The hundreds of thousands of Muslim Rohingya who have fled Myanmar’s Rakhine state amid armed clashes between Muslim insurgents and government soldiers are a people not indigenous to Myanmar, the country’s military chief said on Wednesday.
The people now called Rohingya were brought into Rakhine as laborers in the 1800s when the region was administered by Britain, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing told U.S. ambassador Scot Alan Marciel at a meeting in Myanmar’s commercial capital Yangon.
“The Bengalis were not taken into the country by Myanmar, but by the colonialists,” Min Aung Hlaing said, referring to the Rohingya as Bengalis, a term considered derogatory by the ethnic group.
“They are not natives,” he said.
And the records prove that they were not even called Rahingya, but just Bengalis during the colonial period.”
News reports have meanwhile greatly exaggerated the numbers of Rohingya who have fled the country as refugees into Bangladesh, Min Aung Hlaing said, citing “instigation and propaganda” by media outlets seeking to “hide the truth."
“The native place of Bengalis is Bengal. Therefore, they may have fled to the other country with the same language, race and culture as theirs by assuming they would be safer there.”
Myanmar considers the Rohingya illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and has denied them citizenship, though many have lived in the country for generations. They have also been denied access to basic services such as education and health care.
More than half a million Rohingya refugees have crossed the border into Bangladesh following Aug. 25 attacks on 30 Myanmar border police posts by an armed Muslim insurgent group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).
The attacks provoked a massive military response, with rights groups and the U.N. now accusing the Myanmar military of crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing amid numerous reports of security forces indiscriminately killing civilians, burning villages, torturing people, and raping girls and women.
The Myanmar government has denied the allegations and blames Muslim militants for the killings of civilians and village torchings.
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Written in English by Richard Finney.