By Stephanie Miller
Eighteen months after alleged mass murders and military crackdowns forced thousands to flee their homes, Myanmar’s government announced the repatriation of its first Rohingya family.
A series of photographs depicting a man, two women, and two children being presented with ID cards and receiving medical attention appeared on Burmese Information Committee’s Facebook page on April 14. The caption of the photo reads, “The five members of a family … came back to Taungpyoletwei town repatriation camp in Rakhine state this morning” and describes the family only as ‘Muslim’, as it is against current political administration’s policy to use the term ‘Rohingya’.
The public statement follows the conviction of seven Myanmarese soldiers for their participation in the killings of ten Rohingya Muslim men, an event that marks the first instance of the Burmese army’s acknowledgment that its soldiers had been actively involved in the slayings. These convictions, alongside the unconfirmed repatriation report, could go to show that the state of Myanmar is taking the steps necessary to move past the crisis and its bloody legacy.
Intriguingly, the New York Times reported that Myanmar’s National Television broadcasted footage of the release of the seven Burmese soldiers during a mass prisoner amnesty. The report, which included a video of one of the soldiers shaking hands with a uniformed prison guard, was quickly taken down and decried by Myanmar’s government, only one hour later.
Likewise, the reported repatriation of the Rohingya family has come under intense scrutiny. Allegedly, the individuals in the publicized photo were not refugees at all, but rather relatives of a government administrator who posed for a staged report, according to Al Jazeera. The website Rohingya Bloggers ran a story claiming that the ‘family’ crossed the border into Bangladesh and attempted to convince local Rohingyan refugees to return to Myanmar with them. When the plan failed, the family returned to the entry checkpoint Taung Pyo Latya, where they were portrayed as “returnees.”
It is worthy to note that the ID cards that appear to be presented in the Facebook photos do not grant Burmese citizenship, an issue that is of great concern to refugees, according to the BBC. Citizenship would grant the Rohingya basic rights in Myanmar that have historically been denied, and any further act of violent aggression on the part of the Burmese military would definitely be considered an act of genocide by international standards.
Apart from these reports, the international community has widely voiced its hesitation to declare the conditions in Myanmar “conducive” for Rohingya refugees. While the UNHCR and the government of Bangladesh have signed a cooperation agreement on the safe return of refugees to Myanmar, the UN office admits that current conditions are not yet at the point where repatriation efforts would be successful. The Office of the High Commissioner stressed, “The responsibility for creating such conditions remains with Myanmar’s authorities, and these must go beyond the preparation of physical infrastructure to facilitate logistical arrangements.”
Spokespeople for the Rohingya refugees have stated to UN News, before considering a return, they would need to see concrete progress in relation to their legal status and citizenship, security, and their ability to enjoy basic rights at home in the Rakhine state. “Such concrete measures would help demonstrate to refugees that the Government of Myanmar is committed to a sustainable solution.”