NAYPYITAW — The Myanmar government’s spokesperson has questioned the motives behind the mass migration of Muslims from northern Rakhine State to neighboring Bangladesh in the last month, claiming there are no clashes at all in the area.
“We believe that [self-identifying Rohingya Muslims] are plotting against the government by misleading [the international community] that there is mass migration,” said U Zaw Htay, who is also director-general of the State Counselor Office.
More than half a million self-identifying Rohingya Muslims have fled Rakhine State since Aug. 25, bringing with them tales of rape, murder, and arson during Myanmar Army security operations the UN’s human rights body has labeled “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
The UN’s humanitarian aid chief said on Friday they were bracing for a possible “further exodus” from Rakhine State, according to Reuters. An estimated 2,000 self-identifying Rohingya continue to flee Rakhine State daily according to the International Organization for Migration.
“This flow out of Myanmar has not stopped yet, it’s into the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya [who are] still in Myanmar, we want to be ready in case there is a further exodus,” Mark Lowcock, UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs told a news briefing in Geneva on Friday, according to Reuters. “Half a million people do not pick up sticks and flee their country on a whim.”
The self-identifying Rohingya Muslims are denied citizenship and classified as illegal immigrants, despite claiming roots in Myanmar that go back centuries, with communities marginalized and subjected to bouts of violence over the years.
Myanmar has denied it is pursuing ethnic cleansing in the state and, according to Reuters, Myanmar and Bangladesh agreed on Monday to form a working group to commence plans for the repatriation of refugees.
“It is not honest. [Self-identifying Rohingya Muslims] are fleeing even as we have told them that nobody would cause any harm to them, and [the government] would provide security and social assistance,” U Zaw Htay said.
U Zaw Htay said there were also reports of Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA)—a self-identifying Rohingya militant group which sparked the latest violence with deadly attacks on 30 police outposts on Aug. 25—making threats by phone from Bangladesh to Muslims in Rakhine State, encouraging them to leave for Bangladesh, he said.
“So, it is also possible that they are fleeing because of fear and concerns that they will be alone when renewed clashes occur,” he said.
“But then, we also heard reports that Muslims were paid to leave by boat [from Rakhine] and arrive at the camp [in Bangladesh]. Putting two and two together, this has brought into question who are funding them to leave,” he added.
During a visit of Myanmar State Counselor’s Office Minister U Kyaw Tint Swe to Bangladesh Dhaka this week, Bangladesh said it regarded ARSA as a common enemy of the two countries.
In her diplomatic briefing in September focusing on the Rakhine issue, State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi urged the international community not just to look at problems but also to look at the areas where there were no problems.
She explained that 50 percent of Muslim villages remained intact. Human Rights Watch said last month that more than half of 400 self-identifying Rohingya villages in Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships had showed fire damage, according to satellite imagery.
“If those people remain [in Rakhine State] Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s statement is valid. At such time, attempts at mass migration is not honest, I think. Because Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has called the international community to help find out the reason behind the exodus,” said former political prisoner U Tun Kyi who is a Muslim.
“So, I think they are trying to contradict the statement of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.”
Since last week of September, thousands of self-identifying Rohingya Muslims from villages in Buthidaung have gathered at the border with Bangladesh. According to the government information committee, there were around 13,000 Muslims at the border.
“Together with community elders, we met them and asked if they needed any assistance. They replied mildly that their relatives [from Bangladesh] called them and they would go and settle with them,” said U Tin Maung Swe, secretary of Rakhine State government.
“They said they have no problems. Entire villages are leaving and therefore there are thousands of people,” he said.
Though authorities dissuaded them from leaving and promised to provide security, health care and food, they refused to stay, he added.
“But I don’t like them breaking through border fences. The border is quite long and they can go [into Bangladesh] through other ways,” said U Tin Maung Swe.
U Tun Kyi said he condemned any person or organization which is deliberately forcing a mass exodus. He said he believed that there are persons and organizations that have exerted improper influence over people of poor education-level in the area.
“There are a lot of interests. ARSA also has interests. The government and the Tatmadaw have shown arms seized from ARSA to international diplomats. Those arms are old and broken. Why can’t the government defeat ARSA which only have broken guns?” questioned U Tun Kyi.
Upper House parliamentarian U Khin Maung Latt said international laws allow people to flee and it is difficult for the government to stop them.
“Authorities said they would provide security and food, but they don’t accept it. They may get more relief supplies and aid there, and they may get into a third country. There are such incentives. So, they were told that they would face troubles if they stay here and were talked into leaving for Bangladesh,” said U Khin Maung Latt.
Myanmar’s government was facing allegations of human rights violations because of the unfair portrayal of the issue by international media, he said.