UPDATED at 4:45 P.M. EST on 2016-11-16
The Myanmar government on Wednesday formed a special information committee to release real-time news about the volatile situation in the country’s westernmost Rakhine state where the death toll from recent violence is believed to have reached 130, in an apparent move to counter damning reports by outside groups.
The seven-member committee includes officials from the ministries of defense, foreign affairs, border affairs, home affairs, and President’s Office, said government spokesman Zaw Htay at a news conference in the capital Naypyidaw.
Khin Maung Tin, deputy minister of the State Counselor’s Office, has been appointed chairman of the committee, and General Soe Naing Oo from the military commander-in-chief’s office has been named vice chairman, he said.
During the conference, Zaw Htay refuted a report issued by New York-based Human Rights Watch that said 430 buildings in three Rohingya Muslim villages in northern Maungdaw township had been burned during recent violence, the online news journal The Irrawaddy reported.
The actual number of burned buildings was 155, he said, blaming the arson on militants, the report said.
The Myanmar army on Wednesday, however, said nearly 230 houses and other structures had been burned since deadly attacks on three border guard stations on Oct. 9 and subsequent clashes between security forces and local armed groups.
The army also confirmed that roughly 130 people have been killed during the past five weeks of violence in Rakhine, Reuters reported. It quoted state media as saying 102 suspected Rohingya Muslim attackers and 32 security forces had been killed since Oct. 9.
On Tuesday, an army report said security forces had killed nearly 70 “insurgents” and detained more than 230 others.
Local residents and rights activists have accused security forces of setting homes ablaze, killing civilians, and raping women in Maungdaw, where the majority of residents are Rohingya.
Some of the hundreds of Rohingya who fled the violence and tried to cross the Naaf River that separates Myanmar from Bangladesh have been shot dead, Reuters reported on Wednesday, but did not clarify whether Myanmar or Bangladeshi border guards fired the shots.
The guards also blocked dozens of others who arrived by boat and may now be stranded at sea, the report said, citing local residents.
'Immediately sent back'
Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB), a paramilitary force under the Ministry of Home Affairs, and the Bangladeshi coast guard are on alert in the border area which consists of a 209-kilometer (130-mile) land boundary and a 63-kilometer (39-mile) river boundary with Myanmar.
“A total of 86 Rohingya have been pushed back. “BGB members did not mistreat them, but gave humanitarian assistance,” BGB commander Lt. Col. Abu Zar Al Zahid told RFA’s sister news organization BenarNews.
“They were victims of recent violence in Rakhine. They crossed the Naaf River in boats and were immediately sent back by the BGB,” he said.
The BGB did not fire on the Rohingya, he said.
“More than 200 Rohingya Muslims are waiting near the Bangladesh border,” an unnamed BGB source said. “Most of them are women and children. Because they could attempt to enter at any time, the BGB and coast guard are on alert.”
“If they had an opportunity to enter Cox’s Bazar, it would be a tough place to live,” Mozammel Haq, president of the Rohingya defense committee, a local group in Teknaf, told BenarNews.
“The refugee camps are already occupied, and there is no space,” Mozamel said. “The Rohingya have been settling in different areas and destroying forests. They are also involved in criminal activities.”
About 300,000 to 500,000 Rohingya are thought to live in Bangladesh.
Stop the violence
The creation of the new information committee came a day after the United States asked the Myanmar government to stop the violence in Rakhine state, where security forces have prohibited independent journalists and rights groups from accessing Maungdaw to assess the situation.
So far, only a delegation of United Nations and foreign ambassadors to Myanmar, including U.S. Ambassador Scot Marciel, have been permitted to visit the area.
“We note the recent visit to Rakhine state by Ambassador Marciel and other representatives was a positive step in improving international access, but it’s important for the government to do more to stem the violence and provide assistance to those in these affected areas,” U.S. State Department spokesperson Elizabeth Trudeau said at a press briefing on Tuesday in Washington.
“We’re concerned by reports of a spike in violence in Burma’s Rakhine state,” she said. “We’re following the situation closely and attempting to get reliable information about developments there.”
That same day, Marciel and a delegation of officials from the U.S. State Department and other federal agencies held a previously scheduled bilateral dialogue with Myanmar officials in Naypyidaw, she said.
“The U.S. delegation stressed the need for the government of Burma to facilitate a credible and independent investigation of these allegations to improve transparency and information sharing, and to provide access for both media as well as humanitarian aid,” Trudeau said.
The delegation included deputy assistant secretaries from the department’s East Asian and Pacific Affairs Bureau, as well as the Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Bureau, she said. It also met separately with representatives from local NGOs and officials from Rakhine state.
Patrick Murphy, U.S. deputy assistant secretary for Southeast Asia who is in Myanmar, said the delegation discussed developing the relationship between Myanmar and the U.S., human rights, the rule of law, and business and trade during the meeting.
Murphy also said he urged Myanmar officials to stem the violence in Rakhine state by forming an independent investigation group and to allow the international community access to the area to deliver aid to those who have been displaced by the violence.
‘Deep concern’ about Rakhine
Likewise, former U.N. chief Kofi Annan, who is leading a commission created by the Myanmar government to provide recommendations to resolve the issues dividing the impoverished state and impeding its economic development, expressed deep concern over the recent violence.
“As chair of the Rakhine Advisory Commission, I wish to express my deep concern over the recent violence in northern Rakhine state, which is plunging the state into renewed instability and creating new displacement,” Annan said in a statement on Wednesday. “All communities must renounce violence and I urge the security services to act in full compliance with the rule of law.”
“Recent events have reinforced the urgency of tackling [Rakhine’s] challenges in order to find viable solutions in the interest of all the people of the state,” he said.
On Wednesday, the commission members, except for Annan, met with officials from the Rakhine government and leaders from ethnic Rakhine and Rohingya Muslim communities. They also visited local Muslim villages near the state capital Sittwe.
Some Muslim leaders told the commission members about the discrimination they face when it comes to being denied certain rights that Myanmar citizens have, including the right to vote.
“We have voted in many elections, including the 2008 [constitutional] referendum,” Muslim community leader Kyaw Hla said. “We hold identification cards, and yet we can’t vote. Is this fair to us?”
When speaking with the Muslim community, the commission members urged Muslims to submit to the citizenship verification process according to the country’s 1982 Citizenship Law to resolve the problem.
But rights groups charge that the law discriminates on the grounds of race because access to citizenship is primarily based on race and excludes certain ethnic groups such as the stateless Rohingya. The policy also denies them basic rights, freedom of movement, and access to social services and education.
The commission members planned to visit villages in Maungdaw township for a field assessment on Thursday, but cancelled the trip on account of the security situation.
This was the committee’s second visit to Rakhine state.
Reported by Min Thein Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service and by BenarNews. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.