Myanmar says plans to build villages on empty plots of land in parts of northern Rakhine

Myanmar says plans to build villages on empty plots of land in parts of northern Rakhine

India's housing project in Rakhine state
The housing project was part of an agreement signed between India and Myanmar in late 2017. (Photo: Leong Wai Kit)

YANGON: Myanmar said it has plans to build "better villages and include religious buildings, schools, clinics and other public infrastructure" on empty plots of land in parts of northern Rakhine, where Rohingyas' homes used to be. 

More than 700,000 Rohingyas were forced to flee the country after a military-led crackdown in August 2017 destroyed their houses. 

READ: Satellite images show Myanmar's 'minimal preparations' for Rohingya return: Think tank

READ: Deadly monsoon destroys 5,000 shelters in Bangladesh Rohingya camps

India builds houses for Myanmar's Rakhine state
A Hindu villager is seen with her two children at their new house built by the Indian government. (Photo: Leong Wai Kit)

Minister for Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement Win Myat Aye said this in response to CNA's queries after an Australian think tank published a study challenging Myanmar's claims that Rahhine State is ready for the repatriation of Rohingya. 

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), which published the report on Wednesday (Jul 24) said analysis of satellite imagery showed "no sign of reconstruction" in the overwhelming majority of refugees' former settlements. 

Destruction of residential buildings has continued in some areas as well, it added. 

"The continued destruction of residential areas across 2018 and 2019 - clearly identifiable through our longitudinal satellite analysis - raises serious questions about the willingness of the Myanmar government to facilitate a safe and dignified repatriation process," said Mr Nathan Ruser, one of the researchers at ASPI's International Cyber Policy Centre in a statement.

CNA had also seen empty plots of land during a three-hour drive in Rakhine state, from Rathedaung to Maungtaw, during a media trip in early July.

When asked for a response, Dr Win Myat Aye said: "Yes, some houses are empty, and some are destroyed."

"We already have plans to resettle the returnees to their empty houses if [those] houses are still in living conditions."

READ: India builds 250 homes in Myanmar's Rakhine for displaced villagers

Dr Win Myat Aye added that Myanmar has prepared two other options for the Rohingyas upon their return.

More than 740,000 Rohingya refugees have fled into Bangladesh, and virtually none have volunteered
More than 740,000 Rohingya refugees have fled into Bangladesh, and virtually none have volunteered yet to go back to Myanmar AFP/MUNIR UZ ZAMAN

"If their houses were destroyed or burnt, we will build their houses," Dr Win Myat Aye said.

That includes providing the Rohingyas with building materials and paying them for building their own houses.

The programme, which Dr Win Myat Aye said was a cash for work programme, is Myanmar's main strategy for resettlement.

The third option for returning Rohingyas - who cannot or do not want to build their own houses - is for them to be put up at a transit centre while the government builds new houses for them. 

In July, India handed 250 pre-fabricated houses to Myanmar, built for various communities in Rakhine State - the Hindus, Rakhines and returning Rohingyas. 

HELPING ROHINGYAS GET BACK TO NORMAL LIFE

Dr Win Myat Aye also showed CNA a six-page document detailing more plans for the Rohingyas, should they choose to return from Bangladesh.

READ: Rohingya repatriation process stalls amid refugee protests, recriminations

READ: ASEAN must not turn a blind eye to plight of Rohingya, groups say

The document included pictorial explanations on how the government plans to help Rohingyas get back to normal life, such as getting skills training and jobs. 

Another section depicted how the Rohingyas can apply for a National Verification Card (NVC) which is the "gateway to citizenship", and how an NVC holder is viewed as a Myanmar resident and can thus travel freely within their townships in Rakhine State. 

The Rohingyas however, strongly oppose the NVC option.

They argue that an NVC would brand them as new arrivals who are undeserving of citizenship. 

UN leaders who have visited northern Rakhine - and spoken to villagers there - have stressed the importance of freedom of movement in Rakhine.

UN special envoy for Myanmar Christine Burgener, who visited Rakhine State in July, said many displaced villagers within Rakhine still cannot travel freely. 

While Myanmar's six-page fact sheet listed phone numbers for Rohingyas to call if they have concerns about human rights abuses or corruption, there were no detailed explanations on safety and security. 

READ: Commentary: Why the Rohingya refugees should not be repatriated yet

READ: Commentary: Myanmar buries its head in the sand, one year after the Rohingya crisis

Parts of Rakhine State are still seeing ongoing conflict between the Myanmar Army and the Arakan Army, which intensified at the start of the year. 

This is another blow to Rakhine State, which saw armed clashes in the Rohingya crisis in August 2017, between the Myanmar forces and the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).

FILE PHOTO: Rohingya refugees gather at a market inside a refugee camp in Cox's Bazar
FILE PHOTO: Rohingya refugees gather at a market inside a refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, March 7, 2019. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain/File Photo

UN investigators such as Mr Marzuki Darusman, who had penned a report on Myanmar's alleged human rights abuses, have repeatedly said Rakhine State is still not safe for Rohingyas to return to.

But Dr Win Myat Aye told CNA that Myanmar had "strong commitments to receive them back", adding that the six-page fact sheets would be distributed to the Rohingyas in Bangladesh. 

On Saturday, Myanmar is set to send a delegation to Bangladesh for a three-day visit. 

It will be led by a high-level official from Myanmar's foreign affairs ministry, and comprise representatives from the social welfare, relief and resettlement ministry, as well as the UEHRD.

UEHRD - short for the Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement and Development in Rakhine - was formed in 2017, two months after the Rohingya crisis in August, with aims to provide humanitarian aid, help with resettling efforts, and roll out projects to resolve conflicts in Rakhine.

Myanmar has said it is ready for repatriation but has blamed Bangladesh over delays.

The two countries signed a Memorandum of Understanding in November 2017 to repatriate Rohingyas back from Bangladesh.

To date, no Rohingya has voluntarily opted to return formally.

Source: CNA/ad(hm)

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