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REUTERS INVESTIGATION: Point of No Return

Nay Pyi Daw: Burma’s leaders are promising to bring home hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who fled a brutal military crackdown. But the government,led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, is taking steps that make their return increasingly unlikely.

The areas where the Rohingya lived in Burma’s western Arakan State before the army ousted them are being dramatically transformed. The northern reaches of this region were once a Muslim-majority enclave in the overwhelmingly Buddhist nation.

Map of destructed villages in Arakan (RED dots:Fully destructed,  YELLOW Dots: Partially destructed). Image: REUTERS

Hundreds of new houses are now being built in villages where the Rohingya resided, satellite images show. Many of these villages were burned, then flattened and scraped by bulldozers. The new homes are being occupied mainly by Buddhists, some from other parts of Arakan. The security forces are also building new facilities in these areas.

A clear picture of the changes on the ground has been elusive, however, because of restrictions on travel to the region. To document Burma’s plans for the Rohingya, Reuters analysed satellite photographs of construction work in the region from the past year and an unpublished resettlement map drafted by the government. Reporters also interviewed national and state-level government officials in charge of resettlement policy, aid workers, refugees in the camps in Bangladesh, and Rohingya still living in northern Arakan.

The government is both building some of the new homes and helping to facilitate the Buddhist resettlement push, according to local officials and new settlers. The campaign is being spearheaded by Buddhist nationalists who want to establish a Buddhist majority in the area.

And the Rohingya resettlement map drafted by the government,described here for the first time, reveals that many refugees who do return to Arakan won’t go back to their homes or even their original villages. The map shows they would be herded into several dozen Rohingya – only settlements,segregating them from the rest of the population.

[Areas where the Rohingya lived that were flattened. The pictures were taken by a person who flew over the region in February.]

Many of the Rohingya who stayed behind say conditions are growing intolerable. A scattered community of more than 200,000 Rohingya remains in northern Arakan, according to an internal U.N. document reviewed by Reuters. More than two dozen people who recently fled to Bangladesh told Reuters they faced intimidation and beatings by security forces, as well as curfews and travel restrictions that made it difficult to work or obtain food.The result is a continued flow of Rohingya into Bangladesh. Almost 15,000 have fled so far this year, according to the United Nations.

Yang hee Lee, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, said the Reuters findings showed the actions of the authorities in Burma were making the expulsion of the Rohingya irreversible. The aim, she said, is to change the terrain by removing “any remnants” of Rohingya villages. “For people to go back to their places of origin, identify landmarks to go back to,it’s become impossible.”

The Burmese authorities “wanted to get everyone out,” she added. “Now they’ve got them out, they sure aren’t going to give it back to the Rohingya.”

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