The Myanmar government said Thursday that photos showing alleged rights violations in Rakhine state’s Maungdaw township are fake, despite reports by the United Nations and rights groups that security forces there have killed unarmed residents, burned down villages, and made arbitrary arrests.
The U.N. and rights groups have accused soldiers and police of violating the rights of civilians during their sweep of the Muslim-majority area in northern Rakhine state following deadly raids earlier this month on border patrol posts and ensuing clashes between soldiers and police and groups of armed men. Some say the death toll from the violence has been greater that what has been reported.
The government has accused an extremist Muslim terrorist organization funded by Islamists abroad for the attack, and have locked down the area to search for the perpetrators. Rohingya Muslim groups have asserted that security forces deployed in Maungdaw have committed rape and other forms of violence under the cover of the antiterrorism campaign.
Government spokesman Zaw Htay, who is also deputy director-general of the President’s Office, told RFA’s Myanmar Service that people in other countries sent old photos and videos to the U.N., rights groups and international news organizations of communal violence that took place four years ago between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, trying to pass the images off as current.
The 2012 clashes left more than 200 people dead and displaced 140,000 Muslims who ended up in internal refugee camps.
“Some also posted them on social networks like Twitter as if they were [images of] the problems right now in Rakhine state,” he said. “And because they did this, the media might think they are current photos and videos of Rakhine state.”
“We will explain to the media and organizations that these photos and videos are not from the problem in Rakhine state right now,” he said. “They are not real.”
“I asked relevant officials and organizations in Rakhine state, and I know there are no cases like this in Rakhine,” he said.
After the attacks on the border guard posts on Oct. 9, the government mobilized army soldiers and border police in Maungdaw to conduct a sweep of the area for 400 other people, believed to be local Muslims, thought to have been involved in the attacks.
“From the beginning, we ordered relevant organizations and departments to do the security sweep operation very carefully in Rakhine state after the Maungdaw attack,” Zaw Htay said.
Soldiers and border police have also prohibited the media and the U.N.'s World Food Programme from accessing Maungdaw for security purposes.
“There are many people who support terrorists,” he said. “They make big media campaigns, and it seems they get a lot of funding. As we already know about this, we are always warning relevant organizations to do things very carefully.”
Middle East connection
Security forces have killed about 30 alleged terrorists and captured more than 50 others, but only regained 10 of the roughly 50 guns that the terrorists stole during the attacks on the border patrol stations, he said.
Zaw Htay said there is a connection between the group accused of plotting and carrying out the attacks and an international terrorist network based in the Middle East. The Maungdaw attackers received military training from a terrorist organization and received funds from individuals who support terrorists, he said.
“We are coordinating with neighboring countries such as India and Bangladesh to work on this case,” Zaw Htay said. “We are also exchanging information with international antiterrorism agencies.”
The thousands of residents who fled their homes in Maungdaw out of concern for their safety have been returning to the area during the last week.
“The military and police are working together to ensure their safety and security,” Zaw Htay said. “We must protect them. They can’t live in peace without our protection. We have long- and short-term plans to work for their safety and security.”
On Monday, U.N. experts urged the Myanmar government to address the growing number of reports of summary executions of civilians, including children, during the searches and raids, and of the burning of homes and mosques.
Yanghee Lee, the U.N.’s special envoy on the human rights situation in Myanmar, said that experts had received “repeated allegations of arbitrary arrests as well as extrajudicial killings occurring within the context of the security operations conducted by the authorities in search of the alleged attackers.”
“What troubles me most is the lack of access for a proper assessment of the true picture of the situation there at the present moment,” she said in a statement. “The blanket security operations have restricted access for humanitarian actors with concerning consequences for communities’ ability to secure food and conduct livelihood activities.”
Reported by Kyaw Thu for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.