Military junta officials were transported from Myanmar into Bangladesh aboard United Nations boats on which UN markings had been removed, according to an email from the UN’s resident coordinator in Myanmar, a move that could put humanitarian workers at risk.
The UN’s boats were used to carry officials from Myanmar’s ruling military junta to Cox’s Bazar in southeastern Bangladesh on Wednesday, according to the email sent Thursday by Ramanathan Balakrishnan. The email was obtained by the Myanmar Accountability Project and sent to Radio Free Asia.
Junta officials have recently been negotiating a pilot project that would repatriate about 1,000 Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh to Myanmar. Wednesday’s trip in the unmarked boats was made so that officials could engage in further talks and meet with refugees who could return under the pilot program.
The journey was made without an armed escort and no weapons were observed on any of the boats, Balakrishnan wrote in the email. But he told colleagues he was concerned that the trip had created a “reputational risk” for all UN agencies and could jeopardize staff security.
The removal of the UN logo from the boats was a serious security violation, said Chris Gunness, a former UN official who is now the director of the Myanmar Accountability Project, a London-based NGO that is working to build criminal cases against members of Myanmar’s security forces.
“That’s a serious breach of UN neutrality and it puts in danger UN convoys across Myanmar,” he told RFA. “If rebel groups, if opposition groups and others feel that these transports, these aid convoys are being used by the junta to be transported, they may come under attack. And that puts at risk the lives of humanitarian workers across Myanmar.”
1 million refugees
The area, which borders Myanmar, houses about 1 million refugees from the persecuted Rohingya minority, including about 740,000 who fled Myanmar following a military crackdown in Rakhine state beginning in August 2017.
The UN’s refugee agency – the UNHCR – and the World Food Program provided the boats “at the very firm request” of Myanmar junta officials, Balakrishnan said in the email.
The Myanmar delegation has interviewed more than 240 refugees since Wednesday, Bangladeshi official Khalid Hussain told BenarNews, a Radio Free Asia-affiliated news service. More interviews will take place over the next few days, he said.
The UNHCR hasn’t been involved in negotiations between Bangladesh and Myanmar for the pilot program, Balakrishnan said. The position of the UN and UNHCR “on return to Myanmar remains unchanged” – conditions in Rakhine are currently “not conducive to the safe and sustainable return of Rohingya refugees.”
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric reiterated at Friday’s noon briefing in New York that UNHCR isn’t involved in the pilot program. He repeated Balakrishnan’s line about the unsafe conditions in Rakhine.
Pilot program or public relations stunt?
Nonetheless, it appears the UN was used by the junta “in a vile propaganda stunt” as the regime prepares to hold “sham elections” later this year, Gunness said.
“It’s extraordinary that the UN on the one hand says it’s dangerous and then on the other hand is going ahead and supporting this pilot scheme,” Gunness said. “It doesn’t make sense.”
Karin Valtersson, Burma Campaign UK's Campaigns Officer, echoed that, saying the pilot program feels like a public relations exercise by the Burmese military and the Bangladeshi government.
“The situation inside Rakhine state is still a situation of ongoing genocide and they cannot return at this point, and I don’t think anyone will return,” she told RFA. “The reports that UN agencies have been involved are clearly shameful.”
Instead of returning, Rohingya refugees need support in the camps so they can have a decent living standard, with their security guaranteed, she said.
“The security situation in the camps has deteriorated and they cannot be abandoned again by the international community,” she said.
Edited by Matt Reed and Malcolm Foster. BenarNews, a Radio Free Asia-affiliated news service.