3 years after exodus, Myanmar erases names of Rohingya villages, UN map makers follow suit

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Intl desk, Sept 11: Three years ago, Myanmar’s military burned the Rohingya village of Kan Kya to the ground and bulldozed over its remains. Last year, the government erased its name from official maps, according to the United Nations.

Mohammed Rofiq, a Rohingya refugee, reads Islamic scripture in his home in Kutupalong refugee camp, in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, August 8, 2020. Picture taken on August 8, 2020. REUTERS/Stringer

About 3 miles (5 km) from the Naf River that marks the border between Myanmar’s Rakhine state and Bangladesh, Kan Kya was home to hundreds of people before the army chased 730,000 Rohingya out of the country in 2017 in what the United Nations described as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

The Myanmar military, now facing charges of genocide, said it was conducting “clearance operations” targeting militants, Reuters reported.

Where Kan Kya once stood, there are now dozens of government and military buildings including a sprawling, fenced off police base, according to satellite images publicly available on Google Earth and historical images provided to Reuters by Planet Labs. The village, in a remote region in the northwest of the country closed off to foreigners, was too small to be named on Google Maps.

On maps produced in 2020 by the United Nations mapping unit in Myanmar, which it says are based on Myanmar government maps, the site of the destroyed village is now nameless and reclassified as part of nearby town Maungdaw. The unit makes maps for the use of U.N. bodies, such as refugee agency UNHCR, and humanitarian groups that work with the United Nations in the field.

Kan Kya was one of almost 400 villages destroyed by the Myanmar military in 2017, according to satellite images analysed by New York-based Human Rights Watch. And it is one of at least a dozen whose names have been erased.

“Their intention is that we do not return,” said religious leader Mohammed Rofiq, a former chairman of a village close to Kan Kya who now lives in a refugee camp in Bangladesh, referring to the Myanmar government.

The Ministry of Social Welfare, which oversees Myanmar’s rebuilding activities in Rakhine state, declined to answer questions from Reuters about the erasure of village names or the government’s policy concerning the return of Rohingya refugees. The ministry referred questions to the General Administration Department (GAD), which did not respond.

A representative of the Myanmar government, led by state counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, also did not respond to a request for comment.

The United Nations’ map department has produced at least three maps since the start of the year that show a number of Rohingya village names have disappeared or been reclassified by Myanmar.

The United Nations said it removed some maps of Rakhine state from its website in June and started a study to assess the impact of the government’s policies on villagers and returning refugees after the Arakan Rohingya National Organisation, a UK-based Rohingya rights group, complained to the United Nations about the removal of village names. The United Nations said the study has not reached any conclusion.

Yanghee Lee, a former U.N. human rights envoy to Myanmar, said the government was purposefully making it hard for refugees to return to places with no name and no evidence that they ever lived there. “This is a way of exterminating their basic identity,” she said.

Lee said the United Nations was complicit in allowing that to happen by not challenging the Myanmar government: “There hasn’t been any leadership that will say, ‘Wait a minute, the buck stops here, we’re not going to let this continue.’”

Several U.N. officials interviewed by Reuters declined to directly address why the United Nations had raised no objections or tried to stop it.

Ola Almgren, head of the U.N. mission to Myanmar, said he had not raised the issue of erasing village names with the Myanmar government, but said he had urged the Myanmar government to create “conditions conducive” to the return of refugees.

Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for the U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, said the reclassification of some villages as wards was a “routine administrative procedure.” The U.N. mapping unit “utilizes the official government names of places so as to avoid confusion among aid workers and government officials in the field,” he said. “The standing U.N. practice worldwide is to employ officially designated place names for all publicly distributed maps and products.”

Dujarric said that changing the legal status of villages may become “an additional layer of complexity” in refugees reclaiming their former homes, without providing specifics.

BUILDING QUICKLY

Buddhist-majority Myanmar denies citizenship to Muslim Rohingya, whom many regard as interlopers from neighbouring Bangladesh despite their centuries-long presence in the country. Myanmar has said it is open to the return of Rohingya refugees who fled the crackdown in 2017, but said it must be done through an orderly process.

Talks on that process between Myanmar and Bangladesh – where more than 1 million Rohingya live in refugee camps – have stalled. In recent months, the few dozen refugees who have tried to return have been arrested for illegal entry by Myanmar officials who cited concerns about refugees spreading the new coronavirus.

Satellite images taken by Planet Labs, a San Francisco-based private satellite operator founded by former NASA scientists, and Google Earth show that Myanmar started building on the sites of at least a dozen destroyed villages soon after residents fled in 2017. Myanmar is constructing bases for the security forces, buildings for government departments and homes for Buddhists, according to people in the area.

The satellite images show the base built on the site of Kan Kya doubled in size in the past year and two helipads were added. A new road has been built over the site of another razed village nearby called Gone Nar, which has also been reclassified as part of the expanded Maungdaw town.

A spokesman for the military did not respond to a request for comment on the building of security bases on the sites of destroyed Rohingya villages. Local officials could not be reached for comment.

In September 2019, an order by the GAD, part of the military-run Home Affairs Ministry, reclassified 16 villages, most of them formerly Rohingya, as wards of Maungdaw, according to the U.N. mapping unit in Myanmar. Six of the village names were retained in the names of the new wards they were reclassified as belonging to, but 10 village names disappeared from the maps, according to the United Nations.

Five of these villages were destroyed in 2017. GAD figures show Rohingya, which it classifies as “foreigners” from Bangladesh, now account for about 60% of the Maungdaw population, compared with 93% in 2017, before the crackdown.

Hundreds of other destroyed villages have not had their names changed or erased, according to U.N. maps.

WALLS AND WATCHTOWERS

The United Nations said 11 other villages had been reclassified over the last five years as wards of a new town named Myin Hlut, where one Myanmar government minister has proposed a beach and seafood tourist area.