Hundreds of nationalists in Buddhist-majority Myanmar protested in Yangon on Monday against the recent “terrorist attacks” in violence-ridden Rakhine state, the findings of an advisory commission that probed the causes of unrest in Rakhine, and what they describe as international interference in the country’s internal affairs.
The group, which included Buddhist monks, gathered in front of city hall to demonstrate against the Aug. 25 attacks by Rohingya Muslim militants in Rakhine and the recommendations of the Myanmar government-appointed Rakhine Advisory Commission.
The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) carried out the deadly assaults on police outposts and an army base in northern Rakhine state in what the Myanmar government called “extremist terrorist” attacks by Muslim insurgents.
Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on Sept. 11 that ARSA had aimed to “undermine the efforts of the government to find a lasting solution to the issue of Rakhine through the speedy implementation of the advisory commission’s recommendations” by conducting the attacks just after the release of a final report by the commission led by former United Nations chief Kofi Annan.
The protesters also circulated leaflets rejecting 26 recommendations by the Myanmar government-appointed Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, opposing its call for reviews of the country’s citizenship law, an end to restrictions on the Rohingya in order to prevent further violence in the beleaguered region, the appointment of an independent authority to handle complaints about the citizenship process, clear statements about the rights of those rejected for citizenship, the appointment of a single person to oversee the country’s police forces, and the placement of the border police under the national police chief.
Myanmar’s President Htin Kyaw has formed a committee to implement the recommendations.
“Local media are silent on this Bengali issue, [and] they dare not express the real news,” said Thiha Thu, a nationalist who spoke at the rally, using a derogatory word for the stateless Rohingya who are considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and denied citizenship under the country’s 1982 Citizenship Law.
“They dare not point out the truth [because] they probably are influenced by oil dollars,” he said, in an allusion to wealthy countries that support the Rohingya possibly financing the Myanmar media to report only one side of the story.
He also compared media organizations in Myanmar to Japan’s mafia, the yakuza, and to the mafia in Sicily, Italy, to cheers from the crowd.
Kyaw Thu Nyein, another speaker at the protest, said the group of nationalists is not affiliated with any political party or organization.
“[We] are not affiliated with any political party, even though they have accused this protest event of being politically motivated,” he said in a general reference to those who criticize Myanmar's Buddhist nationalists. “How foolish they are!”
In the latest army offensive since the Aug. 25 attacks, nearly 180 of 471 Rohingya villages have been emptied of their inhabitants in northern Rakhine’s Maungdaw, Buthidaung, and Rathedaung townships, according to the Myanmar government.
Satellite images analyzed by Human Rights Watch (HRW) between Aug. 25 and Sept. 16 indicate that more than 220 villages have been destroyed by fire in northern Rakhine. The government has accused the Rohingya of torching their own homes, but has not provided any evidence to support the claim.
More than 410,000 Rohingya refugees — over a third of Rakhine’s Muslim population of about 1.1 million — have poured into southeastern Bangladesh in the past three weeks to escape the violence. About 1,000 people have been killed in clashes and security sweeps by the country’s military, according to the U.N.
The refugees join another 400,000 Rohingya from Myanmar already living in camps in Bangladesh, tens of thousands of whom fled a military crackdown in October 2016 following earlier ARSA attacks on three border guard stations in northern Rakhine.
Rohingya refugees have reported that Myanmar soldiers have torched their villages and shot civilians as well as placed landmines along parts of the border with Bangladesh in the latest wave of violence.
The U.N. Security Council has condemned the violence, and Secretary-General António Guterres said that “ethnic cleansing” in northern Rakhine has created a “catastrophic” humanitarian situation for the Rohingya refugees.
“In this case, I think we have plenty of evidence that the Myanmar government is committing genocide against the Rohingya,” said Gregory Stanton, a professor of genocide studies and prevention at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, and president of Genocide Watch, a group that seeks to raise awareness and influence public policy concerning potential and actual genocide.
“Some have said that it is, as simply as they put it, ethnic cleansing … [but] what they really mean is forced displacement which is a crime against humanity,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “But it’s more than that.”
“You can use genocidal measures as a way to terrorize people into leaving, and that is what the Myanmar government is doing right now,” he said.
“There is no excuse for genocide if a government supposedly mobilizes its troops to put down a so-called insurgency or a so-called terrorist attack, and instead they massacre large numbers of children, elderly people, women and so forth, who had nothing to do with that attack,” he said. “It’s genocide.”
On Sunday, HRW called on the U.N. Security Council and concerned countries to impose targeted sanctions and an arms embargo on the Myanmar military in an effort to stop its ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingya.
The call came as the U.N. General Assembly prepared open general debate on Tuesday in New York, though Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi has opted not to attend the event, citing the crisis in Rakhine.
“Burmese security forces are committing ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya and disregarding the condemnation of world leaders,” said John Sifton, HRW’s Asia advocacy director. “The time has come to impose tougher measures that Burma’s generals cannot ignore.”
The group also called on the Security Council to demand that Myanmar allow humanitarian agencies to access refugees, permit the entry of a U.N. fact-finding mission assigned to investigate rights violations in Rakhine, and ensure the safe and voluntary return of those displaced by the violence.
Myanmar’s national security adviser Thaung Tun told Reuters on Monday that those who fled the violence will be able to return to Myanmar, though the process needed to be discussed.
The news agency also reported that Britain and France called on Aung San Suu Kyi on Monday to step up efforts to end the military violence against the Rohingya. The United States has also urged the government to protect civilians.
Aung San Suu Kyi, who has largely remained silent on the crisis and the plight of the Rohingya, is scheduled to address the Myanmar public about the situation in Rakhine on Tuesday.
Reported by Thantsin Oo, Htet Arkar, Zin Mar Win, and Khin Maung Nyane for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Kyaw Min Htun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.