In Person

President’s Office: Allegations of Arbitrary Arrests and Torture are ‘Totally Wrong’

By The Irrawaddy 27 October 2016

The Irrawaddy speaks with President’s Office deputy director-general and spokesperson U Zaw Htay—who acted as director and spokesperson under the previous administration of President U Thein Sein, before being promoted by the new National League for Democracy government in April—about the government’s response to recent attacks in northern Arakan State.

What is the government’s response to allegations by the United Nations of human rights violations in Arakan State’s Maungdaw District?

The government has expected, ever since it started handling the Maungdaw issue, that there would be accusations against and pressures on our government on [what the government sees as] the false pretext of human rights violations.

We’ve heard that individuals and organizations that [allegedly] support terrorism and international extremists provide false reports and information—documents, photos, and videos about incidents in other countries—to news agencies. They mix some correct information with plenty of fabricated information and then give this to human rights and media organizations over the phone and through other communications channels.

The UN [supposedly] can’t verify and confirm these news reports. But then those telephone calls and emails may confuse the UN about the reality on the ground. So we [the government] try to explain [the situation] so that they can understand and cooperate [with us].

If they [those with reports about human rights violations] have strong evidence, they can submit it to the appropriate [branch of the] UN. We will take them seriously. One of our foreign policy principles is to cooperate with the UN.

What are the latest developments in Maungdaw District, given that the military has been carrying out operations there since the border attacks? Has the military recovered any looted arms or ammunition? If so, in what quantity?

The number one objective of the joint operation between the military and the police force is to return looted arms and ammunition to the [border guard police] headquarters. Number two is to identify the perpetrators of the attacks and hold them accountable in accordance with the law.

The police force has the responsibility of clearing [villages], and the military of accompanying them as an auxiliary force. In forests or mountainous areas, the military takes [overall] responsibility. This way, we get information from administrators and community elders in villages as well as from investigating those arrested. We then make additional arrests based on this information.

But the problem is that locals have been fleeing their villages after hearing of military forces approaching. In most villages, only women and children were left. While some of the villagers who [allegedly] participated in the attacks continue to move around in groups, some of them have returned to their villages, hiding their weapons and resuming life as ordinary villagers. But they took part in [what the government has called] terrorist attacks. We have been sure to take action in line with the law against these attackers in disguise. The allegations of arrests made without evidence, and of torture, are totally wrong. We haven’t done that. We deny those accusations.

For the attackers to be identifed and arrested, they must be in their villages. It is difficult for us to find those who are on the run. On the ground, the police force, along with the military and community elders, are pushing for these people to return to their villages.

So the UN’s statement does not correspond with the real situation on the ground. We continue to release lists of [weapons and ammunition] recovered. We don’t hide information, [although] the government has restricted the access of media and the World Food Programme in Maungdaw [District] on security grounds.

Under what conditions would these restrictions be lifted?

We are acting according to the law. Depending on the situation on the ground, we will allow journalists to travel [freely] in the region.

As to the allegations of aid restrictions, we don’t want [donors] to provide relief supplies to camps [for displaced people]. They [donors] can give relief supplies when [villagers] return to their homes. If they provide aid [at the camps], [villagers] won’t leave. We want to push them back, and food supplies are one of the factors [that make villagers unwilling to return home].

We don’t ban relief supplies. They [donors] [just have to] provide them when [villagers] return home.