The leaders of Rohingya and Myanmar Muslim groups have urged the European Union to take action on a call by a U.N. rights investigator to sanction businesses linked to the country’s powerful military, which continues to come under fire for a brutal crackdown on Rohingya in western Myanmar's Rakhine state in 2017.
The groups said they support a statement issued May 14 by Marzuki Darusman, chairman of the U.N. Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar (FFM), urging the international community to stop providing financial and other support to Myanmar’s military, and calling for commanders to be isolated and tried before a credible court on charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.
The military’s campaign of violence against the Rohingya in Rakhine state left thousands dead, subjected others to indiscriminate killings, sexual assaults, and arson, and drove more than 740,000 members of the ethnic minority across the border to Bangladesh.
The U.N. statement also noted that the Myanmar government has failed to resolve the crisis and to protect human rights, with Darusman saying that the situation is at “a total standstill.”
“As a group of Rohingya leaders from inside the country, as well as from across the Rohingya and Burmese Muslim diaspora, we fully support the U.N. Fact-Finding Mission’s call for restrictive economic and political measures against the Myanmar military and military-owned companies,” said the groups’ statement issued Tuesday.
Those who issued the statement included Rohingya political activists from inside Myanmar; Narul Islam, chairman of the Arakan Rohingya National Organisation; Tun Khin, president of the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK; and Kyaw Win, executive director of the Burma Human Rights Network.
“While we saw encouraging steps from the European Union last year in supporting the need to explore new sanctions against entities in Myanmar, the clear lack of good faith by the regime towards the Rohingya must now pave the way for renewed international pressure,” the statement said.
The groups called on the EU to put in place additional sanctions against the armed forces, its senior leaders, and military-owned companies that have “fueled the genocidal campaign against the Rohingya and the atrocities which continue to this day.”
They also called on the U.N. Security Council to enact an arms embargo to cut off the flow of weapons to Myanmar's military.
In June 2018, the EU imposed sanctions on senior military officials in Myanmar deemed responsible for human rights violations against the Rohingya in Rakhine state. The EU froze the assets of the seven Myanmar army, border guard, and police officials, and banned them from traveling to the bloc.
‘Few connections to the EU’
Kyaw Win of the Burma Human Rights Network told RFA’s Myanmar Service on Thursday that the military benefits heavily from the two main business entities it controls — the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (UNEHL) and the Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC).
“If we want to stop the crimes these organizations have committed, it would be effective to financially isolate these military and military-related organizations,” he said. “If we impose sanctions against the whole country, Myanmar would be hurt, especially ordinary people, and small businessmen would suffer.”
“That’s why we want action to be taken against the military, because it is the one that has committed the crimes,” he said.
In response to the statement by the Rohingya and Muslim groups, military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun noted that Myanmar military does not have extensive connections to the EU.
“As far as I know, Switzerland has provided training in Myanmar, but it has been for the peace process, not for the military,” he told RFA. “We have very few connections to the EU.”
As for possible sanctions on military-owned businesses, Zaw Min Tun said the armed forces still would not have problems obtaining weapons and technology.
“If we can get better technology, it would be good,” he said. “The Myanmar military has been trying to stand on its own two feet.”
Myanmar and Bangladesh signed an agreement to begin repatriating Rohingya refugees in November 2018, but the program has stalled in part because members of the minority group do not want to return to a country where they are denied citizenship and face systematic discrimination and possibly more violence.
But Myint Thi, permanent secretary of Myanmar’s Foreign Ministry, said Thursday that fighting in Rakhine between government forces and the Arakan Army (AA), an ethnic military that wants greater autonomy in the state, has stymied the repatriation of Rohingya refugees living in displacement camps in Bangladesh.
“It [the fighting] somehow hinders the repatriation program in terms of security,” said Myint Thu during a press conference in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw on Thursday.
“The Ministry of Home Affairs has already launched a mechanism for the safety of the refugees,” he said. “To say it more frankly, we have stationed a large number of security forces in Rakhine state.”
Fighting between the two sides escalated in early January after AA soldiers attacked four police outposts in Buthidaung township, killing 13 officers and injuring nine others on Myanmar's Independence Day.
Nearly 33,000 civilians in central and northern Rakhine state and northern Chin state have been displaced since hostilities reignited in November 2018, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
Dozens of AA soldiers have been killed along with an unknown number of Myanmar troops, while about 40 civilians have been killed and 70 others injured by artillery explosions and improvised explosive devices. A handful of villagers accused of having ties to the AA have died while in the custody of Myanmar soldiers.
Two detained for questioning
Following yet another clash in Rakhine’s Mrauk-U township on Tuesday, government soldiers detained two villagers suspected of having links to the AA, an army spokesman and local residents said Thursday.
“There was an engagement between AA troops and our security forces guarding the road,” said Colonel Win Zaw Oo, spokesman for the military’s Western Command responsible for Rakhine state. “It occurred in the area north of Weitharli village.”
“The security forces saw two suspicious villagers in the area and detained them for interrogation,” he said. “If we find them clear of connections with the AA, we will release them. If they are found otherwise, we will take legal action against them.”
The clash near Weitharli village erupted Wednesday when AA troops ambushed a military unit passing through farmland, with shooting lasting for more than 20 minutes, villagers said.
After the hostilities died down, Myanmar soldiers initially apprehended four villagers, but later released two of them and took the other pair to Mrauk-U town, said a resident who declined to be named.
“First, they arrested Kyaw Hla Thein and Zaw Win Oo from the village,” the resident told RFA. “Afterwards, they met two other villagers, Soe Soe Aung and Lone Yay, on their way from Weitharli to Latkar village near the cemetery, so they got four villagers.”
At the time, Soe Soe Aung and Lone Yay were hiding near the village cemetery, he said.
The soldiers then returned to Weitharli’s pagoda and freed Kyaw Hla Thein and Zaw Win Oo, but tied up the other two men at the site, the resident said.
RFA could not reach family members of the detainees for comment.
Villagers said about 20 Myanmar soldiers were killed during the fighting, but Win Zaw Oo rejected the claim, saying there were no fatalities on the army’s side and adding that there was an unknown number of casualties among AA troops.
AA spokesman Khine Thukha declined to comment, saying he was on his way to an appointment.
Fighting between the two armies has occurred nearly every day near the road connecting Mrauk-U to Kyauktaw township and Paletwa township in neighboring Chin state.
Myanmar military units and convoys traveling on the road between Mrauk-U and Kyauktaw townships have been the targets of several mine attacks.
“The military troops have been taking care of the security of the roads between Mrauk-U and Kyauktaw,” Win Zaw Oo said. “AA members have again and again ambushed and attacked our troops with mines.”
“If our troops were not present, nothing would happen on the road,” he added. “Mostly, they have shot our troops when we have entered or left villages. The AA has carried out these ambushes many times.”
Reported by Khin Khin Ei, Win Ko Ko Latt, and Khet Mar for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar and Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.