Myanmar’s resettlement plans leave displaced families, UN uncertain

Undocumented Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh (Photo credit: EU/ECHO/Pierre Prakash/flickr)

The government of Myanmar is proudly rolling out resettlement plans after months of violence and displacement amid a security crackdown on Rohingya Muslims in the restive northern Rakhine state. But the U.N. refugee agency has raised concerns that planned “model villages” will further stoke tensions. Others, who are being relocated to the commercial capital of Yangon, feel they have been given no option but to leave their homes.

After Rohingya Muslim insurgents attacked a border post in October and killed nine officers, the government unleashed a deadly counterinsurgency and scorched at least 1,500 homes across multiple villages to the ground. Reports and videos circulating on social media have since accused security forces of “devastating cruelty” that suggest “the very likely commission of crimes against humanity” and ethnic cleansing.

Myanmar’s de facto leader Nobel laureate Aun San Suu Kyi has denied any ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya, who are denied citizenship and basic rights and have long been in conflict with the state’s Buddhist majority. They are considered illegal migrants from Bangladesh, not an ethnic minority.

More than 75,000 Rohingya Muslims fled across the border to Bangladesh when the security crackdown began, but some have returned and built temporary shelters. However, the government is prohibiting them from rebuilding permanent homes due to “security restrictions,” local residents told ReutersThe government instead plans to relocate about 1,152 households from 12 different villages into new systematic villages.

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“It will be a model village,” Zaw Phyo Tun, a local land administrator, told reporters, according to the Ministry of Information. “In the past untidy groups of homes were erected hither and thither in a village, making it inaccessible to fire engines in emergency times. But now we have the entrance road and the departure road apart from the existence of well-arranged drains. We will set up more such villages when and where necessary.”

Each household will be allotted a 40-foot by 60-foot plot of land in the village and about $150 to build a house, and a select number of poor families will receive food aid from the World Food Program.

But in a three-page “advocacy note” dated April 25 and circulated among nongovernmental organizations, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) warned that the proposed villages could become refugee camps in effect and “create further tensions,” according to Reuters.

“Based on the information available on the model villages and concerns brought to our attention by affected villagers, UNHCR stressed the importance to allow displaced communities to return to their place of origin and have access to their previous source of livelihoods,” UNHCR Myanmar Spokesman Andrew Dusek told Reuters.

According to the document, residents said they are worried about losing farm and fishing access and of the villages becoming like internally displaced persons (IDP) camps.

About 120,000 Rohingya Muslims have been confined to IDP camps since communal violence broke out in 2012 between the state’s Buddhists and Muslims. Conditions in the camps have been compared to those of concentration camps.

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However, the camps have not only housed Rohingya. Some Buddhists displaced by the violence have been living in IDP camps as well as another Muslim minority, the Kaman. Unlike the Rohingya, the Kaman are citizens, but they have also reportedly seen their rights diminished over the years.

In the face of increasing international pressure to resolve the human rights and humanitarian crisis, the government closed down three IDP camps this month that house 215 Rohingya families, 55 Kaman families and 65 Buddhist Rakhine families.

While some will be relocated to the new “model villages,” the government has also reportedly offered cash to others to move to Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city.

“At first, we are happy that we will be home soon,” New New Oo, a Kaman Muslim now in Yangon, told Anadolu Agency about receiving news of the camps closing.

New Oo said the government offered each family $365, each family member $73 and free transportation to Yangon.

“Actually, we don’t want that money,” New Oo said, citing an uncertain future far away from her family’s home for generations. “But we have no choice, so we just follow the plan.”

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Joanne Lu

Joanne Lu is a South Carolina-based writer and editor dedicated to global development, poverty alleviation and social justice. After a year in Rwanda, she now covers the Asia-Pacific and economics. Find her on Twitter @joannelu or email joanne@humanosphere.com.