Foreign diplomats in Myanmar and the heads of United Nations agencies visited areas of volatile northern Rakhine state recently hit by violence on Monday, despite warnings by the state’s police chief about further possible terrorist attacks in the area.
Three helicopters transported members of the group of diplomats, including those from the United States, the European Union, Malaysia, Israel, Denmark, France, Indonesia, and Pakistan, Thailand, and India. They were joined by Rakhine state and central government officials and ministers on a government-sponsored tour of areas of Maungdaw and Ratheduang townships, the nexus of recent strife.
They visited Khamaungsake, Nurular, and Shwe Zar villages, where violent attacks occurred during a military crackdown in the wake of deadly assaults by the militant Muslim group Arakan Rohingya Salvation army (ARSA) on police outposts and an army base on Aug. 25.
They also stopped at Pantaw Pyin Muslim village, where communities lived peacefully during the crisis, and met with members of ethnic Rakhine, Muslims, Mro, Hindu, Diangnet, and Kaman minority groups who were caught up in the violence in other areas.
The visit comes amid heightened international pressure on Myanmar to address accusations and evidence of deadly violence by the military against Rohingya Muslims in ravaged northern Rakhine state.
More than 500,000 Rohingya Muslims and thousands of ethnic Rakhine and Hindus have fled the area since Aug. 25 when the Myanmar military launched a devastating crackdown in the region following deadly attacks on 30 police outposts and an army facility by ARSA.
Rights groups, nongovernmental organizations, and the U.N. have accused the Myanmar military of committing crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing in northern Rakhine amid numerous reports by Rohingya of security forces indiscriminately killing civilians, burning villages, torturing people, and raping women during two crackdowns following the ARSA attacks.
The government maintains that there have been no armed clashes or security operations in the region since Sept. 5, and has accused Muslim militants of setting Rohingya villages ablaze and arresting and killing more than 50 ethnic Hindus living in local villages.
Four Hindu organizations have sought permission to take care of orphaned children and elderly victims of the violence in Maungdaw.
The Myanmar Hindu Central Organization Thanantapala will ask the government to grant permission to take the Hindu children to the commercial capital Yangon where they will be given shelter, said Kyaw Thu, the organization’s secretary.
“For the moment, we don’t know what kind of verification cards the Hindu children are holding,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “Since their parents were killed, they might not have their papers. We will be proposing that the government make allowances for that.”
Full investigation needed
The diplomats on the tour urged the Myanmar government to fully investigate allegations of human rights violations, allow unimpeded humanitarian access to northern Rakhine, let a U.N. fact-finding mission visit the area, and ensure the safe return of the Rohingya refugees, the online journal The Irrawaddy reported.
The Myanmar government has refused to grant entry visas to the members of a U.N. fact-finding mission appointed to investigate previous allegations of killings, rape, and torture by security forces against the Rohingya after October 2016 attacks by ARSA.
A statement issued by the U.N. office in Yangon expressed appreciation for the government-organized visit, in which three U.N. representatives took part.
“The scale of human suffering is unimaginable and the U.N. extends its deepest condolences to all those affected,” the statement said.
“The U.N. advocates for the end to the cycle of violence and for establishing law and order and the rule of law; to allow unfettered access for humanitarian support; and to ensure the safe, voluntary, dignified and sustainable return of the refugees to their areas of origin.”
It also urged Myanmar to allow the media and human rights advocates greater access to the area to assess “the concerns and needs of all communities in affected areas.”
The diplomats’ visit to Rakhine, which had been postponed last week because of heavy rain, took place as Rakhine State Police Chief Colonel Aung Myat Moe said security forces had received information about possible assaults by terrorists who may be plotting bomb and surprise attacks.
He said authorities have responded by increasing security measures in certain parts of Rakhine state.
“We have received news about possible terror attacks in ethnic villages in south and north of Maungdaw,” he said. “We have tightened security in those places with the No. 1 border police force along with the army. We have also beefed up security in state capital Sittwe.”
In a related development on Monday, Myanmar and Bangladesh agreed to set up a working group for the repatriation of the half-mission Rohingya from northern Rakhine who recently sought shelter across the border, Reuters reported, citing Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Abul Hassan Mahmud Ali.
Bangladesh, which has accused Myanmar of committing genocide against the Rohingya and called on it to resolve the refugee crisis, has struggled to accommodate the influx of new refugees in existing camps in the country’s southeast where another 400,000 Rohingya already live.
Win Myat Aye, Myanmar’s minister for social welfare, relief and resettlement, told the U.N.’s refugee agency in Geneva on Monday that the ministry’s “next immediate priority” was to return the refugees, Reuters reported.
He said the process could begin at any time for the Rohingya who want to go back to Myanmar and that the verification of refugees will be based on the terms of a 1993 agreement between Myanmar and Bangladesh.
Reported by Min Thein Aung and Wai Yan Moe Myint for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Kyaw Min Htun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.