Despite heavy condemnation by the international community and vivid evidence of atrocities, Myanmar on Thursday defended its handling of the crisis in Rakhine state, insisting that there has been no ethnic cleansing of the region’s Rohingya Muslim population and dismissing media reports of army abuses as “malicious and unsubstantiated chatter.”
“The common thread that runs through the commentaries is the allusion that ‘something is rotten in the state of Rakhine,’” Thaung Tun, Myanmar’s national security adviser, told a U.N. Security Council meeting on the situation in Myanmar, the first such public meeting to be held on the Southeast Asia nations in eight years.
“Assertions in the media that a campaign of terror has been unleashed in northern Rakhine and that unspeakable crimes have been committed against innocent people have only served to heighten the concern of the international community,” he said.
“While such assertions might appear reasonable at first glance to a lay observer, expert observers with knowledge of the history of Myanmar and exposure to the propaganda tactics of terrorists will see such comments for what they really are — malicious and unsubstantiated chatter,” he said.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged Myanmar to cease its military operations in northern Rakhine state, allow humanitarian access to the violence-ridden area, and allow the Rohingya Muslims to return home from neighboring Bangladesh where more than 500,000 have sought refuge in recent weeks.
“The situation has spiraled into the world’s fastest developing refugee emergency, a humanitarian and human rights nightmare,” he said.
During the meeting, however, the Security Council’s 15 member countries did not agree on a joint resolution, with the U.S., France and Britain calling for an immediate end to the violence, and Russia and China throwing their support behind Myanmar’s government.
In Geneva, Switzerland, on Friday, the U.N. Human Rights Council decided to extend the mandate of a fact-finding mission in Myanmar by six months until September 2018, despite objections by Myanmar, China, and the Philippines.
The Myanmar government has blocked the commissioners from entering the country by refusing to issue them visas.
Since Aug. 25, about a half-million Rohingya from northern Rakhine have fled to Bangladesh to escape a brutal offensive that the Myanmar military launched following deadly attacks on police outposts by the militant Muslim group the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).
Rights groups, nongovernmental organizations, and the United Nations have accused the army of committing crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing in northern Rakhine amid numerous reports by Rohingya of security forces indiscriminately killing civilians, burning villages, torturing people, and raping girls and women.
The Myanmar government has denied the charges and said that Muslim militants set Rohingya and minority Hindu villages ablaze and killed civilians.
“Ethnic cleansing and genocide are serious charges, and they should not be used lightly,” Thaung Tun said. “It would be a sad commentary of our times if we allowed emotions to cloud our view and assert that what is happening in Rakhine is ethnic cleansing without first undertaking a legal review and making a judicial determination.”
“I can assure you that the leaders of Myanmar, who have been struggling so long for freedom and human rights, will never espouse a policy of genocide or ethnic cleansing, and the government will do everything to prevent it,” he said.
‘A brutal, sustained campaign’
Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., also accused Myanmar of ethnic cleansing and called on all countries to stop supplying weapons to the Myanmar military until it is held accountable for its brutality against the Rohingya.
“We cannot be afraid to call the actions of the Burmese authorities what they appear to be: a brutal, sustained campaign to cleanse the country of an ethnic minority,” she said.
“The time for well-meaning, diplomatic words in this council has passed,” she said. “We must now consider action against Burmese security forces who are implicated in abuses and stoking hatred among their fellow citizens.”
Meanwhile, Rohingya refugees continue to flow into Bangladesh where another 400,000 already live in displaced persons camps in the southeast after fleeing previous rounds of violence in Rakhine state.
“Despite claims otherwise, the violence has not ceased in northern Rakhine state, neither has the exodus of Rohingyas to Bangladesh,” said Masud Bin Momen, Bangladesh’s ambassador to the U.N., at the Security Council meeting.
He said 20,000 more Rohingya entered Bangladesh on Wednesday. The same day, at least 23 people drowned and 40 others went missing and are feared dead when a boat transporting Rohingya families to neighboring Bangladesh capsized within sight of the Bangladesh coast.
Momen noted that as the exodus continues, the Rohingya have said how the military burned their villages, raped women, looted their property, and committed other forms of abuse.
He called for the establishment of “safe zones” in northern Rakhine for Rohingya still in the region and for guarantees that they will receive unhindered humanitarian assistance.
“[T]he immediate priorities should be to cease all forms of violence and ensure protection and humanitarian assistance for those affected or vulnerable in Rakhine state,” he said.
Adding to the condemnation from foreign governments, a group of nearly 90 nongovernmental organizations called on U.N. member states to take urgent action to address “crimes against humanity.”
“As more evidence emerges, it is clear that the atrocities committed by Myanmar state security forces amount to crimes against humanity,” said a joint statement from the groups, which included Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the AFL-CIO.
“In particular, we call on all states to immediately suspend military assistance and cooperation with Myanmar,” said the NGO statement released by Human Rights Watch.
Thaung Tun repeated the Myanmar government’s previous assertion that the military operations in northern Rakhine ended on Sept. 5 and that those who fled to Bangladesh did so out of fear caused by the “terrorists.”
The government has noted that the majority of Rakhine’s 1.1 million Rohingya still live in the region, despite the recent violence.
At the Security Council meeting, Guterres also warned that the crisis in Rakhine could prompt a further exodus of Rohingya and cultivate radicalization in the area.
“The failure to address this systematic violence could result in a spillover into central Rakhine, where an additional 250,000 Muslims could potentially face displacement,” he said.
“The crisis has generated multiple implications for neighboring states and the larger region, including the risk of intercommunal strife,” he said. “We should not be surprised if decades of discrimination and double standards in treatment of the Rohingya create openings for radicalization.”