Many Rohingya Muslims who fled alleged killings and other rights abuses during a Myanmar military crackdown in northern Rakhine state say they are not willing to return to their homes, despite last week's announcement that the military operation in the region has ended.
Quoting Myanmar's national security adviser, Thaung Tun, a statement from the office of State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi last week said the situation in northern Rakhine had been stabilized and the clearance operation by the military had been halted.
But many Rohingya say that despite the end of the military operation, the situation in Myanmar, also known as Burma, remains hostile for them.
Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi delivers a speech during Union Day celebrations in Panglong, Myanmar, Feb. 12, 2017. Suu Kyi has called on all armed ethnic groups to sign a nationwide cease-fire.
"That military operation might have ended, but the oppression of the Rohingyas in Burma has not ended," Dil Mohammad, 30, a Rohingya refugee living in a shanty colony in the Cox's Bazar district of Bangladesh, told VOA. "Rohingyas still cannot freely go for livelihood-related activities like fishing, farming and collecting firewood in Burma. If some Rohingyas are found in such work, they are being arrested by police.
"Life continues to be full of hardships for all Rohingyas in Burma. In such a situation, I shall not return to Burma. I think as many as 96 or 97 percent of the new refugees in Bangladesh will not return to Burma."
Rohingya community leader Nurul Islam said most of the Rohingya who fled Myanmar during the recent military crackdown were so petrified by the killings and torture they witnessed that they are too scared to go back to their homes in Rakhine.
Rohingya refugee man Dil Mohammad, 30, with his wife and three of their children at a Rohingya colony in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. During military crackdown in Rakhine, Mohammad fled to Bangladesh with his family. He says he would never return to Myanmar. (S. Islam/VOA)
"Since violence subsided in Rakhine in the past weeks, some Rohingya from Bangladesh began returning to their homes," said Islam, the Britain-based chairman of the Arakan Rohingya National Organization, who is in Cox's Bazar now. "They are mostly those who had left part of their families in Rakhine while suddenly fleeing violence. They are going to Burma mostly to wind up their livelihood-related activities there and to bring the rest of their families back to Bangladesh.
"The military crackdown may have been halted, but crackdowns on the Rohingya in Burma are continuing in many other ways. All Rohingya refugees are aware of the risks and hardships they will face in Burma. So, Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh are largely not willing to return to Burma."
After nine policemen were killed in Rakhine on October 9 in an armed attack blamed on Rohingya insurgents, Myanmar's military launched a "clearance operation" in the area to ferret out the insurgents.
Soon after the operation started, Rohingya began fleeing the area, accusing soldiers, police and local Buddhist groups, who accompanied the forces during the raids, of abuses, including rapes, killings and arson.
Rohingya refugee woman Noor Ayesha and her 5-year-old daughter at a Rohingya colony in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. "[During the military operation] the soldiers burnt alive my five children. They raped my two other daughters in front of me, before killing them. They also shot dead my husband...I shall never return to this country which is a hell for all Rohingyas," Ayesha told VOA. (S. Ullah/VOA)
Up to 100,000 Rohingya, as estimated by the community's leaders, crossed into Bangladesh.
Earlier this month, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said the action of the security forces in northern Rakhine very likely constituted "crimes against humanity."
A week later, two senior U.N. officials working among the Rohingya refugees said more than 1,000 Rohingya might have been killed during the four-month security operation in northern Rakhine.
However, quoting a military report, Myanmar presidential spokesman Zaw Htay said last week that fewer than 100 people had been killed during the operation. The Myanmar government has also consistently denied allegations of widespread abuses against the Rohingya people during the military operation.
Yanghee Lee (C), the UN's Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, visits the Balu Khali Rohingya camp in Cox's Bazar, Feb. 21, 2017.
A question of status
A controversial 1982 law renders the members of the Rohingya community ineligible for citizenship. The community was excluded from the 2014 census because the government refused to identify them as "Rohingya" and they refused to be enlisted as "Bengalis."
In recent weeks, the authorities have resumed the process of issuing National Verification Cards (NVCs) to Rohingya community members in Rakhine. Those who are holding the NVCs are identified as residents of Myanmar whose status of citizenship is under scrutiny.
Rakhine-based Rohingya rights activist Aung Aung said Rohingya were being coerced by authorities to accept NVCs and those who refused to accept them had been arrested, in some cases recently.
"For a Rohingya, holding an NVC virtually means he is not a citizen of Myanmar but a declared Bengali immigrant," Aung told VOA. "So most Rohingyas are not willing to accept NVCs. In recent weeks, in many villages, the security forces are not allowing the Rohingyas to move out of their villages if they cannot produce their NVCs. With this new restriction on movement, the Rohingyas are unable to perform many livelihood-related activities in Rakhine, which has brought new miseries to them.
"In such a situation, we fear we will see the exodus of more Rohingyas from Arakan in the coming days. It's easy to understand why no Rohingya refugee from Bangladesh will be keen to return home, despite [the fact that] the military brought a halt to the security operation some weeks ago."