Myanmar’s leaders are promising to bring home hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who fled a brutal military crackdown. But the government, led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, is taking steps that make their return increasingly unlikely.
The areas where the Rohingya lived in Myanmar’s western Rakhine State before the army ousted them are being dramatically transformed. The northern reaches of this region were once a Muslim-majority enclave in the overwhelmingly Buddhist nation.
Hundreds of new houses are now being built in villages where the Rohingya resided, satellite images show. Many of these villages were burned, then flattened and scraped by bulldozers. The new homes are being occupied mainly by Buddhists, some from other parts of Rakhine. The security forces are also building new facilities in these areas.
A clear picture of the changes on the ground has been elusive, however, because of restrictions on travel to the region. To document Myanmar’s plans for the Rohingya, Reuters analysed satellite photographs of construction work in the region from the past year and an unpublished resettlement map drafted by the government. Reporters also interviewed national and state-level government officials in charge of resettlement policy, aid workers, refugees in the camps in Bangladesh, and Rohingya still living in northern Rakhine.
The government is both building some of the new homes and helping to facilitate the Buddhist resettlement push, according to local officials and new settlers. The campaign is being spearheaded by Buddhist nationalists who want to establish a Buddhist majority in the area.
And the Rohingya resettlement map drafted by the government, described here for the first time, reveals that many refugees who do return to Rakhine won’t go back to their homes or even their original villages. The map shows they would be herded into several dozen Rohingya-only settlements, segregating them from the rest of the population.
Many of the Rohingya who stayed behind say conditions are growing intolerable. A scattered community of more than 200,000 Rohingya remains in northern Rakhine, according to an internal UN document reviewed by Reuters. More than two dozen people who recently fled to Bangladesh told Reuters they faced intimidation and beatings by security forces, as well as curfews and travel restrictions that made it difficult to work or obtain food. The result is a continued flow of Rohingya into Bangladesh. Almost 15,000 have fled so far this year, according to the United Nations.
Yanghee Lee, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, said the Reuters findings showed the actions of the authorities in Myanmar were making the expulsion of the Rohingya irreversible. The aim, she said, is to change the terrain by removing ‘any remnants’ of Rohingya villages. ‘For people to go back to their places of origin, identify landmarks to go back to, it’s become impossible.’
The Myanmar authorities ‘wanted to get everyone out,’ she added. ‘Now they’ve got them out, they sure aren’t going to give it back to the Rohingya.’
Myanmar has been ready to take back the refugees since January, the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement said in reply to questions from Reuters. The government was investing ‘all physical (efforts) and wisdom to overcome the challenges that we faced in Rakhine State,’ it said in a statement.
Aung San Suu Kyi told an audience in Singapore in August that Myanmar is pursuing ‘the voluntary, safe and dignified return’ of the displaced Rohingya. A return of some refugees is possible, to be sure, as Myanmar tries to ease international pressure over the crisis.
Across the border in Bangladesh, however, refugees are skeptical. Plans to begin the repatriation on November 15 with a group of some 2,200 Rohingya collapsed when they refused to go unless they were granted citizenship and allowed back to their original homes.
Myo Nyunt, a spokesman for the ruling National League for Democracy, said the Rohingya were to blame for delays in their return because of their demand for citizenship as a prerequisite for their repatriation. ‘We absolutely can’t accept this,’ he said.
He also said that bureaucratic obstacles in Bangladesh were holding up repatriation. ‘The longer it takes for people to return, the greater the possibility that other people will take their place,’ he said.
Hussein Ahmed says if he can’t recover his land, there’s no point returning. Sitting in a shack in Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh, he examines satellite photos of Inn Din, the village where he was born 73 years ago and fled during the army crackdown last year.
It’s almost unrecognizable. All the Muslim homes are gone. The Buddhist homes remain. Hussein Ahmed points to where his once stood, a newly built two-story structure. In its place, there’s a long, red-roofed building.
‘This was my village,’ says Hussein Ahmed, who was the village chairman in Inn Din. ‘All our homes were burned,’ he said. ‘The army has occupied our land. So I don’t think we’ll get it back.’
