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Refugee News                       September 1997
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Burmese refugees in Bangladesh refuse food More information
Thousands of Burmese refugees who want to remain in Bangladesh started refusing food rations on July 21. The most militant among them closed their camp in Nayapara, in the district of Cox's Bazar, and warned of more trouble if anyone tried to force them back to Burma. There were reports that the refugees were digging bunkers and trenches around the camp. Some have said they would prefer to starve to death rather than return to face persecution, killings and sexual assault they are alleged to have suffered at the hands of Burma's military. 

The refugees say 25 children and old people have already died. 

The refugees are Muslims, known as Rohingyas. There are about 21,000 of them at two camps in Bangladesh— about 13,000 at Nayapara and 8,000 at another camp, Kutupalong. About 7,500 of these refugees have been cleared by Burma for return but very few have volunteered do so. Their leaders say they would return to Burma only if the Rangoon government issues them with formal documents of nationality (they are not citizens of Burma), guarantees human rights, ensures their participation in economic activities and stops persecuting Moslems in the mainly Buddhist state. 

A food boycott at Kutupalong ended towards the end of July. The refugees there had refused rations for more than a week in protest at the forced repatriation of 399 refugees on 20th and 22nd July. Scores of refugees have fallen ill during the period. Camp leaders decided to drop their protest following talks at the camp involving United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and a government delegation. The refugees were assured, in writing, that the Bangladeshi government would not forcibly return any more of them. Seventeen refugees arrested during violent clashes between refugees and police were to be freed after due process of law. The government remained firm, however, in its position that Bangladesh cannot give permanent residence to the Rohingyas. 

At least 20 people, including six policemen, have been injured in fighting, which forced authorities to suspend a repatriation process. Police said some of the Rohingya militants might have firearms and could be members of guerrilla groups fighting for an independent Moslem homeland in western Burma's Muslim-majority Arakan province. 

These refugees are the remnants of some 250,000 Rohingyas who crossed into Bangladesh in early 1992 from Arakan to escape alleged persecution by Burma's military government. 229,000 of them have since returned under UNHCR voluntary repatriation programs following an agreement between Dhaka and Rangoon. The repatriation process was stopped in April following complaints by the refugees and the UNHCR that many had been forced back and subjected to torture and repression. 

While Bangladesh was facing mounting opposition to repatriation of the remainder of these refugees, some 15,000 Rohingyas have arrived in the country over the last few months, adding a further burden to the poverty-ridden country. Refugees said the new influx was triggered by continuing military persecution, growing unemployment and recent rise in food prices. The UNHCR has appealed to the Bangladesh government to give it access to thousands newly arrived refugees. A spokeswoman said many of the refugees - whom Bangladesh regards as economic migrants - were being jailed or forcibly returned to Burma where some of them say they were fleeing forced labor and torture. Refugees said they had bribed security forces on both sides of the border to enter Bangladesh. 

Government officials are accusing the militants at the Nayapara camp of imposing their will on all other refugees including the sick and frail. The UNHCR had reported that radical elements in the camps were forcing the refugees to refuse rations, beating those who accepted them. Some 200 others desperately needing food reportedly fled from the camp. 

Others, at least 1,000 have fled the camps to avoid repatriation and are hiding in local villages. Local residents have striking physical and linguistic similarities with the Rohingyas. 

The UNHCR earlier this month lodged a strong protest with the Bangladesh government over the alleged forcible deportation of the refugees from camps lining the highway from Cox's Bazar to Teknaf on Bangladesh's southernmost tip. UNHCR warned it may have to review its operations in the country unless the expulsions stopped. In a letter to the Bangladesh Foreign Minister, UNHCR's Assistant High Commissioner, Sergio Vieira de Mello, said the returns violated the principles of international law. 

"We have also received reports of maltreatment of refugees during the preparation for their return, including physical abuse, the separation of at least 67 minors from their mothers and the return of individuals who are ill or handicapped and therefore unfit to repatriate without medical supervision," he said. 

UNHCR appealed to the Bangladesh authorities to refrain from further forced repatriations and allow UNHCR to carry out interviews to ensure refugees were returning voluntarily. 

"In the absence of such arrangements," the letter said, "UNHCR would no longer be in a position to associate itself with the (voluntary) repatriation operation." 

The military government of Burma has been subjected to sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union, and lately (August 7) by Canada, because of concerns over the suppression of political freedoms and Burma's failure to curb the production and trafficking of illegal drugs. The junta blocked democratically elected leaders, the NLD (National League for Democracy) of Aung San Suu Kyi, from taking office in 1990. 

Burma was formally admitted this year to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), an increasingly powerful economic and political bloc, over strong U.S. objections. The other eight members are Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, Brunei and Laos. 

The intolerance shown by the ruling State Law and Order Restoration Committee (SLORC) towards ethnic minorities in Burma has led to other refugee crisis with the Karen and the Shan escaping into Thailand and the Chin into India. More than 15,000 Karens fleeing a Burmese army offensive earlier this year, joined an estimated 70,000 refugees from Burma already living in Thailand. 

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