Forced Repatriation

 

 

"In the backdrop of the situation, the Rohingya Muslims of Arakan, who once did not volunteer to die or suffer at the hand of the beastly military forces of the ruling junta and took shelter in an alien land, are now seemed to volunteer to join the repatriation only to become human cattle, who are now being sporadically and secretly slaughtered in northern Arakan, in addition to those forced labour economic hardships and various restrictions imposed." 

— Newsletter of Rohingya Solidarity Organisation, 15 August 1994

 

The number of refugees on Burma’s borders continue to rise uncontrollably, at over three-quarters of a million people who fled SLORC.

 

There are 77,000+  refugees in Thai refugee camps alone, showing an increase of over 5,000 from the previous year – and this despite the absence of a dry season offensive for the second year in a row. Reports from refugees continued to tell of forced labour, harassment and extortion by SLORC troops even while ceasefire talks aims at peace continued. In January 1995, an exodus of another 6,000-9,000 refugees in the Manerplaw area have already made their way into Thailand. Meanwhile, China and SLORC agreed to begin repatriating Kachins refugees starting in February 1995. These refugees were taken care of by the KIO. The repatriation will have no international monitoring. Already, 1,000 Chin refugees were handed over to SLORC by Indian authorities. And in Bangladesh, forced repatriation of Muslim Rohingyas continues.

 

As the flow of refugees doesn’t even begin to slow, the cause is clearly HRV by SLORC, and the effects are wide-ranging, involving Burma’s neighbours and destabilising the region, making Burma’s refugees – and the cause which brought them out of the country – into an international affair.

 

HOW LONG WILL THEY STAY?

 

Rohingya have been driven into exodus five times since 1942. Muslim and Bengali-speaking, they suffer religions discrimination , denied citizenship, education and the right to livelihood. The UN has pulled out of repatriation once, due to the way Bangladesh and SLORC have carried out their procedures. Now, however, the UNHCR seems to found a limited presence better than none at all, and suddenly the agency is claiming over 90% of refugees want to return. This is in part due to camp officials, who coerce refugees to return to Burma, through harassment, threats, subhuman conditions and physical violence. Any dissent, or “anti-repatriation” activities, is met with arrest and torture by Bangladeshi officials.

 

The UNHCR admits conditions are below standard and cramped in the camps, with little real monitoring possible and SLORC restrictions on UN monitoring across the border. And although the UN and Bangladesh agree all repatriations should be conducted with “complete transparency”, this does not occur. Camps are closed off to outside visitors; and when one interviewer did get at last permission, interviews could only be held with refugees in the presence of camp officials who are accused of the human rights violations. Therefore, interviews are not held in an atmosphere of “transparency” and many Rohingya admit to being afraid to talk to outsiders – especially when a camp official was not punished after beating refugees and continually threatening others to return to Burma. Many refugees are giving up hope, and fear Bangladeshi violence more than SLORC, all under the eyes of the UNHCR.

 


The plight of nearly 200,000 Rohingya Refugees who fled from Burma to Bangladesh since SLORC took power remains serious. A recent visitor to the camps says that, even with what UNHCR presence does exist, refugees are being forced back to Burma against their will in any event. The visitor went on to say that the situation in the camps is terrible, and that local authorities are trying to prevent any outsiders from visiting, thus the present blackout on any news concerning these refugees. Efforts need to be made to pressure the UNHCR to make public the true situation of the Rohingyas, and to assist out side visits to the camps to make certain the people's true needs are being met, the visitor said.

 

SPEEDY REPATRIATION OF REFUGEES TAKING PLACE

 

The Rohingya refugees, who have been languishing in the refugee camps in Bangladesh following persecution by Burmese security forces, have now been repatriated to their homeland in phases as per the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed in April 1992.

 

The authorities dealing with the refugee problem from both sides have recently agreed to start a larger-scale repatriation of the remaining nearly 200,000 Rohingya refugees and since the first week of September 1994 the Bangladeshi authorities have been making hectic preparations to repatriate the refugees.

