Yangon - Myanmar plans to repatriate some 700 000 Muslim Rohingya who fled to Bangladesh to 11 "new villages," a senior official said on Thursday, bringing warnings from activists of further repression of the minority group.
Foreign Affairs Ministry Permanent Secretary Myint Thu told dpa said that a first group of 374 Rohingya refugees had been verified for repatriation and would return "within weeks," first to a transit camp and then a "new village with security" close to their original homes.
Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh have said they were violently driven from their villages in Myanmar's western state of Rakhine by national security forces in a campaign of killings, rape and arson that began in August last year.
Myanmar has said legitimate security operations were carried out to restore law and order following deadly Rohingya militant attacks on August 25.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, criticized Myanmar's repatriation plans.
"This model is totally unacceptable to both the Rohingya and the international community because it will lead to the kind of systematic repression of rights seen in the internally displaced persons camps west of Sittwe [Rakhine State capital], including restrictions on movement, livelihoods, and access to food, medicine and other basic services," he told dpa on Thursday.
Chris Lewa, of the Arakan Project, echoed these concerns: "If refugees do go back [to these new villages] they will be living in an internally displaced persons camp, like other areas of Rakhine State where they are restricted from leaving," she said.
The unanimous stance of Rohingya in Bangladesh camps, she told dpa by phone on Thursday, was that they would not return to Myanmar unless they were guaranteed freedom and equal rights with all Myanmar citizens."
On Monday, Amnesty International said hundreds of Rohingya villages in Rakhine were being bulldozed and developed with military infrastructure.
Rights groups and the UN have said Rohingya returns should be voluntary, safe and to their place of origin - not to fabricated villages or camps.
Myint Thu said Myanmar was ready to work with UN agencies on repatriations and that a proposal by UNHCR and UNDP was being assessed by the office of State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi.
The UN had delivered "a concept note to outline how conditions for the safe, dignified and voluntary return of refugees ... could be created with support from these agencies," a UN statement Wednesday said.
At the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on Monday, Myanmar refuted UN claims that government actions in Rakhine "bear the hallmarks of genocide."