Myanmar’s military commander-in-chief said on Thursday that security operations in volatile Rakhine state face challenges because of pressure from the international community for the country’s military to leave the region from which hundreds of thousands of minority Rohingya Muslims have fled in recent weeks.
Senior General Min Aung Hlaing made the comment while addressing a group of non-Muslims who have been displaced by violence in northern Rakhine and are staying at Alodawpyae Monastery in Maungdaw township. However, he did not describe what the challenges are.
The residents asked him to ignore international pressure and to not withdraw troops from the troubled area, which was rocked by deadly terrorist attacks on 30 police outposts and an army base on Aug. 25.
“We requested that the army chief continue to deploy military troops until a certain time, and he said he would do it for us after a discussion with other top leaders,” said Waihin Aung, a Sittwe resident who met with Min Aung Hlaing.
“He also said that the pressure from the international community on Myanmar to withdraw forces from Rakhine state and end security operations is a challenge [for the military],” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
A Muslim insurgent group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), carried out the armed attacks to which the military responded by unleashing a violent security crackdown in Rohingya villages. The operation has forced more than 420,000 Rohingya to flee to neighboring Bangladesh.
An earlier attack by ARSA in October 2016 also prompted a crackdown and clashes during which about 90,000 Rohingya Muslims fled their homes amid indiscriminate killings, torture, arson, and rape, reportedly by Myanmar security forces.
The United Nations has called the military’s actions in northern Rakhine “ethnic cleansing,” and several countries, including the United States, have called for an end to the violence there.
When the residents asked Min Aung Hlaing to replace an existing barbed-wire fence with a sturdier one along the border with Bangladesh, he said that the government has budgeted money for the project and will begin building a four-lane roadway along the border to increase security once the rainy season ends.
The road will connect Rakhine’s state capital Sittwe with Ponnagyun, Rathedaung, and Buthidaung townships, and construction will begin as soon as better weather arrives, he said.
During a speech on his plans for Rakhine state, Min Aung Hlaing also called on those displaced by the violence to return to their homes and rebuild their communities, though he did not mention the Rohingya who have fled the area, Reuters reported.
Rights groups and Rohingya who have fled to Bangladesh accuse the military and Buddhist mobs of burning down Rohingya villages and intentionally forcing them out of the country.
The government, however, argues that ARSA fighters have torched the dwellings and attacked civilians.
In an address to diplomats and U.N. agency staffers on Tuesday, Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi vowed to work to restore peace in northern Rakhine, but did not address atrocities allegedly committed by the military.
USDP rally in Naypyidaw
Meanwhile, leaders of Myanmar’s main opposition party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), said on Thursday at a rally focused on perceived national security threats in Rakhine that the country should not bow to pressure from abroad.
Former defense minister Lieutenant General Wai Lwin, who is a member of the USDP’s Central Executive Committee, told reporters at the event in the capital Naypyidaw that Myanmar should not give in to the pressure.
“If the government gives in to international pressure, it will be dangerous for our nation, our land, and our nationality,” he said.
He also urged the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party to support military and police officials who have been accused of committing atrocities during the most recent violence.
Wai Lwin and former foreign affairs minister and senior USDP official Wunna Maung Lwin, who also participated in the rally, allege that ARSA plans to set up an Islamic state in Rakhine, the online journal The Irrawaddy reported.
Wunna Maung Lwin said that issues concerning the citizenship of the 1.1 million Muslims who live in Rakhine could affect the country’s sovereignty and should be decided only under the existing 1982 Citizenship Law, which defines citizenship along ethnic lines, The Irrawaddy said.
USDP leaders were also critical of the recommendations issued in August by the government-appointed Advisory Commission on Rakhine State led by former U.N. chief Kofi Annan, which called for amending the law.
Earlier this month, the government formed a committee led by Win Myat Aye, head of the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement, to implement the commission’s recommendations.
The USDP suffered a profound loss to the NLD in general elections in 2015.
The party has criticized the current government for what it called its lack of support for the military’s operations in northern Rakhine and for failing to call a meeting of the National Defense and Security Council, an executive body in which the military controls the majority of seats and which can declare a nationwide state of emergency, The Irrawaddy said.
Myanmar considers the Rohingya illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and has denied them citizenship and access to basic services such as health care and education.
About 120,000 Rohingya are confined to internally displaced persons camps where they have lived since communal violence between Muslims and Buddhists in 2012 left more than 200 people dead and displaced tens of thousands of others.
Reported by Wai Mar Tun and Win Ko Ko Latt for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.