Myanmar's government began harvesting rice from farmland abandoned by Rohingya in northern Rakhine yesterday, officials said, a move likely to raise concerns about the prospect of return for more than half a million refugees who have fled communal violence in the area.
The border region has been emptied of most of its Muslim residents since late August, when Myanmar's military launched a crackdown on Rohingya rebels that the UN has described as "textbook" ethnic cleansing.
Hundreds of villages have been burned to the ground, with more than 600,000 Rohingyas fleeing across the border for sanctuary in Bangladesh.
Under intense global pressure, Myanmar has agreed to repatriate "scrutinised" refugees who can prove their residence in Rakhine.
But details of the plan remain sketchy, seeding concern about who will be allowed back, what they will return to and how they will live in a region where anti-Rohingya hatred remains sky-high, writes AFP.
Yesterday, the government began harvesting 71,000 acres of rice paddy in Maungdaw -- the Rohingya-majority area hit hardest by the violence -- according to state media and a local official.
"We started harvesting today in Myo Thu Gyi village tract," Thein Wai, the head of Maungdaw's Agricultural Department, told AFP.
"We are going to harvest some paddy fields of Bengalis who fled to Bangladesh," he said, using a pejorative term for the Rohingya commonly used by officials and the Buddhist public.
The official said he did not know what government would do with the rice or its proceeds.
Workers were bused in from other parts of the country to assist with the harvest, according to the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar.
Rights groups blasted the government's harvest as part of a systematic effort to expunge the Rohingya from Rakhine.
"Government officials leading the harvest are clearly more concerned about these fields of abandoned rice than they ever were about the Rohingya people who sowed it," said Human Rights Watch's Phil Robertson.
"This all reinforces a singular, local level Rakhine message to the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh that what's yours is now mine, and you're not welcome back."
Fortify Rights said the harvest was an "outrageous" move by authorities who have a long history of land grabs, particularly in ethnic minority frontiers.
Myanmar's civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi -- who has no control over the powerful army -- recently created a committee to oversee resettlement in Rakhine, where tens of thousands of other minority groups were also internally displaced by the violence.
The construction of homes for minorities such as the Mro has begun, according to state media, while Suu Kyi's government has enticed business tycoons to donate to the rebuilding effort.
But fear abounds that the rehabilitation will sideline the Rohingya -- a group that has suffered under decades of state-backed discrimination.
'STILL UNDER NEGOTIATION'
Also yesterday, the Global New Light of Myanmar corrected a report that a UN settlement programme, UN-Habitat, had agreed to help build housing for people fleeing violence in the west of the country, where an army operation has displaced hundreds of thousands.
The development underscores tension between Myanmar and the United Nations, which in April criticized the government's previous plan to resettle Rohingya Muslims displaced by last year's violence in “camp-like” villages.
The state-run newspaper said it had “incorrectly stated that UN-Habitat had agreed with the Union government to provide technical assistance in building housings for displaced people in northern Rakhine.”
“Union officials say that the issue is still under negotiation. The GNLM regrets the error,” said the newspaper.
In its report on Thursday, the daily said UN-Habitat had agreed to provide technical assistance in housing the displaced and the agency would work closely with the authorities to “implement the projects to be favourable to Myanmar's social culture and administrative system”.
But the UN told Reuters in an email that no agreements had been reached “so far” after the agency's representatives attended a series of meetings with Myanmar officials this week in its capital Naypyidaw.
Suu Kyi has pledged that anyone sheltering in Bangladesh who can prove they were Myanmar residents can return, but it remains unclear whether those refugees would be allowed to return to their homes.
Rohingya who return to Myanmar are unlikely to be able to reclaim their land, and may find their crops have been harvested and sold by the government, according to Myanmar officials and plans seen by Reuters.
Myanmar in August suggested that UN agencies such as the World Food Programme have provided food to Rohingya insurgents, adding to pressure on aid groups which had to suspend activities in Rakhine and pull out most of their staff.