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Bangladesh Tries To Repatriate Rohingya Refugees To Myanmar


Some Rohingya refugees from Myanmar are supposed to be going home. Bangladesh agreed to return some of the people who fled their homeland after the military burned their villages, killing and raping as they went. Myanmar says they will let these people return. But the refugees themselves say it is not safe. And many are refusing to go. Reporter Michael Sullivan has been covering this story for years. And he's on the line. Hey there, Michael.


INSKEEP: Why send the refugees back now?

SULLIVAN: They've got an agreement. I mean, Bangladesh has been generous in accommodating the Rohingya. But they're a real burden on the infrastructure, on the economy in a very poor part of a very poor country. Roughly three-quarters of a million have arrived since August of last year. That's a huge number. Plus a few hundred thousand already there who fled previous waves of violence - it's a lot. And Bangladesh wants them to go home.

What does Myanmar want? I think it's a matter of optics more than anything else. They want to look like they're playing nice for the international community. But it's not at all clear how sincere they are. And even if they allow the Rohingya back, it's not clear what their status will be, Steve, since Myanmar doesn't really recognize them as citizens.

INSKEEP: Well, there's a key question. What assurances, if any, have these refugees been given of their future safety once they're sent back?

SULLIVAN: They've not been given many assurances at all. And that's what the human rights groups are saying, that until they get these assurances, they don't want to go back. I mean, they fear the same thing that led them to leave, Myanmar's military. They don't want to be in these camps. I've talked to many people in them, and almost everyone says they want to go home. The camps are awful. They're these temporary shelters made of plastic and bamboo, hundreds of thousands crammed into huts scraped out of the hillsides.

Home is better, they say, but only if their safety is assured, if Myanmar agrees to recognize them as citizens and if they have homes to return to. And many of them don't because they've been razed by Myanmar's military, then bulldozed out of existence. So it's hard to see why any would want to go back in the current climate.

In fact, I'm starting to hear about Rohingya still in Myanmar, Steve, trying to leave by boat, like we saw a few years ago, because they see no future there. And that's why it looks like today's repatriation effort is falling apart - 'cause no one wants to go. And Bangladesh, to its credit, says it won't send anyone who doesn't want to go voluntarily.

INSKEEP: OK. So we have the prospect of people leaving more rapidly than they can be returned. And we also have a reminder in what you've said, Michael Sullivan, of how this has happened. You mentioned the citizenship status of Rohingya. Through your reporting, we've learned that this is a group of people who were citizens of Burma, or Myanmar, many years ago, who were recognized as part of the country and gradually became unrecognized.

The government began treating them as visitors from somewhere else, which has prompted a lot of criticism, including from the vice president of the United States, Mike Pence. And I want to hear some of what he has been saying about Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader - the civilian leader of Myanmar. He's speaking with her here at a conference in Singapore.


VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: The violence and persecution by military and vigilantes that resulted in driving 700,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh is without excuse.

INSKEEP: Strong words there, but is there anything to back them up?

SULLIVAN: I don't think so - unless there's a stick that I don't know about. I mean, the U.S. has already accused Myanmar of ethnic cleansing. The U.N. talks about genocide. Amnesty International on Monday, Steve, withdrew its highest honor from Suu Kyi for what it called her shameful betrayal of the values she once stood for. But she just takes it all in stride. She knows her audience is back in Myanmar. And a big part of the Buddhist majority there doesn't like the Rohingya.

And then there's the generals. When Vice President Pence calls for those who've carried out the atrocities against the Rohingya to be held accountable, he's talking about the military. But they're still very powerful back home. And Suu Kyi can't stop them, can't discipline them even if she wanted to. And that's a big if. And all of this means the Rohingya, Steve, have no good options and probably won't for a very long time.

INSKEEP: Reporter Michael Sullivan, who is in Bangkok. Michael, thanks as always.

SULLIVAN: You're welcome, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.