Myanmar’s military chief on Monday called Rohingya Muslims illegal immigrants and defended a recent crackdown on the minority group in the northern part of Rakhine state that led to the deaths of an estimated 1,000 people and the exodus of more than 77,000 Rohingya.
The four-month security clearance operation began last October following deadly attacks on border guard stations that were later blamed on Rohingya militants. Rohingya who escaped to neighboring Bangladesh have accused security forces of indiscriminate killings, arson, torture, and rape.
“We have already let the world know that we don’t have Rohingya in our country,” said Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of the country’s defense forces, according to Reuters.
“The Bengalis in Rakhine state are not Myanmar citizens and they are just people who come and stay in the country,” he said, using a derogatory term for the Rohingya and repeating a view that, although not fact-based, is widely shared in his country.
“We have a duty to do what we should do, according to law, and we also have a duty to protect our sovereignty when it is harmed by political, religious and racial problems in the country,” he told a crowd that had gathered in the capital Naypyidaw to celebrate Armed Forces Day.
Rights groups and the international community have criticized Myanmar for denying citizenship and access to basic services to the more than 1.1 million Rohingya who live in Rakhine state because they are considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Colonial records from Britain, which once ruled Myanmar, show Rohingya living in the region for hundreds of years.
Communal violence with ethnic Rakhine Buddhists in 2012 left more than 200 people dead and displaced about 140,000 Rohingya who were forced to live in appalling conditions in internally displaced persons camps.
Six-point principles for peace
Min Aung Hlaing’s speech comes just three days after the United Nations Human Rights Council agreed to send an international fact-finding mission to investigate human rights violations in the Southeast Asian nation, and in particular in northern Rakhine state.
Myanmar has said it will not cooperate with the U.N. mission.
It also comes as the Myanmar government under de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi is trying to end decades of civil war between various ethnic armed groups and the military and forge peace in the fragmented country.
The government had planned to hold the second round of its peace negotiations, known as the 21st-century Panglong Conference, this month. The timetable for the talks has been postponed several times since the meetings began last year.
During his speech in Naypyidaw, Min Aung Hlaing said Myanmar’s armed forces will continue to follow the government’s lead in its efforts to forge nationwide peace, while maintaining its six-point principles for peace. The policy requires all ethnic militias that have signed a nationwide cease-fire agreement (NCA) with the government to abide by Myanmar’s military-drafted 2008 constitution.
The constitution, which was enacted when a military junta ruled the country, guarantees that military officers receive a quarter of the seats in parliament and gives the commander-in-chief control over appointees in the defense, home affairs, and border affairs ministries.
Reported by Kyaw Thu for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.