Myanmar's repatriation of family 'a publicity stunt'

Myanmar has accepted what appears to be the first five among some 700,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees who fled military-led violence against the minority group, even though the United Nations says it is not yet safe for them to return home.

Myanmar has strongly denied that allegation, saying the army waged a legitimate operation against insurgent Rohingya militants who had attacked more than two dozen police posts and an army base in August.

Bangladesh and Myanmar vowed to begin repatriation in January but the plan was delayed as they blamed each other for a lack of preparation.

"The five members of a family... came back to Taungpyoletwei town repatriation camp in Rakhine state this morning", said a statement posted on the Information Committee's Facebook page. Myanmar authorities have since bulldozed numerous burned villages, raising alarm from rights groups who say they are erasing evidence of atrocities and obscuring the Rohingya's ties to the country.

Images accompanying the social media post on Saturday showed five individuals receiving identification cards - which do not grant citizenship - from uniformed Myanmar officials, and getting medical help and living provisions from health and social workers.

The post did not mention any plans for further returnees in the near future.

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On Saturday, even as the Myanmar government announced that a family had become the first to be processed in a newly built repatriation centre, the Bangladeshi government's Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner Abul Kalam said the family in question used to stay in the Konarpara area in a no man's land between the two countries.

"Right now, the conditions are not conducive to a voluntary, dignified and sustainable return", Ursula Mueller, assistant secretary general for the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told AFP earlier this month after a visit to Rakhine.

The Rohingya Muslims are reviled by many in the Buddhist-majority country, where they are branded as illegal "Bangali" immigrants from Bangladesh, despite their long roots in Rakhine state.

Since then, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have been living in squalid conditions in camps along the Myanmar-Bangladesh border.

Waves of violence have forced Rohingya out of Myanmar over the past several years, with more than 200,000 Rohingya refugees already in Bangladesh before last year's exodus.

Doctors Without Borders says the violence claimed at least 6,700 Rohingya lives in the first month alone.

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NVCs are part of the government's ongoing effort to register Rohingya which falls short of offering them citizenship.

Myanmar authorities have since bulldozed numerous burned villages, raising alarm from rights groups who say they are erasing evidence of atrocities and obscuring the Rohingya's ties to the country.

Zaw Htay, a spokesman for the Myanmar government said "this is not propaganda", the family made a decision to come back of their own volition.

Both the Bangladesh government and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, said neither of them had any involvement in the repatriation. "We have completed biometric registration of the refugees and handed their data over to the Myanmar government", the minister added, expressing his hopes that Myanmar would take back its citizens in the quickest possible time.

Bangladesh foreign minister A.H. Mahmood Ali, who led repatriation talks for his country, told reporters Thursday that the two sides were committed to implementing the refugee deal.

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  • Jermaine Castillo