Myanmar’s government on Friday rejected reports of a massacre and at least five mass graves in the country’s troubled Rakhine state, where the military has been accused of committing atrocities against ethnic Rohingya Muslims, saying an investigation had found no evidence to support the claims.
In a report published on Thursday, the Associated Press (AP) said it had confirmed the existence of more than five previously unreported mass graves in Buthidaung township’s Gu Dar Pyin village, in Rakhine state, through interviews of survivors in refugee camps in and time-stamped cellphone videos.
The report uncovered what AP called “systematic slaughter of Rohingya Muslim civilians by the military, with help from Buddhist neighbors,” with evidence suggesting “many more graves hold many more people” in the area.
On Friday, Zaw Htay, director-general of the office of Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, told RFA’s Myanmar Service that the Rakhine State government had been ordered to look into the claims and, after forming an investigation commission, found no evidence to support them.
“The commission—consisting of the Buthidaung township administrator, a police officer, a legal officer, a doctor and an immigration officer—went to Buthidaung and arrived at Gu Dar Pyin village at 1:00 p.m. today,” he said.
“They went to the five places AP mentioned and they found nothing. Village heads and villagers said there had been no incident like AP reported in their village. We [government officials] have asked them to conduct further searches around Gu Dar Pyin.”
Zaw Htay said the investigation commission had found no evidence that soldiers planned an Aug. 27 attack on the village and tried to hide what they had done, as AP reported, citing survivors who said troops had used shovels to dig pits and acid to burn away faces and hands so that bodies could not be recognized.
Instead, he said, it discovered a police file detailing an incident on Aug. 28 in which rebels from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) “came to the village, killed some people, and set houses on fire.”
“Security guards went to the area and fought with ARSA members. Nineteen ARSA members were killed and buried … Police filed the case as an anti-terrorist action.”
Friday’s response followed a pattern of Myanmar government officials repeatedly rejecting evidence and strongly denying allegations of atrocities against the Rohingyas in Rakhine state, and routinely blaming rebels from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) for much of the violence.
Call for evidence
Zaw Htay noted that the AP had based its report on information and mobile phone videos it obtained from more than two dozen Rohingya refugees who fled Rakhine state into neighboring Bangladesh, and said Myanmar’s government had no way of checking the veracity of their claims without investigators viewing the videos to determine whether they “were really taken in Gu Dar Pyin or not.”
“Many photos have come out claiming to have been taken in Rakhine, but were not—AP also showed a video of a fire in a village, and village heads said it was not Gu Dar Pyin,” he said.
“We don’t want to deny the cases by closing our eyes to the claims, but we need primary evidence [if they want to accuse us]. If we receive evidence, we will investigate on the ground. If we find the claims are true, we will take action according to law against the perpetrators.”
The Myanmar government's Information Committee, part of Aung San Suu Kyi’s office, also denied the AP report in a statement on its Facebook page Friday.
However, Reuters news agency spoke with two Rohingya residents it said were still in the village who disputed the government's statement and said that there were mass graves there. They said senior military officers visited the area on Friday, took photographs and held a meeting with the villagers.
They confirmed the existence of mass graves and said that after the meeting “a large group of military men stayed behind and the villagers are scared.”
Addressing calls from the U.S. State Department and the United Nations to allow an independent investigation into the claims, Zaw Htay said Myanmar’s government “plans to allow trusted and fair media” into the area, adding that only those groups that “are not biased” will be given access.
On Thursday, Kuwait's Ambassador to the U.N. Security Council Mansour al-Otaibi said Myanmar’s government told him February was “not the right time” for a visit by the top U.N. body to send a team to investigate the Rohingya refugee crisis in Rakhine state, although authorities were not opposed to such a visit, which could take place in March or April.
Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh recently turned over a list of almost 4,400 Rohingya killed in Rakhine state since October 2016 to U.N. envoy Yanghee Lee, who told reporters Thursday that violence against the Muslim minority bore “the hallmarks of a genocide.”
The data was collected by Rohingya leaders going door to door in refugee camps in southeastern Bangladesh, according to people who took part in the effort and who shared the list with BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
Some 775,000 fled into Bangladesh as a result of disproportionate military crackdowns carried out after Rohingya insurgent attacks in October 2016 and August 2017.
On Friday, Zaw Htay said that the biggest challenge in solving the Rakhine problem is that Bangladesh is not ready to send refugees back to Myanmar, despite an earlier pledge by the two nations to begin the repatriation process on Jan. 23.
“Bangladesh hasn’t officially informed Myanmar’s government that the process will be delayed,” he said.
“Many refugees want to return home voluntarily, but they are threatened by terrorists who are telling them not to return. This is a mutual danger for both Bangladesh and Myanmar—neither country can be allowed to fall into the terrorists’ trap.”
Myint Kyaing, the permanent secretary of Myanmar’s Immigration Ministry, confirmed that he had yet to receive any word on a delay from his counterparts in Bangladesh.
He said that Myanmar was ready to begin the process, and was prepared to receive around 1,100 refugees as part of the first group, but that “no documentation has been sent for us to check and accept them back.”
“We have already sent Bangladesh a list with the names and photos of refugees who [the government has determined] really lived in Rakhine state,” Myint Kyaing said.
“It appears Bangladesh is experiencing difficulties with the repatriation process.”
The Myanmar officials did not say why they believed many refugees want to return voluntarily. Most tell U.N. or media interviewers the opposite.
Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh have said they will only return to Rakhine under the protection of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and want assurances that returnees be taken to a safe zone under the auspices of the United Nations before going back to their home villages.
They have also demanded that the Myanmar authorities compensate them for destroying their houses and other property, and try members of the security forces they say have committed killings, rape, arson and other crimes against humanity.
Reported by Thin Thiri and Waiyan Moe Myint for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.