Returning Rohingya ‘may lose land’

A Rohingya refugee family
A Rohingya refugee family


ROHINGYA Muslims who return to Myanmar after fleeing to Bangladesh are unlikely to be able to reclaim their land, and may find their crops have been harvested and sold by the gov­ernment, according to officials and plans seen by Reuters.

Myanmar’s president Htin Kyaw (centre left) and Aung San Suu Kyi (centre right)

Myanmar’s civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has no control over the military, has pledged that anyone shel­tering in Bangladesh who can prove they were Myanmar residents can return.

Jamil Ahmed, who lives at a refugee camp in Bangladesh, is one of many Rohingya who hope to go back.

Describing how he fled his home in northern Rakhine state in late August, Ahmed said one of the few things he grabbed was a stack of papers – land contracts and receipts – that might prove ownership of the fields and crops he was leaving behind.

“I didn’t carry any ornaments or jew­els,” said the 35-year-old. “I’ve only got these documents. In Myanmar, you need to present documents to prove everything.” The stack of papers, browning and torn at the edges, may not be enough, however, to regain the land in Kyauk Pan Du village, where he grew potatoes, chilli plants, almonds and rice.

“It depends on them. There is no land ownership for those who don’t have citizenship,” said Kyaw Lwin, agri­culture minister in Rakhine state, when asked in an interview whether refugees who returned to Myanmar could re­claim land and crops.

Despite his land holdings, Myanmar does not recognise Ahmed as a citizen. Nearly one million Rohingya who lived in Myanmar before the recent exodus are stateless, despite many tracing their families in the country for genera­tions. Officials have made plans to har­vest, and possibly sell, thousands of acres of crops left behind by the fleeing Rohingya, according to a review of state government documents.

Northern Rakhine state

Myanmar also intends to settle most refugees who return to Rakhine state in new “model villages”, rather than on the land they previously occupied, an approach criticised in the past by the United Nations as effectively creating permanent camps. The government has not asked for help from any inter­national agencies, who are calling for any repatriation to be voluntary and to the refugees’ place of origin.

The exodus of 589,000 Rohingya – and about 30,000 non-Muslims – from the conflict zone in northern Rakhine has left some 71,500 acres of planted rice paddy abandoned and in need of harvesting by January, according to plans drawn up by state officials.

Tables in the documents, divide the land into paddy sown by “national rac­es” – meaning Myanmar citizens – or “Bengalis,” a term widely used in Myan­mar to refer to the Rohingya, but which they reject as implying they are illegal migrants from Bangladesh. Kyaw Lwin, the state minister, confirmed the plans, and said there was a total of 45,000 acres of “ownerless Bengali land”.

Two dozen combine harvesters op­erated by officials from the agriculture ministry will begin cutting stalks this month in areas under military control. The machines will be able to harvest about 14,400 acres, according to the plans. It is unclear what will become of the remaining crop, but officials said they would try to harvest all the paddy, recruiting additional labour to harvest manually if necessary.

An acre of paddy in Myanmar typi­cally makes more than $300 at market, meaning the state will gain millions of dollars worth of rice. The harvested rice will be transported to government stores, where it would either be donat­ed to those displaced by the conflict or sold, Rakhine state secretary Tin Maung Swe said. “The land was abandoned. There is no one to reap that, so the gov­ernment ordered to harvest it,” he said.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) deputy Asia director Phil Robertson, said the government should at least guarantee that the rice would be used for hu­manitarian support and not for profit. “You can’t call a rice crop ‘ownerless’ just because you used violence and ar­son to drive the owners out of the country,” he said.

Many refugees are fearful to return and are sceptical of Myanmar’s guaran­tees. Those who do decide to cross back into Myanmar will first be re­ceived at one of two centres, according to government plans, before mostly being relocated to model villages.

For refugees who lost all their docu­ments, the government would com­pare their photos to those that immi­gration authorities have on file, said Myint Kyaing, the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Labour, Immigration and Population.

Officials will accept as evidence “na­tional verification” cards handed out in an ongoing government effort to regis­ter Rohingya that falls short of offering them citizenship. The card has been widely rejected by Rohingya commu­nity leaders, who say they treat life-long residents like new immigrants. (Reuters)