YANGON, MYANMAR — The new advisory board created to counsel Myanmar in the ongoing Rohingya humanitarian crisis is backing the government’s plan to receive returning Rohingya refugees. They were given a brief tour of the repatriation sites following the abrupt resignation of former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson.
Richardson, speaking to VOA over the phone from the United States, said he supported statements from the United Nations that refugee returns are “premature” without access for aid agencies and independent observers, who could assess local conditions and allow refugees in Bangladesh to make genuinely informed choices about returning.
WATCH: VOA Interview: Former Envoy Richardson on Rohingya Crisis
The former governor of New Mexico and longtime supporter of Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement on Wednesday resigned from a panel set up by State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi to help implement recommendations from an earlier commission, led by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, for long-term solutions to the Rakhine crisis.
Shortly after those recommendations were released in August, Rohingya militant attacks prompted a scorched-earth military campaign that the U.N. and Western governments have called ethnic cleansing. More than 680,000 Rohingya have since fled to Bangladesh, joining more than 85,000 displaced in a crackdown the previous year.
Time for Rohingya to return?
Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees spokesperson Adrian Edwards said on Tuesday “the necessary safeguards for potential returnees are absent,” noting restrictions on aid and media access and the continued arrival of refugees in Bangladesh.
“The risk of dangerous and rushed returns into a situation where violence might reignite is too great to be ignored,” Edwards said.
Richardson agreed that before refugees return, “there have to be more assurances for their safety.” They also must be given “information about their future potential for citizenship,” and guarantees of “housing, education for their children, protection, and some kind of a future.
“I don’t think conditions are there yet,” he said, calling for the government to lift its blanket restrictions on U.N. agencies, who are “key in ensuring safe passage.”
“This is why the government of Bangladesh has delayed the repatriation, because these refugees aren’t ensured of their safety,” he added Friday. “They’re probably thinking they’re gonna end up in mass graves. They have no guarantees about their citizenship. They should be given a path to citizenship. There’s no guarantee that they’re gonna be able to go back to their homes safely.”
Richardson quit the 10-member advisory panel, made up of local and international experts and chaired by former Thai deputy prime minister Surakiart Sathirathai, after angry exchanges with Aung San Suu Kyi on the board’s opening trip to Myanmar. In a statement, he said it was “likely to become a cheerleading squad for government policy.”
He said he has been a good friend and supporter of Aung San Suu Kyi, the former opposition leader and the current de facto leader of Myanmar, for decades. But he said she disparaged international humanitarian aid efforts in Myanmar and “exploded” when he asked her about the fate of two Reuters journalists, who have been jailed in Myanmar, which is also known as Burma.
“That showed me that she wasn’t interested in frank advice, and this is after 30 years of a very strong friendship, where we had worked together for democracy. That has obviously been shattered by my resignation,” he told VOA on Friday.
A statement released by the office of Aung San Suu Kyi disputed Richardson’s account of his departure, saying the government asked him to quit because his continued participation was not in the best interests of all concerned.
“[Bill Richardson] criticized the advisory board before they even started their job to visit Rakhine State. … I think his criticism is based on emotions,” presidential spokesman Zaw Htay told VOA.
Myanmar, which has dismissed voluminous accounts of murder, arson and rape from Rohingya refugees, has agreed with Bangladesh to repatriate 1,500 refugees per week over two years via two processing sites near the border and a “temporary” camp.
In a Thursday interview published on a government Facebook page, Minister for Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement Win Myat Aye said returning refugees would stay at the camp until permanent houses were built for them. This would take “a few months.”
Repatriation was slated to begin earlier this week. Bangladesh said it needed more time to identify refugees willing to return, against a list provided by Myanmar. Win Myat Aye says Myanmar is “ready,” though many facilities are still under construction. No new date has been set.
Advisory panel visits Rakhine
According to an itinerary seen by VOA, the advisory board members, minus Richardson, were taken on a brisk tour of the repatriation facilities in northern Rakhine on Wednesday morning, before returning to the state capital Sittwe for lunch.
Their trip also took in flagship economic projects in Rakhine, which the government hopes will revive the deeply impoverished state. That morning, the board members visited Kanyin Chaung, a proposed “economic zone” in northern Rakhine that, controversially, has been expedited in the wake of the violence.
In the afternoon, the delegation flew to Kyaukphyu, the site of a Chinese-backed Special Economic Zone under development and major oil and gas terminals supplying China, before flying on to a beach resort in Ngapali, close to Thandwe in southern Rakhine.
Roelf Meyer, a member of the Rakhine advisory board member, speaks at an advisory board press conference, Jan. 25, 2018. Meyer is a South African politician who took part in negotiations to end apartheid. Image source: VOA
In a press briefing Thursday in Yangon delivered on behalf of the board by Roelf Meyer, a South African politician who took part in negotiations to end racial apartheid in his country, the Myanmar government’s preparations were broadly endorsed.
“From what we have seen there’s an honest attempt in creating circumstances that would make it possible for people to come back,” Meyer said.
Meyer acknowledged there was “a lot of work to be done still” but added, “We believe it’s important to encourage people to come back.” He said that given the international spotlight on the returns process, “I don’t think that people should be scared.”
Richardson, who refused to take the journey to Rakhine State, called it a “promotional tour to reinforce the government’s view that everything was going well.” He criticized it for omitting meetings with local Buddhist or Muslim communities, or with people internally displaced by conflict in the state.
Richardson maintained that many of his colleagues on the board “are trying to do an honest job” but said the “government is showing them only what they want them to see.”
State Department correspondent Cindy Saine in Washington contributed to this article.