Yangon, Myanmar – When a team of top Myanmar officials met Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh‘s Cox’s Bazar over the weekend, they handed out flyers aimed at persuading members of the persecuted minority to return home two years after fleeing a brutal military crackdown in 2017.
With its happy cartoon figures and its promise of a return “to normal life,” the brochure paints a rosy picture for refugees who agree to be repatriated to Buddhist-majority Myanmar on the government’s terms.
It promises the mostly Muslim Rohingya, who have been systematically stripped of Myanmar citizenship for decades and vilified as outsiders, a “gateway to citizenship” if they apply for National Verification Cards (NVC).
“I’m not a foreigner” declares a smiling, bearded man wearing a skull cap at the top of the brochure and brandishing one of the cards. “I am a resident of Myanmar” reads the speech bubble next to a woman in a headscarf holding another card.
Myanmar insists Rohingya must apply for the controversial identity documents if they are to return home, but critics argue the cards will only deepen discrimination against the group.
For the 730,000 Rohingya who fled a campaign of mass killings, rape and arson that many have labelled genocide, the contents of the upbeat leaflet could not be further from the grim reality of life in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state.
Rights groups say returnees will likely be herded into detention camps and held under the same apartheid-like conditions as those Rohingya who stayed behind in Rakhine after 2017.
In November last year, during an abortive attempt to repatriate thousands of Rohingya, some attempted to take their own lives to avoid being sent back to the place where their loved ones were slaughtered, and the military responsible continues to enjoy near-total impunity.
Even as the government promises Rohingya will be allowed to return to their homes – and rebuild them if they were destroyed – recent satellite evidence shows authorities are still demolishing their abandoned villages, and in some cases building suspected military bases on the razed land.
A report last released week by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a think-tank, found that more than 100 abandoned Rohingya villages have been bulldozed since last year, while authorities have expanded camps where returnees may be confined.
“The preparations that are being made raise significant concerns about the conditions under which returning Rohingya would be expected to live,” the report said.
Khin Maung, a Rohingya youth activist living in the camps in Bangladesh, said the delegation’s visit, and the propaganda on their flyers, was more about assuaging Myanmar’s critics than actually convincing the Rohingya to return.
“They do not want to take us back,” he told Al Jazeera. “But they want to decrease international pressure, so they are playing all these games.”
Some point to Myanmar’s insistence on issuing National Verification Cards as proof they are not sincere about allowing Rohingya to return safely and with dignity.
“The NVC has been in use for years as a tool to identify Rohingya as foreigners and they have not received any greater rights as a result,” said Kyaw Win of the Burma Human Rights Network, which released a report earlier this month criticising the scheme.
The report argues that the cards are unnecessary because Myanmar’s authorities already “have extensive records of the Rohingya who were living inside of Northern Rakhine State” before the 2017 violence.
“If they really want to repatriate us, they should stop the NVC process and give us full citizenship,” said Khin Maung.
An op-ed in the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper before the delegation’s visit blamed “hardline groups” for standing in the way of repatriation.
“The main obstacle for the repatriation is the presence of hardline groups inside Bangladesh who do not want repatriation, but want to increase international pressure to create a so-called ‘Safe Zone’ to advance their political agenda,” it said.
Earlier this year Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister, AK Abdul Momen, floated the idea of creating a space inside Rakhine state where Rohingya would receive protection from Myanmar allies, including China and Russia.
Despite doubts about Myanmar’s intentions, the fact officials have opened a dialogue with Rohingya representatives has given rise to cautious optimism.
“Something is better than nothing,” said Mohib Ullah, who met the Myanmar delegation and is chairman of the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights. “At least they are starting to talk with us.”
Rohingya attendees told officials, who were led by permanent foreign secretary Myint Thu, that they were suspicious of the newly built transit camps and wanted to be taken directly to their homes in the event that they agreed to go back, he said.
“We already live in a camp, we don’t want to go from one camp to another camp,” he added.
Also present during the visit was a delegation from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). During one meeting Rohingya attendees criticised the bloc for a recent report it published praising Myanmar’s efforts to prepare for the “smooth and orderly” return of refugees.
Critics said the report glossed over military atrocities and Rohingya leaders complained they were not consulted.
Mohib Ullah said that the ASEAN delegates apologised for the report, but Arnel Capili, Deputy Executive Director at ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance, denied that.
He said his delegation explained the report’s authors were confined by the mandate given to them by their superiors and that they hoped to be able to consult Rohingya for future reports.
“Initially it was a little bit tense,” said Capili, “but towards the end it became clear that they wanted dialogue” with Myanmar officials.
He added: “To me it’s a breakthrough … I think it’s a new beginning.”
Naing Su Aung, another Rohingya attendee, disagrees. After the second day of meetings, he took to Facebook to write a post about his frustration with the Myanmar delegates.
“Finally I can say that I was right, they just came here to escape from international pressure,” he wrote. “Nothing else, that’s all.”