In an effort to show the world Myanmar is ready to take back hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees, its government is finally granting foreign officials access to Northern Rakhine State, the site where atrocities against the Muslim minority were committed.
Canada’s special envoy to Myanmar, Bob Rae, was among diplomats and UN staff taken on a government-organized helicopter trip across the territory earlier this month.
“The level of destruction which you can see from the air, hundreds of villages which have been completely destroyed,” Rae described to CTV News. “I continue to be very struck by the level of deep hostility to the Rohingya, the degree of that hostility is the underlying problem,” he went on to say.
The Myanmar military has been accused of carrying out a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya, an accusation it continues to deny. In mid-January, Myanmar and Bangladesh, where nearly 700,000 Rohingya have fled to, signed a deal that would see a complete repatriation of the refugees within two years.
By the time the process was to begin the following week, it had already been delayed.
“There is no substitute for actually seeing and being there,” Rae said. He visited one village that was in the process of being rebuilt by the Myanmar government.
But Rae denies he only saw what the government wanted him to see.
“What they wanted us to see were the transition centres that are being built near the border,” he said, “but in order to get there, you had to fly over all this territory.”
Technically, Myanmar has a plan for the repatriation of Rohingya, said Rae. “In terms of what will be the pace at which people will cross, they will be monitored and admitted, fingerprinted and ID’ed then given a card, given a National Identification Card,” he went on to say.
But the problem is not the infrastructure, Rae told CTV News, “the problem is the enormity and size and scope of the number of people who have to be admitted. And what will be the conditions in terms of their safety and security when they come back?”
There is another, underreported problem, Rae said: the growing presence of a well-armed guerrilla faction of the Arakan Nationalist movement, comprising ultranationalist Buddhists. “That army has inflicted quite a lot of damage on the Myanmar army,” he said.“They will form a body of serious resistance to the return of the Rohingya to the northern parts of Rakhine, in which they live.”
Rae believes there has to be a reality check for everybody.
“One of the things that’s troubling, the extent to which there is, I think on all sides, an underestimation as to how serious a challenge this is going to be.”
Rae also met with two senior generals in the Myanmar military and pressed upon them the importance of an independent probe into the crisis in Northern Rakhine state. There are growing calls for the International Criminal Court (ICC) to launch an investigation into crimes against humanity.