Myanmar’s military chief said on Thursday that the country’s armed forces have placed no restrictions on media access to Rakhine state, which is slowly recovering from a violent crackdown last year that drove 700,000 Rohingya Muslims across the border to Bangladesh after soldiers torched villages and killed more than a thousand people.
The Myanmar government has restricted access to the northern Rakhine townships of Maungdaw, Buithdaung, and Rathedaung, where the military conducted a campaign of terror against Rohingya civilians that included killings, torture, rape, and arson, and so far has only permitted small groups of journalists on state-sponsored trips to the region.
“Senior General Min Aung Hlaing said the military has placed no restrictions on media access in Rakhine state, but he doesn’t know if the government has some in place,” said Myint Kyaw, a member of the Myanmar Press Council (MPC), an independent organization comprised of privately owned media representatives that investigates and settles press disputes and protects media workers in Myanmar.
“We suggested to him that the military should announce officially that there are no restrictions on media access in Rakhine state,” he said.
During a meeting between Min Aung Hlaing and the MPC, Myint Kyaw also suggested that the military chief maintain and improve the relationship between the media and the armed forces.
The senior general accepted the advice and acknowledged that there had been some misunderstandings between the military and journalists, Myint Kyaw said, though he gave MPC members only an email address for the military information committee to contact, but not a phone number.
Min Aung Hlaing also told reporters at a news conference held in his office in the capital that the relationship between the military and the ruling national League for Democracy (NLD) party is good, and that he has no intention of responding to a damning report by London-based rights group Amnesty International.
Amnesty put Min Aung Hlaing at the top of a list of 13 military and border guard officers it said should be tried for crimes against humanity for their leading roles in a "highly orchestrated, systematic attack on the Rohingya population" in 2017.
Reporting delegation in Rakhine
Myanmar’s official Global New Light of Myanmar reported Thursday that a group of 18 domestic and foreign journalists arrived in Rakhine’s capital Sittwe on Wednesday to report on the situation in Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships.
The delegation includes reporters from Radio Free Asia, Japan’s Kyodo news agency, China’s Xinhua news agency, The Wall Street Journal, BBC, Associated Press, Agence France-Presse, Frontier Myanmar, Myanmar International Television, and Myanmar Radio and Television.
The journalists will visit villages in Maungdaw to cover stability, security, and development issues and the planned repatriation of Rohingya refugees who fled to Bangladesh during the turmoil, the report said.
The Myanmar government, however, continues to prevent independent media outlets from visiting the region on trips not arranged by the state.
Most officials offer blanket denials that any atrocities were committed in Rakhine, with some even claiming that Rohingya refugees who fled burned-out villages last year had set their own homes on fire.
In Bangladesh, meanwhile, media outlets from around the world have interviewed Rohingya refugees and aid groups and produced detailed reports on the scorched-earth Myanmar army campaign that chased the Muslim minority across the border.
Two Reuters reporters covering the atrocities have been detained in Myanmar since December 2017 and are currently attending pretrial hearings on charges of possessing state secrets. One police witness testified that they were set up in a sting operation where officers arranged a meeting with them and handed over documents related to the massacre of 10 Rohingya men in northern Rakhine.
After six months of pretrial hearings, the court will hear arguments from both sides on July 2 on whether the two reporters should be charged under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act in what has become a landmark press freedom case. They face up to 14 years in prison if found guilty.
The commander-in-chief’s comments came a day after President Win Myint’s office denied an opinion piece in a Thai newspaper that said Min Aung Hlaing had threatened to stage a coup over a disagreement with the government about the composition of a new inquiry commission to look into human rights violations that occurred during the crackdown.
His comments also came a day after Amnesty’s report which said that Min Aung Hlaing and 12 other military and border guard officers should be tried by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for their roles in the violence against the Rohingya.
On Monday, Min Aung Hlaing’s office said it dismissed two generals involved in the crackdown, hours after the European Union and Canada imposed sanctions on two of those generals and five other army and border police officials.
Yanghee Lee takes aim
On Wednesday, Yanghee Lee, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, told the body’s Human Rights Council that the Myanmar government must stop systematic discrimination against the Rohingya, whom Myanmar views as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, and grant them citizenship rights.
“It is paramount that the Myanmar government dismantle the system of discrimination against the Rohingya by law, policy, and practice that continues to exist, and guarantee fundamental human rights to them, including by restoring their citizenship rights and property,” she said.
Though Myanmar and Bangladesh have agreed to repatriate some of the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees, the U.N. and rights groups continue to express concern about their well-being once they return to Rakhine.
“The refugees’ return to Myanmar must occur in full respect of the norms and standards of international refugee law and international human rights law,” Lee told the Council.
“I emphasize that no return should take place unless the conditions in Rakhine state, indeed across the country, are truly safe, enable returnees to enjoy their rights, services are accessible for all, and freedom of movement is guaranteed,” she said.