Myanmar was ruled for half a century by a succession of repressive military leaders. The junta yielded in 2011 to a nominally civilian government, now led by the National League for Democracy of Suu Kyi. The military retains great power, however, and the generals and Suu Kyi’s cabinet have shown a united front on Rohingya policy.
Northern Rakhine is home to multiple ethnic groups. The two largest are the Rohingya and a Buddhist people, the Rakhine, who share the name of the state. The junta tried for decades to alter the population balance by bolstering the number of Buddhists there. The aim was to stop ‘an incursion of people,’ said Sai Tun Nyo, a spokesman for the military-controlled Ministry of Border Affairs, referring to Muslims. ‘We need a human fence to stop it.’
The Rohingya trace their roots back centuries in the Rakhine area, a reading of history supported by independent scholars. Buddhist nationalists see the Rohingya as Muslim interlopers who invented an ethnic identity after migrating from the Indian sub-continent. They want to curb the number of Muslims in northern Rakhine.
The expulsion of the Rohingya on Suu Kyi’s watch has gone a long way to achieving that goal. There is now more or less numerical parity between Buddhists and Muslims in northern Rakhine, according to the internal UN document.
The Rohingya exodus has produced the world’s biggest refugee camp, the result of ‘ethnic cleansing’ with ‘genocidal intent,’ according to the United Nations. An offensive by Myanmar security forces last year in northern Rakhine that has driven out more than 730,000 Rohingya included mass killings and gang rapes, the United Nations said. Myanmar rejects these accusations, saying the crackdown was a legitimate response to ‘terrorism.’
In August last year, a group of Rohingya insurgents attacked security posts in the region, killing 13 members of the security forces. Almost 400 Rohingya villages were damaged or destroyed in the ensuing military-led offensive.
With many of the villages still smoldering, the government signaled its intent to reshape northern Rakhine.
Win Myat Aye, the minister responsible for resettlement, invoked a law on natural disasters under which, he said, ‘burnt land becomes government-managed land,’ according to state media.
Within a few months, the government sent in bulldozers to flatten what was left of Rohingya homes, mosques and other buildings in dozens of villages, satellite images showed. In aerial photographs taken over northern Rakhine in February, scrape marks in the sand from the bulldozers are visible.
A UN fact-finding mission said reports about the destruction of villages raised ‘serious concerns’ that Myanmar was trying to destroy evidence of its actions. The government says the bulldozing was done with good intentions - to make way for new development and improved living conditions for the Rohingya.
‘When the news of that misunderstanding came out, we were surprised,’ said Win Myat Aye, the minister in charge of resettlement.
One of those villages is Inn Din, the site of a massacre of 10 Muslim men amid the 2017 offensive that was reported by Reuters this February. The 6,000 Rohingya who lived there, almost 90 percent of the population, are all gone. So are their homes.
Satellite images of Inn Din reveal that more than a dozen rectangular, red-roofed buildings have been built on land where thatch-roofed Rohingya homes and at least one mosque stood. Visitors to the village said the new structures are a border police facility.
The road running through Inn Din has been widened. Satellite images show new roads and infrastructure are being built across northern Rakhine.
The Rakhine state government is building 100 new homes in the village for Buddhists, according to local officials.
More new dwellings in Inn Din, also earmarked for Buddhists, have been built by a group called the Ancillary Committee for the Reconstruction of Rakhine National Territory in the Western Frontier. The group, made up of Buddhist nationalists, has resettled more than 130 families from elsewhere in Rakhine.
These families are now in Inn Din and Koe Tan Kauk, another village that also had a large Muslim majority until the Rohingya fled.
‘Muslims are a worldwide disease. Anyone who says different is lying,’ said Than Tun, one of the group’s founders. ‘My desire, and what any Rakhine would say, if I’m not being diplomatic, is that we only want Rakhines.’
Than Tun is one of many Rakhine Buddhist leaders who strongly oppose any repatriation of Rohingya to Inn Din and the surrounding coastal region along the Bay of Bengal. They say it is a strategically important part of northern Rakhine - a buffer separating Muslim-majority Bangladesh and Myanmar’s Buddhist heartland.
