Social Welfare Minister Win Myat Aye met with about 40 Rohingya refugees at the Kutupalong camp in Cox’s Bazar for more than an hour, sometimes exchanging heated words.
A Rohingya leader, Abdur Rahim, said at least eight rape victims were among those who met with Win Myat Aye. Rahim said the group presented 13 demands for the government to meet for their return to Myanmar.
About 700,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled army-led violence in Buddhist-majority Myanmar since last August and are living in crowded refugee camps in Bangladesh. The two countries agreed in December to begin repatriating them in January, but they were delayed by concerns among aid workers and Rohingya that they would be forced to return and face unsafe conditions in Myanmar.
Hundreds of Rohingya were reportedly killed in the recent violence, and many houses and villages were burned to the ground. The United Nations and the U.S. have described the army crackdown as “ethnic cleansing.”
Win Myat Aye did not specify a timeframe for the repatriation but said it should begin as soon as possible.
Rahim said the group became angry when Win Myat Aye said the Rohingya refugees must accept national verification cards to be provided by Myanmar in which they state they are migrants from Bangladesh.
“We protested,” he said. “We have told him it is not acceptable, we belong to Burma (Myanmar),” he told The Associated Press by phone.
Rohingya Muslims have long been treated as outsiders in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, even though their families have lived in the country for generations. Nearly all have been denied citizenship since 1982, effectively rendering them stateless. They are denied freedom of movement and other basic rights.
Rahim said they demanded to be recognized as citizens of Myanmar before the repatriation starts and that their security arrangements be supervised by the United Nations.
“We told him clearly we want to go back and we want our home, our land and everything back,” he said.
Rohingya who have been repatriated in the past after previous refugee exoduses have been forced to live in camps in Myanmar.
Rahim said the rape victims described their experiences to Win Myat Aye.
“He listened to them patiently and said they will punish those responsible,” Rahim said.
He said the minister mentioned that authorities have already investigated some cases and that 10 soldiers have been sentenced to 10 years in jail for rape.
“He promised that once we are back, they will continue their investigation and punish those responsible,” he said.
“After initial hiccups, we discussed our points in a friendly manner,” Rahim said.
Bangladesh’s refugee commissioner, Abul Kalam, said the minister listened to the refugees and replied to their questions.
“He has come here to talk to their people. They talked, we just provided them that support,” Kalam said by phone from Cox’s Bazar.
Police superintendent A.K.M. Iqbal Hossain said the minister praised Bangladesh’s government and international agencies for their work in supporting the Rohingya people.
“He seemed to be serious about his words,” Hossain said.
The recent violence erupted after an insurgent group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, attacked security outposts in Rakhine in late August. The military and Buddhist mobs launched retaliatory attacks on Rohingya that were termed “clearance operations.”
Win Myat Aye, who arrived on Wednesday for a three-day visit, also is to meet with Bangladeshi officials including the home minister and foreign minister.