MAUNGDAW — We waded through floodwaters, past soldiers hefting rifles, and climbed into a prefabricated hut.
Inside, a row of men sat huddled against the wall as armed police and immigration officers stood over them. They were, we had been given the impression, among the 700,000 Rohingya Muslims who had fled northern Rakhine State in Myanmar for Bangladesh last year in an exodus that the United States and other countries condemned as ethnic cleansing.
Now, dozens had been repatriated, officials said, thanks to the goodwill of the Myanmar government, which wanted to show off its commitment to welcoming back the Rohingya and the rows of barracks it had prepared for the returnees.
But like nearly every interaction on a recent government-led trip for journalists to the epicenter of the crisis, cracks appeared in the official storyline.
The men at one of the country’s three repatriation centers shook their heads when asked if they had peacefully come back to Myanmar from Bangladesh.
They said they had not been repatriated at all. In fact, they said, they had never even left this waterlogged stretch of marsh and mountain in Myanmar, and had been swept up in the government’s broad repression of the Rohingya minority.
One day, last year, three of the men said, soldiers had arrested them in their village in northern Rakhine State. Five and a half months later, they were released and charged with illegal immigration.
“They accused us of coming from Bangladesh, but we have never been to Bangladesh,” Abdus Salim said. “Rakhine is our home.”
U Win Khine, the lead immigration officer, looked apologetic. Maybe they were liars, he said. He refused to call the men Rohingya, referring to them as Bengali to imply they belonged in neighboring Bangladesh.
“Bengalis are not from our country because they have different blood, skin color and language from us,” Mr. Win Khine said. “We have no Rohingya here.”
Outside of Myanmar, the tragedy of the Rohingya is clear. Over the decades, the Muslim minority has been stripped of its rights — to attend college, to access medical care, to move freely — by a Buddhist-chauvinist, army-dominated government. Most have no citizenship.
When Rohingya insurgents attacked police posts and an army encampment last August, killing a dozen security personnel, a paroxysm of violence against Rohingya civilians followed within hours: mass executions, rapes and village burnings by security forces that United Nations officials have suggested could constitute genocide. Rakhine Buddhist mobs abetted in the bloodletting.
But on this rare trip to northern Rakhine, under the watchful eye of armed guards, the official narrative diverged from the internationally accepted reality. The Rohingya had burned their own residences, we were told by officials and civilians alike. They were terrorists — and if they were not terrorists, they were women and children manipulated by shadowy groups in Bangladesh and elsewhere in the Islamic world.
Read more from source: The New York Times