A senior official in Rakhine’s General Administration Department told Reuters that his office signed off on the resettlement of families vetted by Than Tun’s committee and that the group was operating with government approval. The department falls under the central government’s Ministry of Home Affairs, which is controlled by the military.
Kyaw Soe Moe, Inn Din’s administrator, said he was helping newly arrived Buddhists to settle on what he said was ‘vacant land’ in the village.
Across the Bangladeshi border in Kutupalong refugee camp, Noor Islam lives with 20 members of his extended family in a shack. He said he carried his 90-year-old mother for much of the journey to Bangladesh.
In Rakhine, he used to own several pharmacies. ‘My shops were filled with medicines when I fled,’ he said.
Now, he sells medicines from a rickety bamboo table.
His home was Taung Bazar, a cluster of hamlets named after a ‘mountain market’ that once drew large crowds.
The village was home to both Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, who were the majority.
Now, only a small Rohingya community remains and hundreds of Buddhists have moved in. On the eastern edge of Taung Bazar, the Ministry of Border Affairs has built 63 mint-green houses with blue roofs. These new homes, for mostly Buddhist ethnic groups, are on paddy fields formerly farmed by Rohingya.
More Buddhist homes have been built on the banks of the Mayu River running through the village.
After many residents fled, a Buddhist village administrator began selling off the riverfront land to Buddhist families, starting early this year, according to three Rohingya villagers on the ground who spoke by phone.
Maung Lone, the village administrator, said the riverfront land belonged to the Rakhine Buddhist community. He helped Buddhists move into the new homes there, he said, and also allowed them to live temporarily in empty Rohingya homes. He did not take any money for this, he said.
In Kutupalong refugee camp, Noor Islam recently flipped through receipts that show the tax he paid on two acres of the land where he says the mint-green houses now stand. ‘We lost everything,’ he said.
An official at the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Irrigation in Naypyitaw told Reuters that Noor Islam’s tax receipts looked genuine. Nonetheless, the official, Than Htut, said that since Rohingya aren’t citizens in Myanmar, they would have to ‘negotiate’ with local authorities to recover their land or receive compensation.
In her speech in Singapore in August, Suu Kyi said her government had ‘mapped out potential sites for the resettlement of returnees.’ Bangladeshi officials told Reuters her remark contradicted an agreement they had signed with Myanmar for the repatriation of the Rohingya. That deal stipulated that the Rohingya could return to their homes or nearby places of their choosing.
The plan flagged by Suu Kyi is moving forward, however. Officials in the ministry responsible for resettlement, at the behest of the minister, showed Reuters a map that plots the location of new settlements that will be built for returning refugees. The ministry says there will be 42 of these settlements.
The map reflects a broad plan to redraw the ethno-religious boundaries of northern Rakhine. Besides demarcating settlements for the Rohingya, the map also includes settlements for mainly Buddhist ethnic groups, as well as sites, marked with black circles, where only Hindus will live. The Rohingya are referred to as ‘Bengali’ on the map, a pejorative term that suggests they are foreign interlopers.
The new settlements will be an improvement on their original villages, Win Myat Aye, the minister in charge of resettlement, said in an interview. ‘The situation will be better, with electricity, roads and bridges.’
Refugees whose houses were destroyed would be given the option of living in a ‘temporary tent’ at one of the resettlement sites while building their own homes as part of a ‘cash-for-work’ program, the ministry for resettlement said in a statement to Reuters.
Asked whether the Rohingya could return to their old villages, Win Myat Aye replied: ‘If their house is still there and if they want to go, they can.’
Many villagers won’t have that option. In Inn Din, for example, all the Muslim homes were burned down, and the map shows no resettlement site is planned in the village.
The map also reveals the government doesn’t plan any resettlement sites for Rohingya in Rathedaung, one of the three townships that make up northern Rakhine. It was home to tens of thousands of Muslims before they fled. Only a few Rohingya villages remain now.
