Judicial officials in western Myanmar's Rakhine state declined on Monday to say whether any members of a Muslim militant group responsible for deadly attacks in 2016 and 2017 are among the 747 people that they have sentenced for violating the criminal code and laws related to antiterrorism activities in the restive region.
Courts in northern Rakhine state have not determined whether those sentenced, who are part of a larger group of 778 Rohingya investigated and charged under Myanmar’s criminal code, weapons acts, anti-terrorist act, or the Unlawful Associations Act, are members of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), said Tin Maung Lat, head of the state’s judicial office.
“The courts have to investigate and hear from the accused as to whether they committed the crimes they have been charged with or not, but they are not working on determining their nationality, religion, and organizations to which they belong,” he said during a press conference on Monday.
“Furthermore, the courts didn’t succeed in determining whether they are ARSA members,” he said.
ARSA carried out attacks on three border guard stations in northern Rakhine state in October 2016 and on 30 police outposts and an army base in the region in August 2017, prompting two crackdowns by Myanmar security forces targeting civilians from Myanmar’s stateless and despised Rohingya Muslim minority.
Those who have been detained in connection with the attacks are believed to be held in northern Rakhine’s Buthidaung township prison and in a detention facility in the state capital Sittwe.
RFA’s Myanmar Service and the online news service Democratic Voice of Burma earlier sent a letter to Rakhine state’s judicial department to find out whether the courts had determined the detainees to be members of ARSA.
Rakhine authorities have also issued nearly 6,200 arrest warrants, but have only arrested a dozen people from that group, Tin Maung Lat said. The government has also declared more than 5,700 people fugitives.
The brutal crackdowns, which the Myanmar government has defended as necessary counterinsurgency operations against Muslim terrorists, together drove more than 800,000 Rohingya across the border to Bangladesh where they live in massive displacement camps.
Some of them are waiting to return to Myanmar under a repatriation agreement that the country signed with Bangladesh last November, but the program has yet to fully begin, and only several dozen have returned.
But rights groups and U.N. agencies have expressed deep concern over whether Myanmar officials can guarantee the safety of returning Rohingya, who are viewed as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and systematically discriminated against.
Besides basic rights, the refugees want Myanmar to grant them long-denied citizenship and to return their lands.
Refugees appeal to India
Rohingya refugees living in India, meanwhile, have appealed to the New Delhi government to increase its pressure on Myanmar to create conditions conducive for their safe return, amid reports that they may be deported, the online news service Can-India News said Monday.
In response to that move, Filippo Grandi, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, reminded the Indian government that international law requires nations to refrain from sending refugees back to countries where they may still face danger.
Win Myint, chairman of Rakhine state’s Information Committee, said that Muslims who didn’t flee to Bangladesh can live safely in the state.
“There are many Bengalis who didn’t flee to Bangladesh, and they can live safely in Rakhine,” he said, using a derogatory name for the Rohingya. “So, we will work on ensuring safety for the ones who will return home from Bangladesh.”
“They will become citizens if they are eligible according to the Citizenship Law,” he added.
Momad Sharif, a Muslim who returned from a Bangladesh refugee camp in September, said it is safer to live in northern Rakhine state than it is to live in Bangladesh, where military and border guards must maintain security in the refugee camps.
“ARSA members keep killing people in the Bangladesh camps,” he said. “Before I returned back home, ARSA members took six people, and no one knows whether they are still alive.”
Reported by Min Thein Aung and Khin Khin Ei for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.