Myanmar’s foreign affairs ministry said on Thursday the government will conduct an investigation of the crisis in Rakhine state following accusations by the United Nations that security forces committed serious human rights abuses against Rohingya Muslims who live there.
Based on interviews with more than 200 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, the U.N. report issued on Feb. 3 said the military’s actions “very likely amounted to ethnic cleansing,” though Myanmar's government and military have largely dismissed allegations of abuse against the Muslim minority.
“We’ll have to find out how truthful the allegations are,” the ministry’s director-general Aye Aye Soe told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
A national-level commission led by Vice President Myint Swe has been investigating reports of murder, torture, arson, and rape in northern Rakhine state since December.
But in an interim report issued in January, the commission said it had found no cases of genocide or religious persecution of Rohingya Muslims living in the region in the wake of deadly border guard attacks and a subsequent security lockdown.
It also said its interviews of local villagers and women about the rape allegations yielded insufficient evidence to take legal action, and that its investigations into accusations of arson, torture, and illegal arrests were ongoing.
“The Rakhine state commission which is carrying out the investigations hasn’t even released its [final] report yet,” Aye Aye Soe said. “How can we comment on these allegations?”
“We would have to find out the truth first before doing anything,” she said about other allegations of atrocities put forward by some of the 69,000 Rohingya who have fled northern Rakhine and sought refuge mainly in Bangladesh.
The commission is an independent body and does not take orders from any government ministry, she said, adding that it will welcome any proof to substantiate the allegations.
She added that the government “took action immediately” against three police officers who were shown abusing Rohingya civilians in a village in Maungdaw township during a security sweep in early November 2016.
In a rare instance of action taken against officers, those involved have been sentenced to two months in prison for the abuse captured in a video that has circulated on social media.
Military creates inquiry board
Myanmar’s military has formed an inquiry board comprising five senior officers led by Lt. Gen. Gen Aye Win, inspector-general of the armed forces, to investigate the allegations in the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights report.
The Office of the Commander-in-Chief said in a statement issued on Thursday that the board will try to determine whether soldiers used excessive force and committed human rights violations in Maungdaw.
The Myanmar government on Wednesday refuted a news report that more than 1,000 Rohingya Muslims had been killed during the military crackdown in Maungdaw.
Presidential spokesman Zay Htay told RFA’s Myanmar Service that a Reuters report quoting two U.N. officials about the number of dead from security operations since early October attacks on border guards was incorrect.
Myanmar’s military indicated that the number of deaths did not exceed 100, he said, adding that he could not say anything about the discrepancy between the government and U.N. figures until he has received a full report from the ground.
Malaysian ‘food flotilla’ arrives
Meanwhile, Buddhist nationalist protestors greeted a Malaysian ship carrying about 2,200 tons of humanitarian aid, including rice, instant noodles, bottled water, hygiene kits, and clothing, for the Rohingya who fled to safety, when it arrived in the commercial capital Yangon on Thursday.
The country’s majority-Buddhist populace views the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and denies that they constitute a legitimate Myanmar ethnic group.
“These ships arrived in Yangon under the pretext of helping refugees,” said Buddhist monk Ven Thuseitta from the Yangon chapter of the Patriotic Myanmar Monks Union.
“We can accept sincere help for refugees, but not this being exploited politically with the use of the word ‘Rohingya,’" he said. "We have never had Rohingya in our country, and we don’t want to hear that they want to help this nonexistent group.”
Win Ko Ko Latt of the Yangon Region Nationalist Alliance said the protesters reject the humanitarian mission because it was organized under pressure by foreign organizations and the foreign ministers of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, an intergovernmental body of 57 member nations that met recently to discuss the plight of the Rohingya in Rakhine state.
“The government may allow such humanitarian assistance, but we as nationalists will object as much as we can if they come with an intent to exploit the situation politically using the name ‘Rohingya,’” he said. “They are using this term to [invoke] an identity [for the Rohingya] and to cause bigger problems.”
'Not an easy task'
Muslim-majority Malaysia and Indonesia have criticized the Myanmar government over the Rakhine crisis and its treatment of the Rohingya, who are denied citizenship and access to basic services although many have lived in the country for generations.
The Myanmar government initially objected to the “food flotilla” from Malaysia, claiming that its organizers had not received official permission to enter its waters and deliver aid.
But Win Myat Aye, Myanmar’s minister for social welfare, relief, and resettlement called the aid delivery “an official arrangement between our ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] member countries.”
“Malaysia has contacted us officially to send this humanitarian assistance, and we will distribute all this assistance fairly among the two communities through the Rakhine state government,” he said.”
The Myanmar government previously said the aid must be distributed to both Rohingya and ethnic Rakhine people alike.
“It is not an easy task to reach Yangon, and praise God the first phase has been accomplished,” said mission chief Abdul Azeez Rahim. “We have asked the Myanmar government that several of our volunteers be present during the distribution of aid in Rakhine.”
Some of the food and other items will be transported to Rakhine’s capital Sittwe and northern Rakhine state, while the rest will go by boat to the seaport of Chittagong in southern Bangladesh for distribution to tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees living in camps in Teknaf, Kutupalong, and Nayapara, Rahim said.
Indonesia has already sent 10 shipping containers of food, baby supplies, and clothes for Rohingya affected by the violence.
Reported by Kyaw Thu for RFA’s Myanmar Service, and by Hata Wahari for BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.