Burmese Refugees Need Protection

ANY plan for mass repatriation of reluctant refugees needs to have basic safeguards built in. The refugees need to be carefully and impartially screened to determine who has a "well-grounded fear of persecution." They should have full access to the international press before and after repatriation. And there should be monitors in place in the country of origin to ensure the refugees' safety when they return. On the Burma-Bangladesh border, none of those safeguards are in place.

An agreement between Bangladesh and Burma announced April 18 calls for the "safe and voluntary" return to Burma's Arakan State of more than 250,000 ethnic Rohingya Muslims who have sought refuge in flood-ravaged Bangladesh over the past year. But no one appears to have even asked the refugees if they wish to return. Most do not.

The repatriation was due to begin May 15, but as the date approached, tens of thousands of refugees demonstrated against their forced return. Police opened fire, killing at least one man, and the repatriation has been delayed. During this welcome suspension, while the plans are being redrawn, it is crucial that the international community intervene.

Many of the refugees who left did so because the Burmese Army was raping their women; abducting their men for forced labor, Khmer Rouge-style, in building roads, digging canals and leveling hills; and destroying their mosques, all in an effort to persuade an unwanted minority to leave. Yet in the first week after the agreement was signed, some 12,000 more refugees arrived in Bangladesh. They continue to cross the border at the rate of 1,500-2,000 per day.

The agreement was reported as a breakthrough, one more sign of Burma's new-found flexibility - like releasing some political prisoners and allowing family members to visit Aung San Suu Kyi, the detained democracy activist. By agreeing to take back the Bengali-speaking Muslims it had previously rejected as "illegal immigrants" who belonged in Bangladesh, Burma may have been hoping to end its status as international pariah.

But the proposed repatriation has the makings of a quiet disaster. There are no guarantees that the atrocities in Arakan will stop. In fact, Burma denies that abuses ever took place. "There was no torture, no persecution," declared Ohn Gyaw, Burma's foreign minister, on announcing the agreement. "It was misconception and misinformation."

Burma has not agreed to any presence in Arakan of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees or any other international agency to monitor the return and continued safety of returnees. Without that presence, the agreement is worthless. (One wonders what could induce the refugees to go back voluntarily to the horrors from which they fled, but since the camps are in the area of Bangladesh hit last year by the cyclone, and the rainy season is coming, some may be tempted.) If they do return, who will p rotect them from the Army?

In Haiti, communications with Miami are such that if something happens to a deportee, there is at least a fair chance of the word getting out. In Vietnam, journalists and voluntary agencies can at least make an effort to find out what happens to those who return, even if the monitoring is not sufficient. In Arakan, there is only silence.

Pressure is needed on the two governments to suspend repatriation plans until international monitors from humanitarian and human rights organizations are in place in Arakan for an extended period of time. The United States should use its influence with Bangladesh, where American troops became "angels of mercy" after the 1991 cyclone. Japan, which reportedly is considering increasing development assistance to Burma, should raise its concerns in Rangoon - and consider halting, not increasing, its aid until

such safeguards are in place and abuses throughout Burma cease.

The US and Japan together should also lobby the Chinese government to persuade its Burmese client to allow the monitors in and to stop supplying the arms that keep the military afloat. And both should up their contributions in support of feeding and housing the refugees until it is truly safe for them to go home.

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