YANGON – Based on firsthand accounts from Rohingya living on the Bangladesh border, a US delegation led by Senator Jeff Merkley said the Myanmar Army’s clearance operation bore “all the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing” and had forced huge numbers of people to flee to the neighboring country.
Over the weekend, a group of US legislators and diplomats, including Ambassador Scot Marciel, traveled to northern Rakhine State to learn firsthand how the situation there had unfolded since Aug. 25. After wrapping up their tour, the delegation held a press conference at the Hotel Lotte in Yangon on Tuesday.
“We spoke with many refugees and heard a lot of firsthand accounts. Many refugees have suffered horrific attacks, including loved ones, children and husbands being killed in front of them, wives and daughters being raped, burns and other horrific injuries. This has all the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing,” Merkley said.
Merkley’s statement echoed a description of the clearance operation by the United Nations as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing,” but was at odds with comments made by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who stopped short of using the phrase during his recent visit to Myanmar. The Myanmar government has consistently rejected such allegations from the international community.
The US delegation met with members of the Rakhine State cabinet and the Arakan National Party (ANP), as well as representatives of civil society organizations and the Muslim community in Sittwe, the state capital. However, the government denied the group’s requests to visit some sites, Merkley said.
“We appreciate that Aung San Suu Kyi made an invitation in her speech to the United Nations in September for foreign officials to visit the camps and villages directly. We came halfway around the world in order to respond to that invitation. We are pleased we are able to visit Sittwe, but we are saddened that permission to visit villages and camps was denied.”
The US lawmakers condemned violent attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army that killed more than a dozen government security forces on Aug. 25, saying that the group’s attacks had caused serious suffering by a number of ethnic groups in Rakhine State. However, he said a disproportionate response by the Myanmar Army had driven out more than 600,000 Muslims to Bangladesh and caused 300 villagers to be burnt to the ground.
The root causes of this horrific situation, he said, are longstanding prejudice and discrimination, aggravated by poverty. The delegates said the segregation of communities in Sittwe resulted in discrimination, especially the limits placed on Muslims’ freedom of movement since communal riots between the Rakhine and Muslim communities in 2012.
The senators urged the government to address the root causes of the conflict and seek a long-term solution to the Rohingya crisis by implementing the recommendations of the Kofi Annan-led advisory commission. The Myanmar State counselor has already established an implementation commission and an international advisory board. In addition, the delegates suggested restoring full access for humanitarian organizations on the ground. At present, the government is only allowing the International Red Cross to assist the World Food Programme’s food distribution efforts.
Merkley asked that freedom of movement be granted to the Rohingya community with “a fair path to ending discrimination” and that the security forces keeping the Rakhine and Muslim communities apart be removed. He urged the government to work with Bangladesh and the United Nations to enable conditions facilitating the voluntary and safe repatriation of refugees currently in the Bangladesh border area, including the rebuilding of structures and community facilities, as the homes of many were destroyed during the clashes. He also called for a full investigation of these atrocities.
Congressman David Cicillin, a member of the delegation who joined both the Bangladesh and Rakhine trips, said, “This is a very important moment for this country and the leadership of this country to demonstrate to the world and to the people of Myanmar that they take the responsibility of democracy and the leadership of democracy seriously.” Asserting that democracy cannot function unless individuals’ rights are respected, he added: “Nor can [we] tolerate institutions or individuals who violate individual human rights in really horrific ways without being held accountable.”
The delegates also collected firsthand accounts from people seeking refuge in Bangladesh and said they would keep the footage as evidence.