YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar’s government will manage the redevelopment of villages torched during violence in Rakhine state that has sent nearly half a million Rohingya Muslims fleeing to Bangladesh, a minister was reported on Wednesday as saying.
The plan for the redevelopment of areas destroyed by fires, which the government has blamed on Rohingya insurgents, is likely to raise concern about prospects for the return of the 480,000 refugees, and compound fears of ethnic cleansing.
“According to the law, burnt land becomes government-managed land,” Minister for Social Development, Relief and Resettlement Win Myat Aye told a meeting in the Rakhine state capital of Sittwe, the Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper said.
Win Myat Aye also heads a committee tasked with implementing recommendations on solving Rakhine’s long-simmering tensions.
Citing a disaster management law, he said in a meeting with authorities on Tuesday that redevelopment would “be very effective”. The law says the government oversees reconstruction in areas damaged in disasters, including conflict.
There was no elaboration on any plan or what access to their old villages any returning Rohingya could expect. The minister was not immediately available for comment.
Human rights groups using satellite images have said about half of more than 400 Rohingya villages in the north of Rankine state have been burned in the violence.
Refugees arriving in Bangladesh have accused the army and Buddhist vigilantes of mounting a campaign of violence and arson aimed at driving Rohingya out of Myanmar.
In Washington, lawmakers in the U.S. Congress condemned the treatment of the Rohingya and some questioned the former Obama administration’s decision to lift sanctions on Myanmar after a civilian-led government came to power.
Ed Royce, Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told a hearing the Myanmar government’s response to the crisis had been “appalling.” He said national leader Aung San Suu Kyi had a duty to speak out and that her statements on the crisis had been “widely off the mark.”
“Perpetrators of this ethnic cleansing must be condemned in the strongest possible terms,” he said.
Ted Yoho, Republican chair of the subcommittee, said the military crackdown had been characterized by “sickening crimes against humanity” and said Washington should look at what policy options were available to stop the military violence and encourage the government to take a firmer stand against it.
The Trump administration has stepped up its criticism of the Myanmar military’s behavior, but has refrained from using the terms “ethnic cleansing” or “crimes against humanity” and given no indication of plans to re-impose sanctions on the country where it competes for influence with strategic rival China.
Buddhist-majority Myanmar has rejected U.N. accusations of ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in response to coordinated attacks by Rohingya insurgents on the security forces on Aug. 25. It has also rejected accusations of crimes against humanity leveled this week by Human Rights Watch.
The government has said about half of Rohingya villages have been abandoned, but blames insurgents of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army for attacking civilians. It says nearly 500 people have been killed since Aug. 25, nearly 400 of them insurgents.
The violence and the refugee exodus is the biggest crisis that the government of Nobel peace laureate Suu Kyi has faced since it came to power last year in a transition from nearly 50 years of military rule.
Myanmar considers the Rohingya illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and bouts of suppression and strife have flared for decades. Most Rohingya are stateless.
Suu Kyi has faced scathing criticism and calls for her Nobel prize to be withdrawn. She denounced rights violations in an address last week and vowed that abusers would be prosecuted. She also said any refugees verified as coming from Myanmar under a 1992 process agreed with Bangladesh would be allowed back.
Suu Kyi has little, if any, control over the security forces under a military-drafted constitution that also bars her from the presidency and gives the military veto power over political reform.
Many refugees are gloomy about their chances of going home, saying they fear they lack the paperwork they expect would be demanded to prove they came from Myanmar.
Myanmar is due to take a party of diplomats to the conflict zone on Thursday to let them see the situation.
A group of aid organizations said on Tuesday the total number of refugees who had fled to Bangladesh since Aug. 25 had been revised up to 480,000, after 35,000 people were found to have been missed out of the previous tally.
Aid agencies say refugees are still arriving, though at a slower pace.
They have an overall plan to help 1.2 million people, including 200,000 Rohingya who were already in camps in Bangladesh and 300,000 people in “host communities”.
“They have absolutely nothing,” U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said in Geneva after returning from a visit to the camps in Bangladesh.
“It is very clear the cause of this crisis is in Myanmar but that the solution is also in Myanmar,” he said.
“The risk of spread of terrorist violence in this particular region is very, very high” unless the issue was resolved, he warned.
Grandi said he had not been informed about government plans for redevelopment but it had to include all communities.
“If development is not inclusive, it will not be addressing the root causes and solve the problem,” he said.
Additonal reporting by Tommy Wilkes in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, Serajul Quadir in Dhaka, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Michael Perry and Sandra Maler