A United Nations envoy said Tuesday that ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya is continuing in northern Rakhine state, as Myanmar prepares to accept back the Muslim refugees from neighboring Bangladesh where they are living in sprawling camps.
Andrew Gilmour, U.N. Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, said Myanmar is continuing its “campaign of terror and forced starvation” against the minority ethnic group in northern Rakhine state.
Gilmour and other U.N. officials interviewed newly arrived Rohingya in displacement camps in southeastern Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar, who provided accounts of ongoing torture, rape, and abductions, as well as forced starvation.
A brutal military crackdown six months ago drove nearly 700,000 Rohingya from Maungdaw, Buthidaung, and Rathedaung townships across the border in what the U.N. and United States have said amount to ethnic cleansing.
As Myanmar and Bangladesh prepare to repatriate refugees who wish to return voluntarily to Rakhine, hundreds of Rohingya are still arriving in Bangladesh amid recent reports of continued violence and accusations that local authorities have bulldozed abandoned Rohingya communities and farmland.
Though the Myanmar government says it has been distributing food to people in the affected areas, Rohingya residents have reported that the military has blocked supplies to try to starve them out.
“The ethnic cleansing of Rohingya from Myanmar continues,” Gilmour said in a statement issued Monday at the end of a four-day visit to the refugee camps. “I don't think we can draw any other conclusion from what I have seen and heard in Cox's Bazar,” he said.
“The nature of the violence has changed from the frenzied bloodletting and mass rape of last year to a lower-intensity campaign of terror and forced starvation that seems to be designed to drive the remaining Rohingya from their homes and into Bangladesh,” he said in a statement.
With Maungdaw township on the border of Bangladesh already largely emptied of its Rohingya population, those arriving now are coming from towns in Rakhine’s interior, Gilmour said.
The U.N. and rights groups have warned against a hasty repatriation of the Rohingya, fearing that they will continue to face systematic discrimination, if not violence, in Myanmar.
Gilmour took the same stance, arguing that the refugees could not return at this point because of continued threats of killings and rape, the impossibility of living in northern Rakhine given that livelihoods and food sources have been wiped out, and the absence of any willingness to address the root causes of systematic discrimination against the Muslim minority group.
‘It is impossible’
Maung Ohn, a Rakhine state lawmaker who represents Maungdaw township where new structures for returnees are being built, rejected Gilmour’s comments and said refugees have been re-entering Myanmar without being processed by repatriation centers that authorities have set up.
“A U.N. human rights envoy said Myanmar is continuing its ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the Rohingya with a ‘campaign of terror and forced starvation’ in Rakhine state, but it is impossible,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“We know that many Bengali refugees have been reentering into Myanmar in Maungdaw township,” he said, using a derogatory term for the Rohingya who are viewed as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Mang Ohn said the Rohingya who are returning have been clandestinely crossing the border without going to the repatriation centers, and their willingness to return indicates that the Myanmar government is not taking actions that cause them harm or create more refugees.
His assertions, which repeat consistent denials by Myanmar officials that Rohingya have been subject to ethnic cleansing, could not be independently verified in an area that is largely off limits to reporters and rights monitors.
“It is like the U.N. is inciting the other side by saying this,” Maung Ohn said.
Local ethnic Rakhine people who live in the region are worried about their security and safety because there are no government troops in most places, he said.
“The security forces are [stationed] along the border areas to check if there are any terrorists among those who return home from Bangladesh,” he said in a reference to members of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) which conducted deadly raids and attacks on border guard stations and police outposts in northern Rakhine in October 2016 and August 2017, respectively.
“Many people are entering Myanmar, and we don’t know if there are any terrorists among them,” Maung Ohn said. “Security forces have to check these people as it is their duty, but it is not ‘ethnic cleansing.’”
He compared the current situation to a previous bout of violence in northern Rakhine in 1978 when the Myanmar army conducted a large-scale operation called Operation Nagamin (Dragon King) to disarm and expel Rohingya insurgents.
Soldiers conducted mass arrests and tortured those believed to be collaborators and sympathizers, driving more than 200,000 Rohingya to safety in Bangladesh. The refugees who settled temporarily in makeshift camps reported atrocities by security forces, including rape and murder.
“Many of them fled to Bangladesh at that time, but they returned home in 1979, and we had to accept 20,000 more than the number of those who originally fled to Bangladesh,” Maung Ohn said. “This time it will be the same, I think.”
Rights groups speak out
In response to Gilmour’s comments, London-based Amnesty International said Myanmar authorities must cease all activities aimed at forcing the Rohingya out of Rakhine.
“The UN’s findings sadly echo our own — there is no question that the Myanmar authorities’ vicious campaign of ethnic cleansing against Rohingya is still ongoing, said James Gomez, the group’s director of Southeast Asia and the Pacific, in a statement issued Tuesday. “Fleeing Rohingya told us how they are still being forcibly starved in a bid to quietly squeeze them out of the country.”
“This is yet more evidence that any plans for organized repatriation of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh are extremely premature,” he said. “No one should be returned to Myanmar until they can do so voluntarily, in safety and dignity — something that is clearly not possible today.
“The Myanmar authorities must end all operations aimed at forcing Rohingya out of their homeland, whether at gunpoint or through starvation,” he said. “It is also high time the international community took meaningful action, including by imposing an arms embargo and targeted sanctions.”
Last week, the European Union condemned “ongoing, widespread, systematic grave human rights violations” by the Myanmar army and demanded restrictive sanctions against military generals responsible for brutality against the Rohingya.
The United States and Canada have already imposed sanctions on Myanmar military officers, including Major General Maung Maung Soe, head of the Myanmar Army’s Western Command, who led the military’s crackdown on the Rohingya.
Meanwhile, ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) issued a report in the Rohingya crisis based on the findings of a fact-finding mission to Bangladesh that some of the organization’s members took in January.
The delegation, which included lawmakers from Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand, visited the capital Dhaka and displacement camps in Cox’s Bazar where they interviewed government officials, refugees, and humanitarian assistance workers to collect information on human rights violations against the Rohingya in Myanmar and in Bangladesh.
“Visiting the camps and speaking directly with refugees provided an important window into what they want and need,” said Charles Santiago, Malaysian lawmaker and ARHR’s chairman, in a statement. “The harrowing stories we heard only bolstered our collective resolve as regional lawmakers to speak out and promote accountability and justice for the undeniable atrocities perpetrated against them.”
Reported by Khin Khin Ei for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.