Myanmar officials on Thursday cancelled a trip for nearly 50 foreign diplomats and United Nations officials to trouble spots in violence-ridden Maungdaw township in northern Rakhine state, citing poor weather conditions.
Maung Maung, deputy director of Rakhine state’s Information and Public Relations Department, gave no further details about the canceled visit to the focal point of recent strife which has left hundreds dead and forced a half-million Rohingya Muslims to flee the country.
A notice on the Ministry of Information’s website later in the day, however, said the trip had been postponed to Oct. 2 because of bad weather and a request by the dean of the diplomatic corps.
The state government planned to take the diplomats and U.N. personnel to several places in Maungdaw, including the village where mass graves of dozens of slain Hindus were found earlier this week, but heavy rain in the capital Sittwe made it impossible for helicopters to land at the airport, officials said.
The trip’s postponement comes as U.N. chief Antonio Guterres, who has called for an end to all military operations in Rakhine, briefed the U.N. Security Council about the violence in Myanmar.
He condemned what he called the “humanitarian nightmare” for the Rohingya and demanded that the government end military operations, open humanitarian access to the region, and grant Rohingya refugees citizenship, according to news wire reports.
On Thursday, nearly 90 rights groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) issued a statement calling on the U.N. Security Council and General Assembly to take immediate steps to address the human rights abuses and humanitarian catastrophe experienced by the Rohingya.
They also want the U.N. to adopt a resolution to address the crisis and consider an arms embargo against the military and sanctions against the perpetrators of the violence.
“As more evidence emerges, it is clear that the atrocities committed by Myanmar state security forces amount to crimes against humanity,” the coalition of NGOs said. “The United Nations and its member states need to take urgent action.”
The Associated Press published details of a letter from 21 U.S. Senators to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson criticizing Myanmar’s response to Aug. 25 militant attacks as “extraordinarily disproportionate” and calling on the Trump administration to consider sanctions against the perpetrators.
The senators urged the Trump administration to hold perpetrators of atrocities in Myanmar’s Rakhine state accountable under international law and U.S. law that allows the president to impose sanctions on individuals responsible for extrajudicial killings, torture, and other gross violations of human rights in any foreign country, the AP reported from Washington on Thursday.
Reporters taken to mass graves
Meanwhile, the Myanmar military permitted journalists from select domestic and international news organizations, including RFA’s Myanmar Service, to tour areas of Maungdaw township where the remains of Hindus have been unearthed from four pits.
Two army helicopters transported the reporters to Maungdaw’s Yebaw Kya village area where mass graves of were found by security forces on Sept. 24 and 25. The choppers landed near Bawtila Muslim village where the bodies of slain Hindu women were discovered.
“I want you to see the reality,” Major General Aung Ye Win, director of the military’s public relations, told reporters. “We have checked everything systematically. I want you to know that there is no ethnic cleansing in our country.”
“In this region, the Bengali population number several hundreds of thousands and other ethnics and non-Muslims represent a small minority,” he said using a derogatory name for the Rohingya who are considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and denied Myanmar citizenship.
“We brought you here to see for yourselves who is killing whom,” he said.
Local Hindus and the Myanmar government said earlier this week that Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) militants detained nearly 100 people from several Hindu villages in Kha Maung Seik village tract on Aug. 25, killed most of them, and dumped their corpses in four mass graves.
On Wednesday, the Myanmar army raised the number of bodies uncovered from mass graves to 52 and reported that 192 others were still missing.
The killings occurred the same day that ARSA militants launched deadly attacks on police outposts and an army base, prompting a counteroffensive by the Myanmar army in Rohingya areas of northern Rakhine.
Muslim militants forced some of the young Hindu women they captured to convert to Islam, the government said, citing testimony from Ni Maul, a Hindu social worker and local community leader.
Laid out on the grass
The decomposed bodies of the slain Hindus were laid out on the grass, some with silver necklaces still around their necks, while relatives of the victims cried nearby.
“Terrorists killed the men from the hostages they had brought along and dumped the bodies here,” Colonel Okkar Ko from Myanmar’s border police told the journalists.
“The women and girls were taken to a hut we just saw over there a while ago,” he said. “We learned from local religious leaders here that seven or eight of the women who were [forced to] convert to Islam were spared and were taken across the border. The remaining women were killed and dumped into the pits which we saw earlier.”
The women who were taken away later contacted local Hindu leaders to tell them what had happened and where the graves of those killed were located.
Those who were taken to Bangladesh called local leaders to inform them that they were staying at the Kutupalong refugee camp, Hindu community leaders told reporters.
During the violence, more than 120 Hindus who lived in Yebaw Kya village in the Khamaungzeik village tract were seized and massacred, they said.
“Those who were away in other villages for business or other matters on that day were lucky, but those who were in the village were taken away,” a Hindu leader named Premhauri told RFA. “Eight of the girls are across the border now.”
One Hindu woman said that her husband was killed on his way home from another village the day of the massacre.
“My husband was a barber and went to Kyainchaung village that day,” she told RFA. “On his way back he was killed by the terrorists. His body hasn’t been found.”
Authorities said that DNA checks will be performed on the bodies to identify them.
On Wednesday, ARSA issued a statement on Twitter saying it “categorically denies that any of its members or combatants perpetrated murder, … violence or forcible recruitment” in the Maungdaw villages that were home to Hindus.
Bangladesh, which has accused Myanmar of committing genocide against the Rohingya and called on it to resolve the refugee crisis, is struggling to accommodate the influx of new refugees in existing camps in the country’s southeast where another 400,000 Rohingya already live.
Rohingya from northern Rakhine are still leaving the area, but not all of them are making it to Bangladesh.
At least 14 people, including 10 children, drowned on Thursday when a boat carrying Rohingya fleeing northern Rakhine capsized yards off the coast of Bangladesh after hitting a submerged object, according to news agency reports.
Citizenship verification process
On Wednesday, a Myanmar government minister said the country will build two repatriation camps for Rohingya refugees who have fled to Bangladesh and take them back according to an agreement between Myanmar and Bangladesh in 1993.
The government will spend more than 20 billion kyats (U.S. 14.5 million) on the project and prioritize work on the nationality verification process — the country’s long-stalled citizenship verification process for the stateless Rohingya.
On Thursday, Thein Swe, minister of labor, immigration and population, told reporters in Myanmar's capital Naypyidaw that the government will send forms to Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh to complete and return to begin the process.
“Those who want to come back must produce documents for verification,” he said. “When we get back these forms, we will check the data we have to make sure they really were formerly from our country.”
The ministry also will check records it has for the Rohingya refugees who have lost their identification papers, he said, but did not indicate when the government will send the forms.
Once the ministry confirms the citizenship eligibility of Rohingya applicants, it will issue nationality verification cards that they need to apply for Myanmar citizenship in accordance with country’s 1982 Citizenship Law, Thein Swe said.
Verification will be conducted at border stations in Taungpyo Latwe village for Rohingya who return by road and in Naguya village for those who return by sea, he said.
Reported by RFA’s Yangon bureau and Min Thein Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.