By Simon Lewis and Wa Lone | YANGON
The United Nations’ refugee agency has criticized a Myanmar government plan to resettle Rohingya Muslims displaced by recent violence in “camp-like” villages, saying it risks stoking tensions, according to a document seen by Reuters.
The plan – confirmed by a senior state-level official – has sparked fear among residents that they would end up penned into de facto refugee camps, the document produced by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Myanmar said.
Attacks on border guard posts in northwestern Myanmar in October last year by a Rohingya insurgent group ignited the biggest crisis of national leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s year in power. Security forces stand accused of mass killings and gang rapes during the counterinsurgency operation that followed.
About 75,000 Rohingya fled across the border to Bangladesh to escape the violence, during which at least 1,500 houses across several villages were burned, while thousands more hid in forests and fields.
Some of those who fled have now returned and built temporary shelters, but the authorities have barred them from rebuilding their homes permanently citing “security restrictions”, according to residents who spoke to Reuters and the UN document.
Instead, authorities have devised a plan to relocate some 1,152 households from 13 scattered hamlets into larger, more manageable “model villages”.
In a three-page “advocacy note” dated April 25 and circulated among humanitarian agencies on Wednesday, the UNHCR warned the plan could “create further tensions” in villages recently scarred by the violence.
“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 said by email when reached for comment on the document.
More than 1 million Rohingya live in apartheid-like conditions in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, where many in the Buddhist majority consider them interlopers from Bangladesh.
While Dusek said the UNHCR understood the plan was still at draft stage and may not have been finalised, Rakhine State government secretary Tin Maung Swe said the local administration had already started implementing it.
Tin Maung Swe said relocation was in the residents’ interests as the “model villages” would be closer to government services. Rohingya villages in rural northern Rakhine were arranged “randomly” at present, he said.
“If these villages are not systematic, they will not develop and it will be hard to build hospitals, schools and police stations,” said Tin Maung Swe. “Also we will have difficulties to take care of security in the region.”
According to the UNHCR document and residents, the government has begun clearing land for the “model villages”, in which households would each get a 220-square-metre (2,400 sq ft) plot and about $150 to build a home.
Residents told UN staff they feared losing access to their farmland and fishing grounds, and becoming stuck in what would become “like IDP camps”, the UNHCR document said.
“A forced relocation to the ‘model villages’ would not progress stabilization in these areas,” the UNHCR document said.
About 120,000 Rohingya have lived in “internally displaced persons” camps in Rakhine, dependent of international aid, since communal violence in 2012. Suu Kyi has pledged to begin closing the camps, following recommendations from a commission led by former UN chief Kofi Annan.
Five people whose homes were destroyed in November told Reuters by telephone about the living conditions since the violence subsided, expressing their worries about the government’s plans.
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“The village here has completely changed because all of the houses were burned down,” said a 32-year-old in Yae Khat Chaung Gwa Son village, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Reuters has previously interviewed dozens of refugees, residents and Myanmar security officials about the military operation in Rakhine. Witnesses said troops raped Rohingya women, killed civilians, and burned homes in a sweep through several villages in November.
Satellite imagery analyzed by New York-based Human Rights Watch showed massive fires that destroyed hundreds of homes.
Officials have denied most of the allegations and blamed insurgents and villagers themselves for the fires.
Myanmar has blocked independent media and observers from the area.
Residents said that, while the area is now relatively peaceful, checkpoints and a 9 p.m.-5 a.m. curfew remain in place and soldiers regularly patrol near villages, making it hard for them to reach their fields and shrimp farms or the area’s basic health clinics.
Villagers also told Reuters they feared the plots in the new settlements would be too small for many households, which often comprise extended family groups of 30 people or more.
“The government told us their plan is for all of the villagers to huddle in one place, in one village near the main road,” said a school teacher in Dar Gyi Zar village, who also spoke anonymously. “We want to live in our original place as before.”
(Reporting by Simon Lewis and Wa Lone; Editing by Antoni Slodkowski and Alex Richardson)