Rohingya refugees returning to Myanmar will be “safe” as long as they stay in the areas “designated” for them, the country's Army Chief Min Aung Hlaing has said.
"There is no need to be worried about their security if they stay in the areas designated for them," the Army Chief told a visiting UN delegation, according to a post on Min Aung Hlaing's official Facebook page on Saturday.
The Army Chief met the visiting delegation from the UN Security Council in the capital Naypyidaw on April 30.
The remark sparked off renewed fears the Rohingyas refugees will be kept in settlements indefinitely.
As many as 700,000 Rohingya Muslims fled Buddhist-majority Myanmar to Bangladesh after the military launched a brutal crackdown on insurgents in August 2017.
The US and the UN termed the crackdown “ethnic cleansing”.
Myanmar and Bangladesh agreed to repatriate refugees to conflict-hit Rakhine state in 2017 but Rohingyas fear to return to a country without guarantees of safety and basic rights such as freedom of movement.
Myanmar’s Army Chief referred to members of the stateless minority as "Bengalis", reflecting a widespread belief in Myanmar that the Rohingya are immigrants from Bangladesh despite a longstanding presence in Rakhine.
He also cast doubt on the allegations raised by refugees in Bangladesh, many of whom shared stories of extrajudicial killings, arson and rape.
"Bengalis will never say that they arrive there happily. They will get sympathy and rights only if they say that they face a lot of hardships and persecution," he reportedly said, adding that the issue was "exaggerated".
Conditions in Myanmar not ripe for Rohingya refugees to return.
The UN has said conditions on the ground are not ripe for the refugees to return, despite Myanmar's insistence that it is ready even as no large-scale repatriation has occurred.
The government has built transit camps that can accommodate tens of thousands of people and a much smaller number of new houses to replace fire-blackened villages where Rohingya used to live.
The minority community has been persecuted in Myanmar for decades and Rohingya have lived in what rights groups have called apartheid-like conditions, with severe restrictions on movement and access to health services.
More than 120,000 Rohingya still reside in camps for internally displaced people in the Rakhine state capital Sittwe as a result of intercommunal violence in 2012 that killed hundreds.
Dil Mohamed, a Rohingya leader sheltering on the border, told reporters late last month that refugees do not want to stay in any transit camps due to similar concerns that they will be more than temporary. "We are waiting here only until we are allowed to go back to our home," he said.