UPDATED at 5:20 P.M. EDT on 2017-10-18
A top-level United Nations diplomat met with officials in western Myanmar's Rakhine state on Tuesday to discuss the implementation of recommendations of an advisory commission that examined ethnic and religious strife in the beleaguered region.
Jeffrey Feltman, the U.N.’s under-secretary-general for political affairs, met with Nyi Pu, chief minister of Rakhine state, in the state capital Sittwe to discuss working together to implement recommendations outlined in a report by the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, said Aung Kyaw Zan, Rakhine's minister of electric power, industry, and transportation.
“We explained to him the three major points that we have given priority to in working on the Rakhine problem,” Aung Kyaw Zan said.
The commission led by former U.N. chief Kofi Annan issued its final report in August, which called for reviews of the country’s Citizenship Law and an end to restrictions on its Rohingya Muslim minority to prevent further violence in the region.
The commission, appointed by State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi in August 2016, also advised the government to take concrete steps to end enforced segregation of ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, allow unfettered humanitarian access in Rakhine, address the statelessness of the Rohingya, hold accountable those who violate human rights, and end restrictions on the Rohingya’s freedom of movement.
In September, the government formed a committee led by Win Myat Aye, head of the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief, and Resettlement, to implement the commission’s recommendations.
Renata Lok-Dessallien, the U.N. resident and humanitarian coordinator in Myanmar, accompanied Feltman on the trip during which they met ethnic Rakhine people, Muslims, and Hindus living in Nga Khu Ya village and asked them about the situation of Rohingya Muslims who have fled to Bangladesh.
“They said they came here to learn about the situation on the ground and will work with us on humanitarian efforts,” Aung Kyaw Zan said.
Feltman, who has been in the country since Oct. 13, has met with Myanmar’s de factor leader Aung San Suu Kyi, military commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing, Win Myat Aye, and Shwe Mann, chairman of the Commission for the Assessment of Legal Affairs and Special Issues.
He also met with Thein Swe, minister for labor, immigration, and population, and Lieutenant General Ye Aung, minster of border affairs, to discuss the citizenship process for Rohingya Muslims and the border situation.
Earlier this year, the U.N. Human Rights Council established a fact-finding mission to examine the circumstances of alleged human rights violations by military and security forces in Rakhine state, but the Myanmar government has refused to grant the commissioners visas to enter the country.
The UN issued a statement late on Tuesday saying that Feltman had "underscored the importance of accountability and non-discriminatory rule of law and public safety as part of the comprehensive approach needed to address the fears and distrust among communities in Rakhine."
Better resettlement deal
Also on Tuesday, Win Myat Aye said Myanmar will offer a better resettlement plan for returning Rohingya Muslims who fled to Bangladesh by allowing them to live in their previous homes and providing alternative housing for those who lost their homes.
“We have already said we will accept back refugees who fled to Bangladesh, but we will work on it with rules and laws,” he told RFA. “Myanmar and Bangladesh are discussing accepting these people back.”
He said Myanmar and Bangladeshi government officials will meet and form groups to work together on the repatriation of the refugees and to ensure no terrorists are among those who return.
Bangladeshi and international humanitarian agencies have been struggling to accommodate and provide basic services for the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who left northern Rakhineduring a military crackdown following deadly Aug. 25 attacks on 30 police posts and an army facility.
The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a militant Muslim group, claimed responsibility for the attacks as well as for deadly smaller-scale raids on three border guard stations in October 2016.
The most recent crackdown has driven more than 580,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh where they are staying in refugee camps, while thousands more attempt to cross the border into Bangladesh.
Win Myat Aye told RFA’s Myanmar Service that Maungdaw township, which bore the brunt of the recent violence in northern Rakhine, was “stable” during his humanitarian mission to the area to give money and food to households in various villages, including Pantawpyin Muslim village and Kone Tine ethnic Mro village.
“As far as I can see, Maungdaw’s situation is stable and calm,” he said.
New satellite images
New York-based Human Rights Watch on Tuesday said newly released satellite images of northern Rakhine showed that at least 288 villages have been partially or totally destroyed by fire since Aug. 25, encompassing tens of thousands of homes mostly belonging to Rohingya Muslims.
Analysis of the imagery indicates that the burnings focused on Rohingya villages in Maungdaw, Buthidaung, and Rathedaung townships, which were located next to intact ethnic Rakhine villages, and occurred after Myanmar officials said security operations had ended on Sept. 5, HRW said in a statement.
Myanmar’s military responded to the ARSA attacks on Aug. 25 with a brutal campaign that the U.N., rights groups, and others say amounts to ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.
“These latest satellite images show why over half a million Rohingya fled to Bangladesh in just four weeks,” said Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy Asia director, in the statement. “The Burmese military destroyed hundreds of Rohingya villages while committing killings, rapes, and other crimes against humanity that forced Rohingya to flee for their lives.”
Win Myat Aye accused HRW of presenting false information.
“Daw [honorific] Aung San Suu Kyi said the truth,” he told RFA, referring to the state counselor’s recent public speech in which she said that attacks and military operations ended in northern Rakhine on Sept. 5.
“We have had no attacks, clashes, operations, or engagements since Sept. 5,” he said. “I don’t know why HRW said untruthful information.”
HRW also pointed out that while the Myanmar government has repeatedly said that ARSA insurgents and Rohingya residents torched their own villages, it has offered no evidence to support the claims. The group also said that Rohingya refugees it interviewed in Bangladesh did not indicate that ARSA militants or villagers were responsible for the arson.
On this point, Win Myat Aye said: “They said what they heard, but we are working on the ground here in Maungdaw region and see the real situation. What we have been seeing is different from what they said.”
When asked if the Myanmar government could verify whether HRW’s satellite images are authentic, Win Myat Aye said no one had time because everyone has been busy with dealing with the crisis in Rakhine state.
“We haven’t had time to respond to the accusations because we have been very busy with working on Rakhine state, the many problems in the country, and the democratic transition,” he said.
“We will prove the truth by working,” he said. “We are doing our best in the situation on the ground. We are working with accountability for all people in Myanmar, especially for people in Rakhine state, and we want the world know it.”
On Monday, the European Council, the body charged with defining the European Union’s political direction and priorities, said it would review “all practical defense cooperation” with the Myanmar army and may consider measures in addition to an embargo on arms and equipment that can be used for internal repression if the situation in Rakhine does not improve.
It also called for the quick and full implementation of recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, especially the granting of citizenship to the stateless Rohingya.
“We have nothing to do with the EU’s decision that was made based on what they heard,” said Win Myat Aye. “But the truth will come out one day.”
Reported by Thiri Min Zin, Min Thein Aung, and Khin Khin Ei for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.