While Myanmar’s central government remains largely silent and the country’s powerful military maintains a blockade on the Maungdaw conflict zone in Rakhine state, a state lawmaker said on Monday that satellite imagery of burned villages and accounts of rape and looting by soldiers carried by international media or human rights groups were “wrong.”
International media and aid organizations have issued reports based on local villagers’ accounts of security forces arbitrarily arresting residents, killing unarmed civilians, burning down homes, and raping women in Maungdaw in the aftermath of an Oct. 9 attack that killed nine guards on Myanmar’s border with Bangladesh.
The government has denied the reports, which emerged from an information blackout as the army has restricted journalists, aid workers, and human rights monitors from accessing Maungdaw, a majority-Muslim area in a state that has experienced bloody sectarian clashes in recent years pitting majority Buddhists against Rohingya, a mostly stateless group of Muslims.
Rakhine state lawmaker Aung Win, leader of a committee set up to investigate the Maungdaw attacks, told RFA’s Myanmar Service that outsiders were getting the story wrong because they hadn’t visited the area at the center of the conflict.
“I want to say that most of the information in the reports about the Maungdaw situation by international media and organizations is wrong,” Aung Win said.
“They should write something only after observing the actual situation on the ground. They are only talking about human rights, but they also should know Myanmar’s laws,” he added. He did not specify which laws he believed the outsiders were unaware of.
Aung Win heads an investigative commission set up by the Rakhine state parliament on Oct. 24, which is comprised of 11 regional legislators from different political parties and tasked with investigating the deadly attack on Oct. 9. Members of the group visited villages in Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships near the Bangladesh border.
“What we saw during our visit was mostly women, older people, and children who had fled from their places out of fear, while the men stayed at their homes because their rice paddies are in the villages,” he said. “We also saw some Muslim villages with no one there.”
'Like military strongholds'
After visiting Aung Zayya village in Maungdaw, the committee came to the conclusion that almost all villagers had been involved in the attack, and that some had set fires that burned down their own homes, Aung Min said.
The committee also concluded that residents of nearby Watpate village were also involved in the attack, and afterwards moved out of the area with weapons they had stolen from the border guard posts, he said.
“All Bengali villages are like military strongholds,” Aung Win said, using a derogatory term for Rohingya that is used by Myanmar’s Buddhists, who view the Muslims as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
“When we arrived in those villages, we saw no kitchen items such as pots or plates,” Aung Min said. “This shows they had plans.”
The lawmaker’s assertions could not be independently verified amid tight military restrictions on access to the Maungdaw area that in addition to keeping news from getting out have prompted warnings that not enough food and medical aid is getting in to displaced people.
In the wake of the attacks, Myanmar army soldiers and border guards locked down parts of Maungdaw to search for others involved in planning and carrying out the incident. Myanmar government officials have blamed a Rohingya group, which received training and funding from Islamists outside the country, for the Oct. 9 attack and subsequent violence.
The Reuters news agency last week quoted eight Rohingya women as saying they had been raped by soldiers. The allegations were denied by Myanmar Presidential spokesman Zaw Htay, and the agency reported on Monday that security forces warned women in one village about talking to the media.
Satellite imagery as evidence
On Monday, Human Rights Watch issued satellite imagery recorded on Oct. 22 that presents evidence of fire-related destruction in at least three Maungdaw villages. The group also reviewed thermal anomaly data gathered by an environmental satellite sensor that detected the presence of multiple burning fires in two of the same villages on Oct. 14.
“The discovery of active fires and large burn scars in these villages is consistent with arson attacks reported in Maungdaw district since Oct. 9 by Rohingya groups, human rights organizations, and media accounts quoting witnesses to the violence,” New York-based HRW said in a news release.
“These satellite images of village destruction could be the tip of the iceberg given the grave abuses being reported,” said Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy Asia director. “The Burmese government has a responsibility to hold accountable both the perpetrators of the Oct. 9 attacks against state officials, and government security forces who committed—and may still be committing—serious abuses in pursuit of those attackers.”
Despite this, the current situation in areas from which residents fled during the attacks is now more stable, though the border fence separating Myanmar from neighboring Bangladesh is not strong enough to prevent people from cutting through the wire and illegally entering Myanmar, Aung Min said.
To prevent other attacks from occurring in the future, authorities must consider building a brick wall along the border, constructing more ethnic villages in the area and creating jobs for those who live there, forming village militias to protect residents, and increasing the number of border guards and outfitting them with an adequate supply of weapons, he said.
On Oct. 28, HRW called on the Myanmar government to invite the United Nations to participate in an impartial investigation of the attacks and allegations of human rights abuses.
A delegation of U.N. aid agencies and foreign diplomats were expected to visit the area on Monday, according to the rights group. It was not clear if the visit took place as scheduled.
Reported by Min Thein Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.