UPDATED at 11:42 A.M. on 2018-02-27
International pressure on Myanmar over the Rohingya crisis continued to mount on Monday with the European Union demanding restrictive sanctions against military generals responsible for brutality against the Muslim minority group, as de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other top officials tried to shift attention to development.
EU foreign affairs ministers in Brussels condemned “ongoing, widespread, systematic grave human rights violations” by the Myanmar army and security forces in violence-ridden northern Rakhine state during a crackdown targeting Rohingya Muslims, which began in late August.
The brutal campaign which included killings, torture, rape, and arson has forced nearly 700,000 Rohingya to flee to neighboring Bangladesh in what the United Nations and United States have called ethnic cleansing.
Saying that the situation “remains extremely serious,” the EU tasked its foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini with making proposals to impose targeted sanctions against senior military officers responsible for the atrocities and to extend the bloc’s existing embargo on arms and equipment that can be used for internal repression.
The EU also demanded that Myanmar create conditions for the voluntary, safe, and dignified return of the Rohingya and permit independent bodies to investigate reports of atrocities.
The U.S. and Canada have already imposed sanctions on Myanmar military officers, including Major General Maung Maung Soe, head of the Myanmar Army’s Western Command, who led the military’s brutal crackdown on the Rohingya.
Myanmar and Bangladesh are set to begin repatriating refugees who want to return to northern Rakhine, though the U.N. and rights groups have warned that the Rohingya will continue to face systematic discrimination in the predominantly Buddhist country.
Meanwhile, an eight-member Myanmar delegation was banned from attending an international genocide conference in Berlin on Monday to discuss the plight of the Rohingya and to push European leaders to do more to help them, the online journal The Irrawaddy reported.
The representatives received notice on Friday that their registrations for the conference had been cancelled, with organizers claiming they could not offer them seats because the event was overbooked, the report said.
Scolding by Nobel laureates
The moves came as Aung San Suu Kyi and other top Myanmar officials addressed representatives from more than 80 countries at a round-table discussion in Naypyidaw on the country's sustainable development.
Aung San Suu Kyi urged her government ministers to work harder on the issue and asked Myanmar's development partners to work with policymakers and other stakeholders.
“Our country is facing a plethora of daunting challenges," she was quoted as saying by the Global New Light of Myanmar in her capacity as chairperson of Myanmar's Development Assistance Coordination Unit. "The more daunting these challenges are, the greater the need for us to explore diverse ways of surmounting them, and we look to our friends across the world to join us in our ventures and adventures.”
“The support of the international community can play an important and encouraging role, inspiring reformers to press on when obstacles loom large, and invigorating our institutions, some of which had ossified over a number of decades,” she told conference attendees.
Though Aung San Suu Kyi is spearheading a key peace initiative to end decades of civil wars in Myanmar so the country can move ahead with political dialogue and economic development, the country has been thrown off course by continued hostilities between the Myanmar army and various ethnic militias and by the crisis in Rakhine state.
On Sunday, three fellow Nobel Peace laureates — Shirin Ebadi from Iran, Tawakkol Karman from Yemen, and Mairead Maguire from the UK — expressed anger at Aung San Suu Kyi for failing to stop the military’s violence against the Rohingya.
“We, the Nobel laureates, call for these criminals to be prosecuted in the international criminal court,” Karman was quoted as saying by the Dhaka Tribune, when the three were in Bangladesh visiting Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar district. “We don’t [want] our sister laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to be one of them. But in the future, if she continues her silence, she will be one of them.”
Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the Noel Peace Prize in 1991 when she was under house arrest in Myanmar, has drawn scorn from critics who want the award revoked over her handling of the Rohingya crisis which continues to fester with refugees still heading across the border.
On Friday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report with new satellite images showing the Myanmar government's demolition of dozens of deserted Rohingya Muslim villages in northern Rakhine state in recent months, though officials contend the demolition is part of reconstruction work in the region.
Aung Tun Thet, chairman of Myanmar’s Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement and Development (UEHRD), which is overseeing the provision of humanitarian aid and coordinating resettlement and rehabilitation efforts in Rakhine state, told Reuters on Monday that villages were being bulldozed to make way for the resettlement of refugees near their former homes.
“There’s no desire to get rid of the so-called evidence,” he was quoted as saying, responding to HRW’s allegations of the destruction of evidence of crimes committed against the Rohingya. "What we have intended [is] to ensure that the buildings for the people that return can be easily built."
Bomb explosion suspects
Ethnic tensions continued to play out in other parts of the state over the weekend, with three bombs exploding at separate locations in Rakhine’s capital Sittwe, injuring a police officer.
One bomb was detonated at a state government official’s home, while the two others exploded in front of an office in the city and on a road leading to a beach, AFP reported.
Sittwe police on Sunday and Monday nabbed four suspects in connection with the blast and searched their homes, their family members told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
Among those apprehended are Naing Soe, a member of the central executive committee of the Arakan National Council, a political platform for ethnic Rakhine Buddhists who live in the state.
Naing Soe, who lives in Apaukwa village in Kyauttaw township and suffers from a liver ailment, was arrested while he was going to see a doctor in Sittwe.
His sister, Chit Ei Hlaing, said an officer from a police station told them that the four will be held in custody until March 12 while they are being investigated.
Muslim militants and the Arakan Army (AA), an ethnic Rakhine armed group that is engaged in hostilities with the Myanmar military, have both conducted armed attacks on security forces and military personnel in the region.
Animosity between ethnic Rakhines and officials exploded in January when police opened fire on a crowd of protesters demonstrating against a government ban on a Buddhist anniversary in the ancient town of Mrauk U, killing seven people and injuring 13 others.
About two weeks later, a former Mrauk U town administrator who had been transferred to another post in Sittwe amid public condemnation of local government officials after the crackdown, was found dead in a car with multiple stab wounds to his chest.
Police detained four suspects, including the former administrator of Mrauk U’s Tein Nyo village, his wife, son, and daughter-in-law.
The AA denied involvement with the killing.
Wirathu’s sermon ban
Communal violence between ethnic Rakhines and Muslims in 2012 in Sittwe left more than 200 people dead, and displaced more than 120,000 Rohingya who were sent to displacement camps outside the city.
Protests and hate speech directed against Muslims compelled Buddhist authorities in Myanmar to ban the hard-line monk network the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, better known as Ma Ba Tha, last May.
Ma Ba Tha had thrown its full support behind four controversial race and religion laws, passed in 2015, which restricted religious conversions, polygamy, interfaith marriages, and childbirth.
But amid a backlash, religious authorities in the central Myanmar town of Mandalay a year ago prohibited firebrand monk Wirathu, who was associated with Ma Ba Tha, from giving sermons because of his repeated hate speech and anti-Muslim rhetoric.
As the one-year ban on Wirathu delivering sermons across the country approaches its end on March 10, the Myanmar Journalist Network (MJN) in Yangon had planned to hold a press conference to pressure the government to take action against the monk.
Though the press conference was canceled, the landlord forced the MJN to move out of the premises in Kyauktada township though its year-long lease does not expire until the end of the year, said MJN spokesman Kaung Htet San.
The landlord made the decision after 20 Buddhist nationalists, including some monks, stormed the premises on Sunday, he said.
“The owner contacted us yesterday,” he said. “He seemed to dislike having unrest at the office. He asked us to move out although the contract is valid until the end of the year.”
Kaung Htet San said the MJN is still negotiating with the landlord to remain in the building, though the landlord has offered to pay back rental fees for the remaining months.
Reported by Min Thein Aung, Khin Khin Ei, and Zarni Htun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.