Myanmar on Thursday rebutted a declaration by the world’s top Islamic intergovernmental body condemning the Southeast Asian nation’s army for targeting Rohingya Muslims in “systematic” ethnic cleansing and calling on member states to collectively pressure Naypyidaw over the issue.
The Council of Ministers of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) issued a Dhaka Declaration on Sunday at the conclusion of the 57-member organization’s two-day meeting in Bangladesh, that Myanmar’s treatment of Muslims in northern Rakhine state amounted to ethnic cleansing and is a “serious and blatant violation of international law.”
OIC members adopted a resolution on the situation of the Rohingya community in Myanmar, agreeing to form an ad hoc ministerial committee to handle allegations of human rights violations carried out by Myanmar security forces against the long-persecuted and stateless minority group.
The group also said it will continue to work with the United Nations and other relevant international organizations to address human rights violations of the Rohingya Muslims taking into account recent developments.
The military began a crackdown on Rohingya communities in northern Rakhine state in late August 2017 following deadly attacks by a militant Muslim group on police outposts.
Thousands of Rohingya died during the brutal campaign, which included acts of rape, torture, and arson, and nearly 700,000 others fled to safety in neighboring Bangladesh, according to the U.N. and rights groups.
“The declaration lacks balance and fairness, and fails to denounce the brutal attacks of the terrorist group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which triggered the humanitarian situation unfolding today,” said Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a statement issued on Thursday.
The government also rejected what it called the “irresponsible labeling of ‘ethnic cleansing’ or ‘state-backed violence’” to describe the crackdown in Rakhine, asserting that more than half of the Muslim community, which represents a majority in the Maungdaw region, did not flee and have remained in their villages.
It also restated a pledge that allegations of human rights abuses backed by evidence will be investigated and action taken against the perpetrators in accordance with the law.
Headed by State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, the Foreign Ministry also called for cooperation from Bangladesh to start repatriating Rohingya refugees who live in makeshift shelters in sprawling displacement camps and will be vulnerable to flooding and disease during the upcoming monsoon season.
Myanmar and Bangladesh signed an agreement November 2017 to repatriate Rohingya refugees who want to return to Rakhine, as long as Myanmar officials verify that they resided in the region prior to a smaller-scale crackdown in October 2016.
The program, which Myanmar expected to start in late January, has been beset by delays, however.
“It is highly regrettable that the Dhaka Declaration did not even mention the immediate need for the repatriation of displaced persons from Rakhine in accordance with the bilateral agreement between Myanmar and Bangladesh,” the ministry’s statement said.
“As the monsoons are approaching, Myanmar is now focusing on expediting the repatriation process,” it said. “To that end, Myanmar urges Bangladesh to take all necessary steps to help the process in accordance with the said agreement. Myanmar stands ready to facilitate the voluntary, safe, and dignified return of the displaced persons from Rakhine.”
Reactions inside Myanmar to the OIC’s comments on the crisis in Rakhine state and the Myanmar government’s response were mixed.
“The Myanmar government is too weak to give assurances for the repatriation process, and what is the guarantee that the refugees will get back property they lost during the problematic times,” said Rohingya activist Abul Tarhal, referring to the crackdown by security forces.
“The Myanmar government also needs to do a lot to make sure the same problem does not recur in the future in Rakhine state,” he said.
Nyan Win, a member of the ruling National League for Democracy's Central Executive Committee who serves as a party spokesman, said it was one-sided for the OIC to blame Myanmar for problems with the repatriation process getting under way.
“Both countries [Myanmar and Bangladesh] have agreed on refugee repatriation and are working on it, but the international community, especially the OIC countries, don’t talk about what we are doing,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “The only thing they do is pressure us and blame us. We can’t accept it.”
“They need to listen to both sides if there is a problem,” he said. “If people listen only to one side, the problem becomes more difficult to resolve and moves in a wrong direction.”
Nyo Nyo Thinn, a Myanmar politician and former lawmaker of Yangon’s regional parliament, said the OIC should steer clear of getting involved in Myanmar’s internal matters.
“The U.N. Secretary Council is working on resolving the Rakhine problem, so there is no reason for the OIC to interfere in it at this time,” she said.
The Security Council on Wednesday issued a statement urging Myanmar to “step up its efforts to create conditions conducive to the safe, voluntary, and dignified return of Rohingya refugees and internally displaced persons to their homes in Rakhine state and to address the root causes of the crisis.”
The statement came after 15 Security Council diplomats conducted a fact-finding mission to Bangladesh and Myanmar in late April, where they visited refugee camps and assessed the situation on the ground in northern Rakhine state.
“To build trust with the international community, the Myanmar government has to work with more transparency, reduce centralized control, and work with local ethnic groups and the state government,” Nyo Nyo Thinn said.
Concrete evidence needed
Yu Lwin Aung, a member of the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission (MHRC), said the OIC must provide evidence for its assertions.
“We don’t deny the OIC’s accusation that the military committed human right violations, though we didn’t see any of this while we were in Rakhine state on MHRC’s trips to investigate human rights violations after the violence,” he told RFA.
“But the OIC needs to provide concrete evidence,” he added. “If so, government authorities will take action against anybody who violated human rights, I believe.”
On Tuesday, Kyaw Tin, Myanmar’s minister for international cooperation, summoned Ambassador Manjurul Karim Khan Chowdhury of Bangladesh to the Foreign Affairs Ministry in Naypyidaw to discuss border security issues and challenges that are preventing the repatriation of refugees, the official Myanmar News Agency reported.
During the meeting, Kyaw Tin called for the removal of bunkers and other structures built by the Bangladeshi side near the border along a non-construction zone and asked that Bangladeshi authorities stop assisting with the construction of sheds and shelters on the Myanmar side of zone, the report said.
He also requested that Bangladesh facilitate the return of the displaced persons residing illegally inside the zone.
Also on Tuesday, four human rights groups – Fortify Rights, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Global Center for Responsibility to Protect – called on the U.N. Security Council to refer Myanmar to the International Criminal Court over the crackdown, saying the violence amounted to crimes against humanity.
The Myanmar government and military have said that the crackdown was a counterinsurgency operation against ARSA militants and have denied most of the allegations of abuse by soldiers.
Reported by Thinn Thiri for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.