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Myanmar reaps the benefit of abandoned Rohingya land

Forced to flee for their lives, refugee farmers are furious that the authorities are harvesting their crops

Myanmar reaps the benefit of abandoned Rohingya land

Rohingya refugees walk through a paddy field near Balukhali refugee camp at Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh on Sept. 15. The Myanmar government's plan to harvest Rohingya-owned cropland in Rakhine State has frustrated and angered refugees who fled to Bangladesh. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)

Stephan Uttom Rozario and Rock Ronald Rozario, Dhaka, John Zaw, Mandalay
Myanmar

November 15, 2017

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Nazibullah's family fled Myanmar's Rakhine State due to violence in mid-September, leaving behind their farmland and food stock.

The 53-year-old Rohingya man, from the Maungdaw area in the state's north, now lives in a squalid hut at Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.

The farmland he owned amounted to 10 hectares, mostly used to grow rice which was ready to be harvested just as violence flared. His home was burned down by Myanmar military and ethnic Rakhine mobs. Most of his and his family's belongings were lost, including their land documents.

"Every year I reap 60,000 kilograms (66 metric tons) of rice from my fields. This year the rice yield was great, but sadly I couldn't harvest my crops," Nazibullah told ucanews.com.

"The military and Moghs (Rakhine Buddhists) attacked our village and I fled with my family," the farmer said. "I felt staying alive was more important than the crops."

Nazibullah said he is now penniless and struggling to feed his family.

In late October, Myanmar's government said it would harvest the rice from abandoned farms in Maungdaw, an estimated 8,000 hectares of land. The government's harvesting program will take three months to complete according to state-run The Global New Light of Myanmar.

The government has no plans to compensate farmers for taking the rice from abandoned paddies. It remains unclear what the government will do with the rice after storing it.

Nazibullah said he is upset by the government's plan of harvesting Rohingya farmland.

"The Rohingya rely on agriculture from birth to death and by snatching our land the Myanmar government is trying to permanently block our way of return to the country," he said.  

"Our homes have been burned and now our croplands are gone. Where should we live? What should we eat if we are taken back?" he asked.

He said that the plan proves the government's promise of a Rohingya repatriation program is a lie only aimed to stop international criticism.

"We have heard the government will put us in camps when we go back. Even if we were allowed to return, we should not live in camps because we have our home and property," said Nazibullah.

Government spokesperson, Zaw Htay said the agricultural department was harvesting paddy crops to prevent loss or damage.

"After harvesting paddy crops, the rice will be systematically transported to government stores," Zaw Htay told ucanews.com.

Asked whether Rohingya refugees who lost land documents can access their farmland, he said "yes." The owner of the farmland is on the records of local authorities so they can access it, he said.

The northern part of Rakhine has been emptied of most its Muslim inhabitants. The process began in late August when a crackdown against Rohingya militants by the Myanmar military became, as the U.N. described it, a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.

Hundreds of villages have been burned to the ground and more than 600,000 Rohingya have fled across the border to safety in neighboring Bangladesh.

Muhammad Faruk, 42, fled to Bangladesh from Buthidaung with his 17-member family including his wife, seven children, four siblings and elderly parents, at the end of September.

They now reside in two tents at Kutupalong refugee camp.

Back in Myanmar, the family owned seven hectares of farmland and every year they produced about 40 tons of rice.

"Besides rice, we used to cultivate various kinds of seasonal vegetables, which was enough for maintaining the family all the year round. Now, the Myanmar government is grabbing our property and land. This is a heinous injustice," Faruk told ucanews.com.

Faruk said there are several Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh camps who owned over 100 hectares of land. With the government takeover of their land, they will become penniless like him.

"At first we believed one day we would be able to go back to Myanmar but our hope is diminishing day by day. They have killed Rohingya like animals, raped our women and burned down our homes and blamed it all on militants," he said.

"From the beginning the Myanmar government has been telling lies and making false promises to bluff the international community about repatriation," he said. "Now, we seriously doubt their true intentions and whether we can really go back home again."

 

Those who remained

Sultan, a Rohingya who owns several hectares of rice fields in Maungdaw, said those who remained in the area can now work on their farms. The situation currently appears stable, Sultan said.

He said the government has started harvesting abandoned paddy crops in nearby Myo Thu Gyi village where there are no Rohingya left.

"It is up to the government whether the returnees can access their own land as most of the people fled from violence and they couldn't carry farmland documents," Sultan, a former schoolteacher, told ucanews.com.

Khin Mg, a Rohingya resident in Buthidaung, northern Rakhine, said he had heard about the government's plan of harvesting paddy crops but they are yet to start in his area.

He also has rice crops and has had no problem with harvesting them.

"But for those Rohingya whose farmland is near ethnic Rakhine villages it will be difficult for them to go and harvest their crops as they could face intimidation and threats," Khin Mg told ucanews.com.

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