Myanmar authorities have lured dozens of mainly Buddhist but with some Christians, Bangladeshi tribal families to cross the border and resettle on land abandoned by fleeing Muslim-majority Rohingya, officials said Monday.
About 50 families from remote hill and forest areas on the Bangladesh side, attracted by offers of free land and food, have moved to Rakhine State in mainly Buddhist Myanmar - the scene of a brutal army crackdown which prompted hundreds of thousands of Rohingya to flee.
A series of projects, either government and army-sponsored or privately funded, are transforming the area, which the military sees as the frontline of its fight against Islam in Myanmar.
Observers say Myanmar authorities are carrying out methodical social engineering schemes in northern Rakhine State in the absence of many of the Rohingya.
Marma and Mro
The families from the ethnic Marma and Mro tribes have left their homes in the Bandarban hill district, local councillor Muing Swi Thwee told AFP news agency.
He said 22 families departed from their villages in the Sangu forest reserve last month.
The families, mainly Buddhist but with some Christians, were being "lured by Myanmar" to Rakhine where they were given free land, citizenship and free food for five years, Muing Swi Thwee said.
"They are going there to fill up the land vacated by the Rohingya who have left Burma (Myanmar). They are extremely poor."
Two Bangladeshi officials in the region confirmed the migration, saying up to 55 tribal families had left for Myanmar.
"They are being lured by some people in Myanmar in return for free homes, free food for five-seven years. Some families have shifted there after being attracted by these offers," Jahangir Alam, a government district administrator, told AFP news agency.
He said some of the tribal groups have family in Rakhine and these relatives are being used to woo the Bangladeshi tribals.
"These people have religious and linguistic similarities with Myanmar. Some of their ancestors have settled there in the past," he said.
Nearly 700,000 Rohingya have fled Rakhine State for camps in mainly Muslim Bangladesh since Myanmar last August launched a crackdown which US and UN officials have described as "ethnic cleansing".
An agreement to repatriate Rohingya has yet to see a single refugee returned. Rohingya leaders have said the refugees will not return unless they are allowed back to their villages, many of which have been burned down by security forces, rather than to supposedly temporary resettlement camps.
A Bangladeshi security officer told AFP that Myanmar had resettled thousands of Buddhists in Rakhine State by using a settlement scheme which offers free food, homes, cows and cash.
Muing Swi Thwee said more than 100 tribal families had left his area for Myanmar in the past three years.
Al Kaiser, another government official, said a tribal man was killed and several family members were injured in a mine blast when they were crossing into Myanmar from the town of Ali Kadam.
Officials said they suspect political motives behind the migration.
"We think perhaps they (Myanmar) want to make some news using these people, that Buddhists are being tortured and repressed in Bangladesh and that's why they have left the country," said one official on condition of anonymity.
Members of Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) command to the Rohingya people not to cross the canal, who take shelter in No Man’s Land between Bangladesh-Myanmar border, in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh [Reuters]