Rohingya refugees caught returning to Myanmar from Bangladesh were forced to tell the press they returned voluntarily and were well treated, when in reality they were so terrorized they later fled back to Bangladesh.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) interviewed three Rohingya men and three boys between 16 and 17 years old (under international law, anyone younger than 18 is considered a child). The Arakan Project, a research and advocacy group focusing on Rohingyas, interviewed one 17-year-old, who was also interviewed by HRW according to Arakan Project director Chris Lewa, and another 19-year-old.
They were interviewed in refugee camps in Bangladesh and all told similar stories of torture, detention, and bad treatment.
They had sneaked across the border from Bangladesh separately or in small groups during February and March 2018 intending to check on their houses and property and to work before returning to Bangladesh. None returned to resettle.
They were all caught and detained by members of Myanmar’s Border Guard Force (BGP) and held at BGP bases, where they were tortured for several days to get them to confess to being members of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) and participating in ARSA’s coordinated attacks on security force posts on August 25, 2017.
The torture included beatings, burning, electric shocks, and cutting.
One 24-year-old said: “At first, they kicked me in my chest and thigh and then they used electric shocks to make me tell them I was an ARSA member, but they could not make me give a false confession.”
A 17-year-old said that his interrogators hanged him upside down and repeatedly beat him to try to get him to confess to being a member of ARSA.
Another 17-year-old said: “They burned a plastic bag and let the hot plastic drip onto my body. They also took a heated iron bar and branded my legs, pressed burning cigarettes to my skin, poured hot wax from a burning candle on my skin, scratched my body with a blade, and hit me with rods and sticks.”
Despite the torture, none of them admitted to being members of ARSA and all stuck to their story of being fishermen.
They all had scars and burns consistent with the treatment they described.
In addition to the torture the men were only given two servings of ngapi fish paste and a cup of dirty water a day as sustenance.
After being held by the BGP for four days they were transferred to Maungdaw detention camp and held there for about 18 days. Every evening they were interrogated and beaten with batons by Sa Ra Pa (Military Intelligence) to get them to admit to being involved with ARSA. They also received no food and had to rely on donations from local Rohingyas, who often had to pay bribes to get the food into the prison.
During that time they attended court twice but understood little of what happened as they did not have a defense lawyer and all the proceedings were in Burmese, a language they barely understand.
When one of the defendants showed a judge his torture wounds he was ignored and when those under 18 tried to tell the judge their real age the BGP guards surreptitiously beat and kicked them until they stopped because prosecuting children in adult courts is illegal.
They were all finally convicted of immigration offenses, sentenced to four years imprisonment, and moved to Buthidaung Jail, where nearly all of the approximately 1,400 prisoners are Rohingyas.
Though they were not tortured there, the conditions were still terrible. There was insufficient food, just two meals of rice and watery dhal or vegetables a day. The Rohingya prisoners also had to drink the shower water because the Buddhist prisoners would aggressively take all the meager rations of drinking water for themselves. If Rohingyas needed medical treatment they had to buy their drugs and pay to have them smuggled into the prison.
Unexpectedly, after about 12 weeks, 62 prisoners at Buthidaung Jail were pardoned and taken to Nga Khu Ya, a newly built reception camp on the border where Rohingya returnees will be processed.
There the prisoners were given release documents, photographed, fingerprinted, and given a temporary National Verification Card (NVC). Any Rohingyas who want to officially receive Myanmar citizenship, regardless of how long they or their ancestors have lived in Myanmar, will have to get an NVC, which marks them out as foreigners and restricts their movement.
The next day the prisoners were taken Hla Poe Kaung transit camp, which is designed to hold up to 30,000 returnees in 600 long-house style buildings before they are rehoused. It was built on the site of a village that was previously home to 2,500 Rohingyas.
Between May 28 and 31, various VIPs visited the camps, these included the Japanese ambassador, members of the media, and Dr. Win Myat Aye, the union minister for social welfare, relief and resettlement.
According to the Rohingyas interviewed by HRW, it was at this time that they were presented to the press and instructed to say that they had returned voluntarily and were happy with their treatment. According to one teenage interviewee, when he deviated from his instructions a BGP officer interrupted and then terminated the interview.
On May 31, Win Myat Aye addressed all the detainees. He said: “Those of you who have family members in Northern Rakhine will soon go back to your village to join your family. Those with families in refugee camps in Bangladesh will have to wait until your family members repatriate from Bangladesh.”
After he left the Rohingyas were put under armed guard and told that they could not leave the camp. This caused the detainees with no family left in Myanmar to worry they would be held indefinitely, so 10 of them decided to escape.
They escaped the next night as the sentries sheltered from heavy rain in their barracks. They walked to the Naf River and swam halfway across before being rescued by friendly Bangladeshi fishermen. They then returned to the refugee camps.
“The torture of Rohingya returnees puts the lie to Myanmar government promises that refugees who return will be safe and protected,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of HRW. “Despite Myanmar’s rhetoric guaranteeing a safe and dignified return, the reality is that Rohingya who go back still face the persecution and abuses they were forced to flee.”
According to the Arakan Project, all the remaining detainees at Hla Poe Kaung were released on June 4, including those without relatives in Rakhine. They were sent to stay with other unrelated villagers; it is not known whether the authorities had asked permission to resettle the returnees with these villagers.
The timing of this group’s release from prison to Hla Poe Kaung transit camp, just before the visit of the Japanese ambassador and the press, appears to be cynical attempt to portray the repatriation process in a favorable light. As of now, there is no record of any Rohingyas from Bangladeshi refugee camps voluntarily taking part in the repatriation process.
Whether the Myanmar government is serious about repatriating Rohingyas is debatable.
Only 300 returnees a day can be processed by Myanmar. A UN report calculated that “at this rate, it would take over 10 years to process the 815,000 people who have arrived in Cox’s Bazar [in Bangladesh] since October 2016.” That’s considerably longer than the two years the Myanmar government estimated that it would take it to repatriate all the refugees.
Also, insufficient houses have been built for them. Chris Lewa said that though new houses are being built “it is clear that most of them are not for the Rohingyas.”
This is backed up by the March 2018 UN Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, which says: “She [The Special Rapporteur] questions the government building new villages for ethnic groups including Hindus and ethnic Mro, who lost homes during the violence last year, while excluding the Rohingya.”
Despite trying to project images to the contrary, that the Myanmar government’s commitment to safely repatriating Rohingyas from Bangladesh appears superficial at best.
Mark Inkey is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Irrawaddy, Frontier Myanmar, Asian Correspondent and Mizzima Magazine.