In an interview with The Irrawaddy, President’s Office deputy director-general and spokesperson U Zaw Htay responded to accusations by international organizations of the killing of civilians by the Burma Army during violence in Arakan State’s Maungdaw last weekend.
How do you respond to accusations in the media that the Burma Army has committed extrajudicial killings in Maungdaw Township?
Many allegations are spread online. Even the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights released such a statement and unreliable websites often publish groundless accusations.
The second issue is access to information in the conflict zone. We are assessing the situation but temporarily it is not safe.
We already sent an information team from the Ministry of Information to the conflict zone in Maungdaw to observe the situation on the ground and we will consider allowing local reporters into the area. That’s why we sent an information unit ahead to observe the situation. Government security forces are acting very carefully not to harm any civilians in the crackdown on attackers and to act within the law and not violate human rights. In Maungdaw, suspects are hiding among villagers and creating a confusing situation for security forces.
We encourage all communities, both Muslim and Buddhist, not to assist militants and to collaborate with the government. We also want to urge the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights and numerous other global organizations to avoid actions which could unintentionally support violent attacks and terrorism.
According to state media, at least 25 people died over the weekend in the Maungdaw area when the army used a helicopter to quell an angry mob—international organizations claim many civilians died. Was it necessary for the military to open fire from a helicopter?
Internationally, there have been many such incidents. In the Middle East women and children are used as human shields to carry out terrorist attacks. Sunday’s Maungdaw attack broke out in a village of about 800 households—think how many people quickly became involved. The entire village joined against the army and the commander was shot by an attacker armed with a gun looted on Oct. 9. The commander had to be airlifted for medical treatment but died before the helicopter landed in the village. The helicopter did not fire rockets or bombs, soldiers fired random shots with a machine gun.
The army troops were not able to surround the large village. Aggressive villagers chanted and ambushed security forces from hiding places. After the attacker shot the commander he was hidden by residents of the village. We did not want to use the helicopter in this instance—it was just coincidence that we were airlifting the wounded commander. Throughout the manhunt the army and police have been careful not to harm unarmed civilians.
Why has there been no video footage to disprove claims of abuse, despite the government sending teams into the conflict zone to collect information?
The army and police force have records—photographic evidence and video clips—but some of these are inappropriate to disclose to the public. We have a policy not to release graphic photos or photos that show dead bodies. The attacks in Maungdaw are not related to religious or racial problems. We are trying to arrest attackers involved in the Oct. 9 attacks and retrieve firearms which were looted from weapon stores at the border guard posts.
On the other hand, our government has a discreet nationwide operation with religious leaders in order to prevent communal and religious problems. We really are deeply concerned about how to handle this problem. If we released bloody pictures and video clips, we worry that people would use them to instigate religious conflict.
You have said that the authorities would select suitable reporters from local media to visit the conflict zone, when will that be?
I cannot say exactly when that will be because it will depend on the situation of our prior information unit’s report on how they obtain the information on the ground. The situation in Maungdaw must be stable and at the moment we have insufficient time to train journalists to follow the army into the operation zone—access to information is up to the situation on the ground.