 

In this connection, it is learned that the refugees sheltered in different camps have been asked to surrender their ration cards to respective camp officials so that they could be removed to transit camps. Ten to fifteen truckloads of refugees, estimated to be twelve hundred, have been transported to transit camp daily where their willingness to return back to Burma has been screened by the UNHCR officials. Earlier, a superficial survey was also made at their respective camp by some staff members of the UNHCR with the co-operation of the camp officials.

 

It is understood that the removal of hundreds of Rohingya refugees from the camps has created a psychological impact on those who have remained in the camps. Although the refugees know well that the situation in Arakan has not improved despite the presence of the UNHCR there, they are also thinking of their uncertain camp life in Bangladesh where indirect pressure has reportedly been applied to upgrade the scale of repatriation.

 

According to improved conditions in the MOU, the refugees are supposed to be repatriated purely on voluntary basis. However, it now appears that the willingness to volunteer in the repatriation has gone up as soon as both Bangladesh and Burma have decided to start a mass repatriation which naturally raises the eyebrows of refugee watchers.

 

The refugee watchers believe that there may be coercion in handling the repatriation but due to restrictions imposed by the local authorities, no outsider could visit the refugees in camps for which the real situation in the campus and the nature of repatriation could not be reported at length. [source: MOA]

 

UNHCR DIRECTOR HELD DISCUSSION WITH SLORC LEADERS

 

A senior official for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) met leaders of the ruling junta known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) on 30 August 1994. Mr Werner Baltter, the director for the Asia-Oceania desk in the UNHCR, who visited Rangoon recently to discuss the Rohingya refugee problem, held talks with Lt Gen Khin Nyunt, secretary-1 of the SLORC in the Defence Ministry. Also present were minister for foreign affairs, U Ohn Gyaw, and Director General of Immigration and Manpower U Maung Aung and other senior officials.

 

People trying to keep in touch with the UN officials are either subjected to harassment or detained on false grounds by the Na Sa Ka officials. Besides, the UNHCR officials are routinely watched as a result of which the local Muslims could not develop closer relations with the UNHCR thereby creating disadvantages for the UN officials in monitoring the ongoing persecution there.


Rumour also has it that one female UNHCR official who was travelling between Maungdaw and Buthidaung was stopped by some dacoits and looted of her personal belongings and cash being carried reportedly for distribution to the returning Rohingya refugees. It was on 13 July 1994 and the incident had taken place in-between the two tunnels on the Maungdaw-Buthidaung Road where a number of security offices and army barracks have been located. People of the area believe that no outsider could do such dacoity in that area and it might be committed by the Na Sa Ka, who could roam there freely.

 

It is understood that the meeting between the senior UNHCR official and the SLORC would review the ongoing repatriation programme and achieve confidence-building between the two parties. More than 1,500 Rohingya refugees returned to Burma during the first week of November, under the supervision of local Bangladeshi officials and-representatives of the UNHCR. This brings the number of returned Muslim-refugees to over 100,00 since September 1992, with 150,000 more still in-Bangladesh refugee camps.

 

REPATRIATION OF ROHINGYA REFUGEES RESTARTS

 

The repatriation of Rohingya refugees, given shelter in Bangladesh, has begun following a talk for resumption of stalled repatriation on October 19, 1994, due to unilateral closure of the border by the Burmese junta on grounds of a plague prevention measure.

 

Although previously only a few hundred refugees were repatriated in each batch, the number of repatriated refugees swelled to over a thousand in each batch since it resumed on 20 October 1994. Earlier, some 81, 292 refugees were repatriated to Burma by the authorities in Bangladesh with the co-operation of the UNHCR which usually see them off at the time of repatriation.

 

It may be mentioned here that the repatriation of Rohingya refugees was in turmoil following opposition from the refugees as there was no UNHCR in Arakan and many refugees were put behind bars on allegation that they were terrorists and involved in an “anti-repatriation” movement. However, the repatriation and resettlement process have been geared up following the arrival of UNHCR in Arakan.

