in Myanmar but the most recent crackdown has forced them to flee in unprecedented numbers.
The UN and United States have called Myanmar's treatment of the Rohingya in the past eight months “ethnic cleansing”.
Fear of return
Syed Ullah, a Rohingya community leader who met the minister, said the group were upset that Win Myat Aye referred to them as “Bangladeshis”.
“We showed my parents' national verification card, saying that they are Rohingya who lived in Myanmar. Yet the minister said I'm a Bangladeshi. That's completely illogical,” he told AFP.
Myanmar does not regard the Rohingya as citizens but as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Rahim, the community leader, said the minister offered the Rohingya a residency status akin to that given to foreign migrants.
“We demanded full citizenship,” Rahman said, adding the Rohingya leaders outlined a detailed list of preconditions for their return.
“But the minister quietly disagreed.”
Win Myat Aye is the deputy head of a task force led by Myanmar's de facto civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi on the crisis in Rakhine state, and has overseen the stalled agreement with Bangladesh to repatriate three-quarters of a million refugees.
Nikaruzzaman, the Bangladeshi official, said the Myanmar minister delivered a speech saying he wanted “to see the conditions of the Rohingya”.
Win Myat Aye still has two days left in Bangladesh where he will meet with the country's senior officials including Foreign Minister A H Mahmood Ali in the capital Dhaka on Thursday.
Many displaced Muslims have said they fear a repeat of the persecution that forced them off their lands if they go back under the repatriation deal.
Refugees are demanding recognition as a minority, access to health and education and an assurance they can return to their ancestral villages rather than being shunted into resettlement camps in Rakhine.