NEAR COX'S BAZAR, BANGLADESH
ON the other side of the green-gray waters of the Naaf River lie the low, lush hills of Burma, now officially called Myanmar. On the Bangladeshi side, the road is teeming with some of the 210,000 people who have walked out of the hills, boarded boats, and crossed the river since late last year.
Parts of the road are lined with what one relief worker calls "the simplest hovel a man can make," a low bamboo frame, with the branches of a leafy bush for walls and a plastic sheet overhead. The government has placed the refugees, mostly Muslims from the Rohingya ethnic group of Burma's Arakan Province, in a dozen camps along the road leading from the town of Teknaf. Almost half are still without shelter. (Aid efforts, Page 6.)
Burmese Foreign Minister Ohn Gyaw arrives in Bangladesh today to discuss what will happen to the Rohingyas. The Rohingya issue has increased tensions between the two countries - there have been reports of temporary military buildups on both borders - and underscored the lack of regional coordination among Southeast Asian countries in confronting the excesses of the Burmese regime.
"The Burmese have said they are willing to accept all refugees back, provided they can furnish some evidence of residence in Myanmar," says Additional Foreign Secretary A. H. Mahmood Ali, although he adds that no firm agreement is in place.
But despite the diplomatic progress, the human situation remains precarious:
r Relief workers say they are racing against time to house the 94,000 Burmese who lack shelter because the onset of the rainy season is imminent. Almost exactly a year ago, a devastating cyclone struck Bangladesh near where the refugee camps are located.
r Resentment among Bangladeshis who live and farm around the camps appears to be rising. In a country where more than half the population is landless, the use of 670 hectares (268 acres) of government land to house refugees has caused frustration.
r An agreement by Burmese officials to accept a repatriation plan may not satisfy the refugees. Many of those now in the camps fled Burma in 1978 and then returned under a repatriation program - only to flee their country again 14 years later. And many say that documents proving their Burmese residence were confiscated by Burmese soldiers.
Information about what goes on in military-controlled Burma is almost impossible to obtain, so it is difficult to ascertain what has prompted the exodus. Foreign journalists are denied entry.
The refugees say Burmese soldiers have conscripted Rohingyas to work on military projects, forced them off their land, and raped, beaten, and killed them indiscriminately. Forty percent of women refugees between the ages of 15 and 35 say they have been raped by Burmese soldiers, according to a relief worker familiar with a forthcoming report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) about the refugees' claims of human-rights abuses.
One senior Bangladeshi official in Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital, calls the process "Burmanization."
But Burmese officials deny the allegations of persecution and the claim that the ruling junta is trying to purify the country by ridding it of minority groups.
Burmese officials say the Rohingyas are onetime migrants from Bangladesh who should return to the land of their forefathers. Rohingyas descend from an ethnic stock different from that of the dominant Burman group, and their practice of Islam distinguishes them from most Burmese, who are Buddhist.
Abol Hussain, a Rohingya Muslim now living at a camp called Dechuapalong II, says Burmese soldiers told him: "This is not your place. It is a Burmese place. Get out of this place."
From a plastic bag Mr. Hussain produces identity cards issued to him and his family when they were repatriated to Burma after the last Rohingya exodus in 1978. He also pulls out a shirt with dark splotches. He says it is his blood, and that he was beaten on the head by soldiers.
Noorjahan Begum, a young woman with glassy, watery eyes, says she was raped by Burmese soldiers in the Buthidaung district of Burma in January, and fled the country a few days later. She says she is pregnant as a result.
When asked why the military has done these things, the refugees say they do not know, or that there was "no cause."
But they answer in the affirmative if asked whether they have been persecuted for religious reasons. Relief workers and government officials, however, point out that a few Hindus and Buddhists from Arakan Province have also fled.
Right now relief workers are more concerned with the logistics of housing than with the source of refugees' flight.
"Rainy season is coming. Cyclone is coming.... The tin tops of the houses will fly in the sky," says Mahmoun, a paramedic with a private Bangladeshi development agency.
Some of the development agencies operating in the area want to introduce employment programs in the camps, where there is not much to do but stay out of the sun or stand in long lines for rations and health care.
But K. Shahidul Islam, the government's relief coordinator at Cox's Bazar, says he only wants to start such efforts as a "total package" that will help local residents as well.
As it is, people in the area say the refugees have brought problems and price increases; there have also been reports of violence between Rohingyas and Bangladeshis.
In spite of these tensions and the grim conditions in the camps, it is unclear whether the refugees would agree to return under a repatriation plan. The relief worker familiar with the UNHCR's forthcoming report says the majority would refuse to go back.
Mr. Hussain says he will return only if "Arakan can be a Muslim place." Others talk about guarantees from the Burmese government that they will be allowed to practice their religion freely - and still others about an independent Arakan state.
Regardless of conditions the refugees might seek for their return, Bangladeshi officials seem intent on sending them home. "I don't think the government has any capability to keep any people here," Mr. Islam says.