The head of the International Committee of the Red Cross on Friday called on civilians and authorities to protect and support the livelihoods of all residents of western Myanmar’s ethnically and religiously divided Rakhine state, where a violent crackdown by security forces last year drove more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims from the country and left thousands dead.
“I’m not telling you that everything is fine,” said ICRC president Peter Maurer at a press conference in Myanmar's capital Naypyidaw at the end of a three-day visit to northern Rakhine. “Everybody knows that everything is not fine, and we have to further mobilize the international community [and] mobilize the authorities to take responsibility.”
“There is also a responsibility by … civilians and the military to do all they can to protect the civilian population, to support livelihoods of people, [and] to have policies in place which support reconciliation,” he said.
Myanmar officials are preparing to take back some of the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees who now live in sprawling displacement camps in southeastern Bangladesh.
The United Nations and rights groups, however, have raised concerns about the safety of Rohingyas who return to Myanmar, which views them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and has subjected them to systematic discrimination.
On Thursday, Maurer pledged to increase ICRC’s humanitarian aid to the region and distribute twice the quantity of food the organization has supplied there since the August 2017 crackdown.
He also met with representatives from local civil society organizations and residents in Rakhine's capital Sittwe who told him that nearly all aid from the ICRC is directed to the Muslim population and not to several other ethnic minority groups who live in the state.
“To be very frank, we didn’t only receive positive feedback,” Maurer said at the press conference. “We only heard the criticism of those populations who said, ‘You should have helped us here. You should have done this, and you should support these and those activities more.’”
“[W]e take this feedback very seriously, and we do our best to expand and to respond to as many needs as ever we can, be they assistance or protection needs,” he said.
The ICRC has not taken sides in blaming one community or the other for the current problems in Rakhine state, Maurer said.
“For a long time, the ICRC has impressed and communicated [to] the international community that we consider that the situation in Rakhine is difficult, but it is also very complex, and we have never accused … one or the other side of being primarily responsible for the present situation,” he said.
“Too many have left, and the economy is in difficulties today,” he said. “People who stayed are in difficulty because their economic lives and livelihoods are in difficulty.”
“There is no question that this is a very serious situation, but we have also been clear that the seriousness of the situation affects all people in Rakhine and not only one community, even if one community has been primarily affected [and] has left the country in [large] numbers,” he said referring to the Rohingya, though he didn’t name the group.
“We need to respond to this situation as a humanitarian situation and hope that the authorities respond to it even more,” he said.
HRW targets generals
Also on Friday, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged the U.N. Security Council to prosecute two dismissed Myanmar military officers who were involved in atrocities against the Rohingya during the crackdown.
Numerous reports by right groups, based on eyewitness and victim testimony, verifiable videos, and satellite imagery indicate that security forces conducted a campaign of terror that included indiscriminate killings, torture, rape, and arson in Rohingya villages.
Major General Maung Maung Soe, former head of the Myanmar Army’s Western Command during the military operation in northern Rakhine, was fired for failing in his duty to control the violence during the period between two attacks by the Muslim militant group the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army on Oct. 9, 2016, and Aug. 25, 2017, according to a statement issued by the military commander-in-chief's office on Monday.
Lieutenant General Aung Kyaw Zaw, former commander of the Bureau of Special Operations No. 3, also seen as responsible for part of the violence, was transferred to another post, but instead chose to resign, the statement said
“Releasing from service two generals whose forces committed ethnic cleansing is a grossly inadequate response to wide-ranging atrocities,” said HRW Asia director Brad Adams in a statement. “This slap on the wrist is further proof that the Myanmar military has little intention of providing accountability for grave crimes.”
HRW took issue with the announcement of the dismissals, noting that it mentioned shortcomings of Maung Maung Soe and his inability to secure Rakhine state, but made no reference to atrocities carried out by forces operating under his command.
HRW also noted that the statement said the performance of Aung Kyaw Zaw, whose Bureau of Special Operations No. 3 oversaw three regional commands including the Western Command, was lacking in Rakhine state, and that he was transferred from his assignment because of a “health condition,” but later allowed to resign.
Both generals were among a group of military and border police officials sanctioned by the European Union and Canada on Monday.
Army-linked party pushes back
The Myanmar government has come under heavy fire from the U.N., rights groups, and other members of the international community for its denials of army violence that targeted the stateless and persecuted Rohingya, prompting calls that those responsible for the atrocities be tried before the International Criminal Court (ICC).
As a measure to address some of the criticism, the government said in May that it would set up a three-person independent inquiry commission to probe human rights violations that occurred during the crackdown, and that the body would include a foreign expert.
The move has provoked opposition from the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the army-linked political party that ran Myanmar’s previous quasi-civilian government, which condemned it at a press conference at its headquarters in Yangon on Friday.
“I would like to ask why we don’t have any expert in our country to investigate the Rakhine problem?” said USDP spokesman Nanda Hla Myint. “Would it be done only if we appointed an international expert to do it?”
“We won’t accept any international pressure on this issue,” he said, noting that the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) government previously appointed other foreigners to commissions to evaluate the situation in Rakhine state.
A commission led by former U.N. chief Kofi Annan issued a report that in part called for a review of the country’s 1982 Citizenship Law, which prevents the Rohingya from becoming citizens, an end to restrictions on the Muslim minority in order to prevent further violence in the region, and the closure of internally displaced persons camps in Rakhine state where tens of thousands of Rohingya have lived since 2012.
“Although the Myanmar government has established commissions with international experts for the purpose of easing international pressure, we have had more pressure after these commissions have completed their work, and now [there are even calls] to prosecute Myanmar’s military at the ICC,” Nanda Hla Myint said.
“The government and the people have to stand by the military in this situation because it is a direct insult to our sovereignty and direct interference in a domestic issue,” he said, adding that anyone who urges the country to accept an international expert on the new commission is a “traitor.”
Rohingya boy shot
Meanwhile, despite efforts to secure and stabilize northern Rakhine, Myanmar border guard police on Thursday shot and wounded a Rohingya refugee boy playing with other children in a no-man’s land between the border of Myanmar and Bangladesh.
Ten-year-old Ansar Ullah, who is from a village in Rakhine's Maungdaw district, was shot at about 4 p.m. local time on Thursday and is being treated at a hospital in a refugee camp, said Nay Lin Aung, one of the roughly 6,000 Rohingya who live in the buffer-zone area.
“We heard the gunshot, but only one,” he said.
“He was taken to a hospital, and we don’t know whether he will survive or die,” he said. “We don’t know which hospital he was taken to.”
A police official who declined to give his name told RFA that he could not answer any questions about the shooting without permission from his superiors.
RFA also called Maungdaw district deputy administrator Ye Htoo, who said he wasn’t aware of the shooting.
The refugees living in the no-man’s land have demanded that the Myanmar government grant them citizenship, ensure their safety, and rebuild their destroyed houses.
Reported by Htet Arkar and Thant Zin Oo for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.