Top-level UN team arrives in Myanmar for Rohingya probe

Gustavo Meza-Cuadra
The Associated Press

NAYPYITAW, Myanmar (AP) — Members of a U.N. Security Council team probing Myanmar’s crisis over its ethnic Rohingya Muslim minority arrived in the country’s capital on Monday after a visit to Bangladesh, where about 700,000 Rohingya who fled military-led violence live in refugee camps.

The U.N. delegation will meet Myanmar’s top leader, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, and military commander Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing during its two-day visit before traveling to northern Rakhine state, the area from which the Rohingya fled.

They are expected to see the aftermath of the army’s crackdown as well as the government’s preparations for taking back the refugees from Bangladesh.

“The ministers will discuss in detail the repatriation of the refugees agreed by the two countries and resettlement plans for the returnees,” Foreign Affairs Permanent Secretary Myint Thu told The Associated Press. He said that on Tuesday, the U.N. delegates would be taken to refugee reception centers as well as villages in northern Rakhine.

The army launched counterinsurgency sweeps in Rakhine after attacks last August on security personnel. The military has been accused of massive human rights violations — including rape, killing, torture and the burning of Rohingya homes — that U.N. and U.S. officials have called ethnic cleansing.

Myanmar’s government agreed to allow the delegates’ visit after previously rejecting U.N requests for a visit by a specially appointed independent fact-finding committee. That team said in March that it found evidence of human rights violations against the Kachin, Shan and Rohingya minorities “in all likelihood amounting to crimes under international law.”

The Kachin and the Shan are other ethnic minorities who seek greater autonomy and are engaged in armed conflict against government forces.

Britain’s U.N. ambassador, Karen Pierce — a member of the visiting delegation — said after the group’s visit to the Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh over the weekend that the Security Council would continue to work on enabling the refugees to return to Myanmar, but that the Rohingya must be allowed to return under safe conditions.

Thousands of refugees had gathered amid scorching heat at the camp to welcome the delegation. They carried placards, some of which read “We want justice.”

Bangladesh and Myanmar agreed in December to begin repatriating the refugees in January, but there were concerns among aid workers and Rohingya that they would be forced to return and face unsafe conditions in Myanmar.

The U.N. refugee agency and Bangladesh recently finalized a memorandum of understanding that said the repatriation process must be “safe, voluntary and dignified … in line with international standards.”

Rohingya Muslims have long been treated as outsiders in Myanmar, even though many of 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.

Some human rights activists would like to see more aggressive action by the U.N.

“The other thing the Security Council should do is refer the situation in Rakhine state to the International Criminal Court,” Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, said Friday in a speech to journalists in Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city.

“The crimes against humanity that were committed against the Rohingya population were clearly of the gravity and severity that they warrant prosecution by the ICC. If impunity were to prevail it would be an enormous injustice to the victims and their families, and it would only encourage a repetition of these kinds of mass atrocities,” Roth said.

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