YANGON — The Myanmar Army chief rejected accusations of abuses by his troops during operations in northern Rakhine State in a meeting with the US ambassador on Wednesday, saying “no action goes beyond the legal framework.”
Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing told US ambassador Scot Marciel in Yangon “unlawful acts are not allowed” in response to the ambassador raising concerns over the exodus of more than 500,000 people to Bangladesh and reports of excessive use of force and genocide by the security forces in Rakhine, according to a briefing posted on the army chief’s Facebook page.
Most of those who have fled since militants attacked police outposts on Aug. 25 are self-identifying Rohingya Muslims. Reports they have brought of killings, rape, and arson by security forces have stoked claims of ethnic cleansing in the international community.
“The task of shouldering the duty shall be within the framework of rules, laws and other directives issued by the state. No action goes beyond the legal framework,” said the Myanmar Army commander-in-chief.
Despite the army’s denial of crimes, the UN human rights office said on Wednesday that Myanmar security forces began its “clearance operations” before the Aug. 25 militant attacks, brutally driving out self-identifying Rohingya Muslims from the region, torching their homes, crops and villages to prevent them from returning, according to Reuters.
In a report based on 65 interviews with refugees who have arrived in Bangladesh in the past month, the UN human rights office said that the destruction by security forces, often joined by mobs of armed Arakanese Buddhists, of houses, fields, food stocks, crops, and livestock made the possibility of the self-identifying Rohingya returning to normal lives in northern Rakhine “almost impossible.”
“Credible information indicates that the Myanmar security forces purposely destroyed the property of the Rohingyas, scorched their dwellings and entire villages in northern Rakhine State, not only to drive the population out in droves but also to prevent the fleeing Rohingya victims from returning to their homes,” the report said.
During the Wednesday meeting, the ambassador said the US wants to make a constructive approach in order to reduce (international) pressure on Myanmar, according to the account of the meeting posted on Thursday.
“Local Bengalis were involved in the attacks under the leadership of ARSA [Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army],” said Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, using a term for the self-identifying Rohingya to imply they are interlopers from Bangladesh. “That is why they might have fled as they feel insecure.”
“The native place of Bengalis is really Bengal. Therefore, they might have fled to the other country with the same language, race and culture as theirs by assuming that they would be safer there,” the army chief said.
On Tuesday, nearly 2,000 self-identifying Rohingya from Buthidaung Township, an area relatively peaceful, gathered at the shores of the Bay of Bengal at A Lel Than Kyaw and Gawdu Thara villages to board ferries for Bangladesh despite the authorities’ requests for them to return home and assurances for the provision of food and their safety.
The Muslims wanted to leave because of food shortages and the fact they could no longer make a living in the area, according to one of the crowd, Mahmoud Shobi. They were afraid to leave their villages in case of attacks by security forces and Arakanese, he said.
“We have been here for eight days. Some have already gone [to Bangladesh]. We can’t farm and fish in our area. That’s why we left,” he told The Irrawaddy.