Lee also urged the Council to set up an international accountability mechanism under its auspices to investigate and prosecute at the ICC those responsible for human rights crimes that have occurred for decades throughout the country.
“I firmly believe that accountability for the crimes committed is the only way to end the cycles of violence faced by the people of Myanmar,” she said, according to a news release.
“I strongly recommend [that] the persons allegedly responsible for the violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law be investigated and prosecuted by the ICC or a credible mechanism,” she said.
Myanmar’s government informed Lee in December that it would no longer cooperate with her or allow her into the country for periodic visits for the remainder of her tenure, accusing her of being biased and unfair in her evaluation of the situation in Rakhine.
Lee will visit Bangladesh from June 29 to July 8 to meet with U.N. and Bangladeshi government officials in the capital Dhaka and travel to Cox’s Bazar district in the southeast, where the Rohingya refugees from Myanmar are living in sprawling displacement camps, the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights said in a statement issued Thursday.
Mixed reactions to Lee's call
Activists and lawmakers inside Myanmar had mixed reactions to Lee’s call for human rights violations to be brought before the ICC.
“We've had human rights violations for decades, and only one group — the military — has committed them,” said human rights activist Cheery Zahau.
“The Myanmar military hasn’t adhered to any international or U.N. rules and laws on human rights since after World War II,” she said.
“The Rohingya problem is the biggest proof,” she said. “If we want to stop the military’s human right violations, we have to do something to this institution. It might be through the ICC or other international accountability mechanism,” she said.
Maung Maung Ohn, a former army general and ex-chief minister of Rakhine state who is now a lawmaker representing Ann Township in the state parliament, echoed the government’s position that Lee favors the Rohingya, whom he referred to by the derogatory term Bengalis.
“We don’t care whether Yanghee Lee calls for the prosecution of Myanmar at the ICC or any other place,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“I told her and other international organizations when I met them as Rakhine state’s chief minister that they are talking only about the Bengalis, and I asked them to consider other ethnic groups in Rakhine,” he said. “There are many other ethnic people who are suffering from poverty and are without health care, education, and social welfare.”
The Rohingya don’t have to work because they receive support from international organizations, whereas other ethnic groups “have to struggle very hard to survive,” Maung Maung Ohn said.
“I told them that we need to balance the handling of this issue with stability, development, and human rights,” he said. “It’s a question of whether she [Lee] has sympathy only for the Bengalis and not other Rakhine ethnic groups.”
“I respect Yanghee Lee personally, but she doesn’t understand our country, people, and situation. Therefore, we don’t need to try to understand her efforts,” he said.
Khon Ja from the Kachin Peace Network pointed out that Kachin civil society organizations called in April for Myanmar to be referred to ICC for what they say are human rights violations against civilians and the denial of humanitarian assistance by soldiers in northern Myanmar’s Kachin state.
Since 2011, more than 100,000 people have been displaced by hostilities between the Myanmar army and an ethnic militia in the war-torn state.
“We think this is appropriate because the military has been violating human rights for generations,” she said.
“It is like we have to ignore and forgive the Myanmar military for whatever it does because Myanmar hasn’t signed the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court,” Khon Ja said, referring to the treaty that established the tribunal in 2002, and to which Myanmar is not a party.
“It is like encouraging it to commit more abuses,” she said.
ICRC to boost aid in Rakhine
Meanwhile, Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), wrapped up a three-day visit to northern Rakhine state where he pledged to increase the group's humanitarian aid to the region and distribute twice the quantity of food it has supplied there since the August 2017 crackdown, the Global New Light of Myanmar reported on Thursday.
When Maurer met with representatives from local civil society organizations and residents in Sittwe to learn more about the on-the-ground situation in the state, they told him that nearly all aid from the ICRC is directed to Muslims.
“We requested that he help and support not only Bengalis, but also Rakhine, Mro, Kaman, Thet, and other ethnics who live in Rakhine state,” said Khine Kaung Zan, executive director of the Wun Let Development Foundation.
Tun Aung Kyaw, general secretary of the Arakan National Party, the region’s dominant political party which represents the interests of mainly Buddhist ethnic Rakhine people, said he told Maurer that everyone in multicultural Rakhine state suffers from poverty.
“To alleviate this suffering, we need development in the region,” he told RFA. “To work on development projects, it would be better if the international community supported the Myanmar government.”
Maurer will meet President Win Myint, State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, and Min Aung Hlaing on Friday in Naypyidaw before heading to Bangladesh on Saturday for talks with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed, Home Affairs Minister Asaduzzaman Khan, and Foreign Affairs Minister Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali.
Maurer will also visit Rohingya refugee camps in southeastern Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district to observe the ICRC’s work there.
Reported by Wai Mar Tun, Kyaw Thu, and Min Thein Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.