 

Some two hundred sixty-five thousand refugees came to Bangladesh since late 1991 and about 24, 000 babies were born in Bangladesh out of whom some 6200 died.

 

The speedy repatriation of Rohingya refugees is possible only because the Burmese have agreed to handle an increased number of refugees in each batch.

 

WHEREABOUTS OF REPATRIATED REFUGEE REMAINED UNKNOWN

 

One Abdur Rahaman son of Mrs. Amina Khatun, who was also included in the list of repatriated refugees from Bangladesh on 10 September 1994, which was received at Maungdaw jetty refugee reception centre, was interrogated by the police on duty at the reception centre. He hailed from Ponyiolake Village, south of Buthidaung Township, Arakan State, and stayed in a camp at Gundum of Bangladesh.

 

Afterward Abdur Rahaman was about to be sent to 10-mile Military Intelligence Office by the police when the matter was reported to the UNHCR by someone. At this the UNHCR reportedly intervened and the refugee in question was, instead, sent to Maungdaw police lock-up.

 

It is understood that Abdur Rahaman was kept there for about three days on the ground that ht might be associated with anti-state forces operating along Bangladesh Burma border while he was in refugee camp. When contacted by his mother about his condition, she was told by the police that Abdur Brahman was no more in their custody and they refused to disclose his whereabouts.

 


People of the area presumed that the repatriated refugee might have taken away by the Burmese military intelligence unit and was probably shot dead.

 

Although the repatriation has been steadily taking a new phase, the Burmese authorities has not yet improved. There are allegations that the authorities preferred to conscript forced labour from among the refugees and some were either detained or tortured to death on assumed charges.

 

INDIA HANDS BACK CHIN REFUGEES TO SLORC

 

In late September, a large number of refugees form Burma, mostly of Chin ethnicity, were rounded up in India and forcibly handed over to Burma's ruling SLORC at the border. Reportedly, most of this took place in and around Aizawl, capitol of India's Mizoram State, which borders Burma's Chin State. A fax about the round-up, translated from the Chin language, described the events:

 

"Not less than 1,000 persons who were believed to be citizens of Burma were arrested by the Indian authorities in the border areas of North Eastern India and repatriated to the military authorities in Burma. Around 40,000 Burma's citizens had fled to Northeastern states of India to escape persecution of the successive governments and military regimes of Burma. They have lived there, some over forty years, with the knowledge of the authorities of the various states and the central government. The arrests were launched without prior warning. The people were not allowed to take any of their belongings. Women and children were seen crying and screaming as they were handed over to the Burmese authorities. It was learned that the Burmese authorities jailed them immediately."

 

The fax was transmitted on Sept. 29th. Apparently the round-up was shown on television news in India. However, Mizoram denies access to outside journalists or human rights investigators, so further details may be slow in emerging. It is worth noting that an election campaign is going on there, and there are questions as to whether the round-up was brought on by Mizoram State government or by Indian federal government, or some combination of the two. The Mizo people are a Zo ethnic group, as are the Chins, but there is a great deal of intra-ethnic conflict within these peoples in that region.

 

On the Burma side of the border, large forced relocation projects have been taking place in Chin State, and a railway extension line there has been under construction it is all too probable that the SLORC has demanded more slaves to be handed over to them by sympathetic, corrupted, or misled elements in government on the India side of the border. It is particularly tragic that these captive people have no chance of another escape, as can happen in other repatriationsthey were delivered directly into the hands of a regime which constantly practices "ethnic cleansing." The Chin people, a largely Christian indigenous culture, are endangered by a SLORC campaign to claim their lands for resettlement programs and their forests and other resources for exploitation. Chin rebels (the Chin National Front) have staged small-scale but daring raids in recent months, and engaged in underground political organising, but the SLORC's army now has a large presence throughout the area.