Myo Nyunt, the ruling party spokesman, said the reconstruction push in northern Rakhine has been driven by ‘security and administrative’ needs.
‘If we rebuild exactly as before, it would be difficult to control for security reasons,’ he said. ‘So for security, we have to build systematically so that terrorists can’t hide.’
Yanghee Lee, the UN human rights rapporteur, said the government’s plans revealed an attempt to ‘socially re-engineer Rakhine’ and would create ‘an apartheid-like situation’ in the region. ‘They want to put all the Rohingya in one or several areas which will be more like long-term internment camps where they can monitor very closely,’ she said.
Dozens of refugees told Reuters they want to return to the homes they left. Many expressed the fear that the new settlements are part of a government plan to control their movements and will become de-facto internment camps.
There is a precedent: Close to 130,000 Muslims have been living in camps in Rakhine since a bout of communal bloodshed in 2012. Their homes were burned down by their Buddhist neighbors and some 200 people were killed, most of them Rohingya.
The government has pledged to close the camps, but most remain open. The Rohingya refer to them as ‘open-air prisons.’ Residents are barred from leaving, conditions are squalid, and inhabitants have limited access to education and healthcare.
Christopher Sidoti, a member of the United Nations fact-finding mission on Myanmar, said the fears expressed by the refugees were ‘entirely reasonable.’
‘The Rohingya still in Myanmar are living in isolated camps or urban or village ghettos, are unable to move, are cut off from their livelihoods, have no health services and inadequate, if any, access to schooling for their kids,’ said Sidoti.
Resettlement plans also appear to have been drawn up for Rohingya who remained behind, people in Rakhine say.
Near the village of Gu Dar Pyin, authorities have begun building new houses for Muslims on a river bank, according to Rohingya residents and a Buddhist elder. The work is moving ahead, they said, despite protests from the 76 Rohingya families still living in the village who didn’t want to move.
A major obstacle to the return of the Rohingya is Myanmar’s requirement that the refugees accept National Verification Cards, a residency document that conveys a status short of citizenship. The Rohingya vehemently oppose the card, known as the NVC. They say the credentials brand them as new arrivals undeserving of citizenship, despite being born in Myanmar.
In the five decades the generals ruled Myanmar, they increasingly tied citizenship to ethnicity and race. Today, Suu Kyi’s government adheres to a list of 135 ‘national races’ - a legacy of the junta period - in determining who counts as a citizen. The Rohingya aren’t on the list.
Their status has eroded over time. In 2015, the quasi-civilian government then ruling Myanmar stripped the Rohingya of their temporary ID documents, known as ‘white cards,’ depriving them of the right to vote in national elections that year. Now, the government is urging the Rohingya to accept the NVC as a ‘first step’ to citizenship.
‘How can we accept the NVC?’ said Noor Islam, the pharmacist from Taung Bazar.
He has kept his family’s old identity documents, including the papers of his father and grandfather, as proof they once shared the same citizenship status as other Burmese. ‘It’s as if the student has passed matriculation and he is then asked to go back to grade one,’ he said.
More than a dozen recent arrivals at the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, said the official pressure to accept the identity cards was why they ultimately fled. They gave accounts of being beaten by soldiers and border police for refusing to accept the cards, and being blocked from traveling for lack of one.
These restrictions and a nightly curfew mean many Rohingya can’t reach the fields they till or the markets where they buy food. Four refugees who arrived in Bangladesh in recent months said they had resorted to begging for food before they left. Five Rohingya men said they performed forced labor for the military.
Mohammed Rafiq, 20, who arrived in the camps in September, said he was forced to work at the barracks of Light Infantry Battalion 565 in Buthidaung township. He dug holes, cleaned the compound and cut the grass.
‘If anyone slacked in their work, the soldiers would aim their guns and threaten them,’ he said. ‘I thought we could survive there, and things would improve. But I couldn’t keep doing forced labor. So I came here.’
In the camps, many of the Rohingya still dream of going back.
Noor Islam hopes, for his children’s sake, that they will ultimately return to their homes in Myanmar. ‘We want to go back for our children,’ he said. ‘Our children have lost their future.’
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