VOA Asia's Ira Mellman contributed to this report.
Myanmar is beginning to yield to international pressure to repatriate the more than 700,000 Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh, but rights advocates worry its commitment is only surface level.
The country stepped up its efforts over the weekend, when Myanmar permanent foreign secretary U Myint Thu led a 10-member delegation to talks with refugee representatives last weekend at Kutupalong -- the largest refugee camp in the world.
Rohingya representatives put citizenship and guaranteed safety up as requirements for the ethnic group’s return, but government representatives only offered a path to naturalized citizenship, beginning with an application for a national verification card.
“[Myanmar] is essentially playing games with the discussions about citizenship,” Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, told VOA Asia.
Some Rohingya worried that the cards, which the government also proposed in 2018, could be used to further persecute against group members.
Refugees rejected a previous repatriation offer made in October.
Myanmar has been hit with increasing international pressure to repatriate the Rohingya, especially from Bangladesh.
Bangladesh Foreign Minister Abul Kalam Abdul Momen told VOA Bangla earlier in July that the country expected to hold Rohingya refugees temporarily, as in the past.
“We believed this time they would take them back, because they assured us [they would],” Momen said. “But, they have not created a conducive environment in Myanmar, so that these people feel secure if they go back.”
The two countries signed a repatriation deal in November 2017, but no Rohingya have voluntarily returned. Bangladeshi authorities even gave Myanmar a list on Monday, with the names of 25,000 refugees from 6,000 families for potential repatriation.
Last weekend’s meetings were part of a push by Myanmar to make conditions livable for returning refugees. But after Myanmar's refusal to grant the Rohingya citizenship and recognize them as an indigenous group, human rights advocates are skeptical.
“We haven’t seen that political commitment, to be honest,” Robertson said. “We have our doubts.”
He pointed at the 120,000 Rohingya displaced in 2012, still living in camps, as evidence of the government’s true intentions.
“These are people who are essentially locked down in camps or unable to move. They're unable to pursue livelihoods or have access to basic services like health and education. And they haven't gotten citizenship,” he added.
Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh keep in touch with those in Myanmar through WhatsApp and other messaging services, so they know about current conditions, Robertson said. Their awareness of treatment back home could further fuel their distrust of the Myanmar government, he added.
Recent media reports also have shown Myanmar has continued to destroy the remaining Rohingya settlements, further casting doubt on the country's public statements. Military facilities may now occupy the villages' locations, a report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute found.
Rohingya want guaranteed safety
Some Rohingya representatives at Sunday’s talks wanted U.N. peacekeepers to ensure the group’s safety, Robertson said, but it’s unlikely that Myanmar would let U.N. forces in.
Still, Robertson echoed a need for international monitoring, saying without it, Rohingya lives could be at risk.
“The Rohingya are very acutely aware that if they go back without a security guarantee, they’re basically placing their fates back in the hands of the military and the police who two years ago were raping and killing them," he said.
The Myanmar government has restricted the group’s rights for decades, but the military most recently cracked down in 2017. In reaction to attacks by some Rohingya, the military carried out what it called a cleansing campaign, which included mass killings, rapes and arsons. The U.N. and other human rights advocates have called their actions genocide.
The Rohingya were excluded from a 1982 citizenship law that bases full legal status through membership in a government-recognized indigenous group. The Myanmar government considers the Rohingya illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, effectively rendering the ethnic group stateless.