 

The Hon. Lian Uk, an elected member of parliament from Chin State, who fled Burma under a SLORC arrest threat, has protested the forced repatriation of Chins by India, eloquently comparing it to "fishing for sharks with the life of the helpless indigenous people." Dr. Vum Son, author of "Zo History", has expressed concern that this repatriation could continue, and spread to other areas of India's Northeast border with Burma. Please protest this shocking, inhumane action, by writing to India's Prime Minister. Ask him to ensure safe haven for refugees from Burma's anti-democratic regime and to make sure that such round-ups and hand-overs of refugees never happen again.

 


SHAN FORCED TO RETURN TO FIGHTING IN BURMA

 

On 22-23 May hundreds of Shan and other ethnic populations fled across the border because SLORC troops rounded up hundreds of porters around Tachilek. The refugees were held at Wat Wieng Hom (a Buddhist temple) and then forcibly set back across by Thai authorities on 24 May. SLORC greeted these deportees by loading them into trucks and brought them to a porter holding centre at Loi Hsa Htong military camp.

 

About 100 of the villagers from Akha Village of Wan Ya Aye near Tachilek who were driven out by SLORC troops on 1 August crossed into Thailand on the following day but were immediately prevented from entering by the Thai authorities and forcibly handed back to SLORC authorities the next afternoon by order of the governor of Chiang Rai Province, Kamron Booncherd. While they were in Thailand everyone was denied access to speak, even to Shan refugee officials.

 

The Thais have now sealed the entire Shan border off in this fashion, particularly where they are forcibly repatriating Palaung, Lahu and Lisu refugees opposite the Mong Kyot area, where outsiders are no longer allowed anywhere near the border. At the same time, a Lahu villager from the Mong Kyot area reported that starting from 1 August, SLORC began forcing villagers to make secure the entire length of the road from Thailand (known as the Chieng Dao logging route to Chiang Mai) from the Thai border north to Mong Tung and from there to Mong Hsat in the east and the Salween River in the west, a total road length of about 100 miles. A group of 4 villagers have to rotate standing sentry 24 hours a day at outposts spaced less than a mile apart. If they see anyone they must bang on a stick, then the next group has to pass the signal up the line all the way to the nearest army post. The villagers say they have never been forced to do this before.

 

REFUGEES AT KLAY MUH HTA

 

Since the beginning of 1994, it has been no secret that Thai authorities want to repatriate all Karen refugees as soon as possible as part of their "constructive engagement" deal with SLORC. From Shan State in the north to Ranong in the far south, the Thai government and army have been actively involved in handing refugees of several nationalities back to SLORC or intimidating them back across the border. A few months ago. Thai officials visited the leaders of all Karen refugee camps in Thailand and informed them that they are not allowed to accept any new arrivals. Technically, no new refugees are allowed to cross the border anywhere. However, thousands of new refugees continue to arrive at the Thai border, proving that the SLORC's gross human rights abuses inside Karen areas of Burma have not abated in the slightest, and in many areas are only getting worse. When they find that they are no longer allowed across to the safety of Thailand, many sneak in illegally and join the flood of economic refugees from Burmese towns heading for Thai cities, where meet and up as virtual slaves in sweatshops or brothels, underpaid labour on construction sites or prisoners in Thai immigration prisons. To help alleviate this problem, a new refugee camp has been set up at Klay Muh Hta, in territory controlled by the KNU on the Burmese side of the border. The camp has existed less than 3 months and already over 5,000 people have flooded into it, most coming from the Hlaing Bwe Area of Pa-an District. These are not economic refugees, but villagers fleeting the terror of SLORC oppression. More of them are now arriving every day at Klay Muh Hta, and more such camps will probably have to be set up in the near future. In Klay Muh Hta they are extremely vulnerable in two ways; many foreign aid donors refuse to send aid across to them without SLORC approval (which is impossible), and they are only a few hours' walk from the nearest SLORC camp. SLORC calls refugees "insurgents in disguise", and if the numbers in the camp continue to grow the SLORC may consider launching a military offensive to wipe it out as an example to all those who would dare escape them. As one man commented, "If there were Burmese soldiers around here, we would not have dared to come".

 

[see also “Abuse against Women”, “Refugees”, “Internally Displaced Persons” and “Eye-witness Accounts”, interview 5, 28, 39]