Rohingya Muslim refugees living in displacement camps in Bangladesh will be allowed to return to Myanmar only if the Southeast Asian country’s “real citizens” accept them, the military commander-in-chief’s office said on Wednesday in a remark that raised questions about the government’s repatriation plans for hundreds of thousands of displaced people.
More than 615,000 Rohingya have fled to southeastern Bangladesh from northern Rakhine state during a brutal crackdown by Myanmar security forces following deadly Aug. 25 attacks on police outposts by the Muslim militant group the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).
Many of the refugees have accused soldiers of indiscriminate killings, arson, torture, and rape, though both the military and Myanmar’s civilian-led government have consistently denied the allegations, without allowing independent observers into the region.
Senior General Min Aung Hlaing met with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw on Wednesday to discuss the situation in volatile Rakhine state.
“Preparations are being made to re-accept the Bengalis who left Myanmar, under the law,” said Min Aung Hlaing’s statement summarizing the points he raised with Tillerson, and using a derogatory term for the Rohingya who are viewed as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and subjected to discrimination in Buddhist-majority Myanmar.
“The situation must be acceptable for both local Rakhine ethnic people and Bengalis, and emphasis must be placed on [the] wish of local Rakhine ethnic people who are real Myanmar citizens,” it said. “Only when local Rakhine ethnic people accept it, will all the people be satisfied by it. If it is [an] unacceptable situation, political instability may occur, on the other hand.”
The general’s words are a clear contradiction of statements by Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi that the government is working on the repatriation of Rohingya refugees who can show they had been living in Rakhine.
The government’s newly created Union Enterprises for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement, and Development (UEHRD), which Aung San Suu Kyi chairs, is overseeing the provision of humanitarian aid and coordinating resettlement and rehabilitation efforts in the state.
On Monday, she said that the repatriation of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh would begin three weeks after Myanmar signed a memorandum of understanding with Bangladesh, the Associated Press reported.
During a press conference following a meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi on Wednesday, Tillerson expressed concern over “credible reports” of atrocities committed by Myanmar military forces during the crackdown in northern Rakhine, but said that new sanctions against the Southeast Asian country would not resolve the crisis.
“We recognize the military’s responsibility to respond to terrorist or other insurgent attacks,” he said. “Any response, however, must be disciplined and avoid to the maximum extent possible harming innocent civilians.”
ARSA ‘caused an exodus’
Min Aung Hlaing’s statement flies in the face of testimony by Rohingya who fled the region and documentation by human rights groups of atrocities committed by the military during the crackdown. The general claims that most of those who went to Bangladesh were ARSA “terrorists” and their families — not Rohingya civilians.
He said the Aug. 25 attack was related to other assaults by terrorists in northern Rakhine on Oct. 9, 2016, and earlier in 2012, the year in which intense communal violence between Muslims and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists in northern Rakhine caused the deaths of more than 200 people and drove tens of thousands of primarily Rohingya Muslims into displacement camps.
“The number of Bengalis fleeing to Bangladesh from 25 August to 5 September was very small, and more had fled there only since then,” the statement said. “The main reason is that the ARSA extremist Bengali terrorists fled to Bangladesh fearing [a] counterattack [by] security forces after they failed to carry out successful attacks on the security outposts. As they fled, they took their families, causing an exodus.”
Though Tillerson on Wednesday stressed the need for a “credible, independent investigation to provide an accurate assessment of the events that have occurred” in northern Rakhine, the Myanmar government has refused to allow a United Nations-appointed mission to investigate reports of atrocities.
A report by a military investigation team said on Monday that soldiers conducted the recent “security operations” in accordance with their duty assignments and the law and did not use excessive force. The report was swiftly dismissed as a “whitewashing” by leading human rights groups.
The military investigation team estimated that 6,000 to more than 10,000 Muslim militants were in northern Rakhine at the time of the Aug. 25 attacks and accused ARSA extremists of brutally killing children, women, and other Rohingya who cooperated with the government.
Myanmar and Bangladeshi border police forces said this week that they would work together to fight ARSA terrorists reported to have been involved in the attacks in northern Rakhine state and who fled to Bangladesh.
New report on sexual violence
Min Aung Hlaing’s announcement coincided with the release of a new Human Rights Watch (HRW) report on sexual violence against Rohingya women and girls, chronicling widespread rape “as part of a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims” in Rakhine state.
The report’s findings are based on interviews with 52 Rohingya women and girls, including 29 rape survivors who were from 19 different villages, mostly in Buthiduang and Maungdaw townships where the crackdown took place.
HRW also spoke to representatives of humanitarian organizations providing health services to women and girls in the refugee camps, including representatives of U.N. agencies and international and national NGOs, and two Bangladeshi government health officials.
“Human Rights Watch found that Burmese security forces raped and sexually assaulted women and girls both during major attacks on villages but also in the weeks prior to these major attacks, sometimes after repeated harassment,” the report said. “In every case described to us, the perpetrators were uniformed members of security forces, almost all military personnel.”
Other humanitarian organizations working with Rohingya refugees have also documented numerous rape cases.
All but one of the sexual assaults reported to HRW were gang rapes, involving two or more perpetrators. Some women and girls reported being attacked in their homes and while fleeing burning villages, and being beaten or taunted during or after the attacks.
“In general, the government and military have failed to hold military personnel accountable for grave abuses against ethnic minority populations,” the statement said. “Multiple biased and poorly conducted investigations in Rakhine state largely dismissed the allegations of these abuses.”
On Thursday, the U.N. General Assembly’s human rights committee endorsed a resolution drafted by Muslim countries calling on Myanmar to stop the violence against the Rohingya in Rakhine state, allow humanitarian workers access to the region, ensure the return of all refugees, and grant full citizenship rights to the Rohingya.
The non-binding draft resolution, which also called on U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to appoint a special envoy to Myanmar, will be submitted to the full assembly for debate in December.
Meanwhile, attempted or actual attacks that some believe to be committed by Muslims are still occurring in Rakhine state.
On Thursday, authorities discovered four homemade explosive devices at a bridge in Apaukwa village along the road connecting Rakhine’s capital Sittwe to the country’s commercial capital Yangon.
Colonel Aung Myat Moe, Rakhine state’s police chief, said that a military engineering unit and police officers removed the devices, though he could not specify who had placed them there.
Police have searched people leaving and entering the area at checkpoints, and security is tight in the town, he said.
On Wednesday, three trucks from Army Battalion 828 based in Rakhine’s Ann township hit explosive devices as they passed through Phapyaw village in Minbya township, said a local police officer who did not give his name.
“The trucks’ windshields were broken,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service, adding that an investigation is underway.
“The trucks are from army combat service support and transport units,” he said.
Also on Wednesday, a Buddhist nun was injured by a bomb explosion in Waitharli village in Mrauk-U township and sent to a hospital in Kyauttaw township for treatment, local sources said.
Reported by Min Thein Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.