Myanmar and Bangladesh signed a memorandum of understanding on Thursday for the return home of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees who fled to the neighbouring country to escape a Myanmar army crackdown.
“We are ready to take them back as soon as possible after Bangladesh sends the forms back to us,” said Myint Kyaing, a permanent secretary at Myanmar’s ministry of labour, immigration and population, referring to registration forms the Rohingya must complete with personal details before repatriation.
Rights groups have accused the military in mostly Buddhist Myanmar of carrying out mass rape and other atrocities during a counter-insurgency operation launched in late August in retaliation for attacks by Rohingya militants in Rakhine State.
On Wednesday, the U.S. said the military operation that drove 620,000 Rohingya to seek sanctuary in neighbouring, largely Muslim Bangladesh, amounted to “ethnic cleansing”, echoing an accusation first leveled by top UN officials in the early days of the humanitarian crisis.
In a further warning to Myanmar’s military, the U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson raised the threat of targeted sanctions against those responsible for what he called “horrendous atrocities”.
Citing fears of a backlash against Tillerson’s comments, the U.S. embassy in Myanmar on Thursday suspended official travel to parts of Rakhine until Dec. 4 and warned citizens against visiting the areas.
For now though, Myanmar is seeking to ease international pressure by striking an initial agreement on returns, while Dhaka wants to ensure overstretched refugee camps that have mushroomed in the Cox’s Bazar region don’t become permanent.
In addition to the talks on the Rohingya who have fled since Aug. 25, Bangladesh was also likely to raise the plight of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya sheltering in Bangladesh following previous spasms of violence in Myanmar.
A spokesman for Myanmar’s Ministry of Home Affairs said discussions with Bangladesh officials on Wednesday had finalised the terms of a memorandum of understanding on repatriation.
“The discussion was finalised yesterday morning, and the MOU will be signed today,” Police Col. Myo Thu Soe said, declining to provide details of the deal.
Myanmar civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi was set to meet Bangladesh foreign minister Abul-Hassan Ali on Thursday ahead of the signing.
Suu Kyi, whose reputation as a Nobel peace prize winner has suffered during the crisis, has said repatriation of the largely stateless Muslim minority would be based on residency and that it will be “safe and voluntary”.
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