Senior Myanmar officials denied on Wednesday that the country’s military had committed any crimes against Rohingya Muslims, one day after a United Nations expert suggested that the government was implicated in “the crime of genocide” against the persecuted Muslim minority.
“There is no ethnic cleansing or genocide in our country,” said U Aung Tun Thet, the chief coordinator of the Myanmar government body dedicated to the Rohingya crisis. “Accusations are very easy to make, but we are not involved in anything at all.”
Some 700,000 Rohingya, a mostly stateless ethnic group from Rakhine State in western Myanmar, have fled a violent military campaign that began last August after Rohingya insurgents attacked government security posts. The military’s scorched-earth tactics resulted in thousands of extrajudicial killings and rapes of Rohingya, according to the United Nations and international rights groups.
On Tuesday, Adama Dieng, the United Nations special adviser on the prevention of genocide, spoke of “horrifying stories” he had heard from Rohingya survivors now sheltering in refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh.
“All the information I have received indicates that the intent of the perpetrators was to cleanse northern Rakhine State of their existence,” Mr. Dieng said, “possibly even to destroy the Rohingya as such, which, if proven, would constitute the crime of genocide.”
Mr. Dieng also accused the international community of having “buried its head in the sand.”
But the Myanmar government maintains that the Rohingya burned down their own villages, and it rejects widespread testimony of executions and sexual violence by the military.
U Aung Hla Tun, Myanmar’s deputy minister of information, said on Wednesday that the Rohingya exodus to Bangladesh was caused, in part, by threats from the Rohingya insurgents who carried out fatal raids on Myanmar security posts on Aug. 25.
“According to the information from the reliable sources on the ground,” Mr. Aung Hla Tun said, “most of these people fled in panic just after the military operations following the terrorist attacks, for fear of being arrested for their involvement or on suspicion.”
Many of the Rohingya “were persuaded to flee” by the prospect of “better livelihood at the camps in Bangladesh,” Mr. Aung Hla Tun said.
The Myanmar government has not sent any investigators to the squalid Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh, which now constitute the world’s largest mega-settlement of displaced people. With monsoon rains coming, aid groups worry that large sections of these settlements could wash away.
Myanmar officials have rejected outright fact-finding reports that were submitted on Monday to the United Nations Human Rights Council that documented severe violations of the rights of ethnic minorities in Myanmar, including the Rohingya.
Speaking to the council, Yanghee Lee, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, said the military’s campaign against the Rohingya bore “the hallmarks of genocide” and urged international legal action against “the individuals who gave the orders and carried out violations against individuals and entire ethnic and religious groups.”
On Monday, Amnesty International accused the Myanmar government of destroying the remains of Rohingya villages in a campaign dedicated to “erasing evidence of crimes against humanity.” Using satellite imagery, Amnesty documented how new security bases were being built on land that had once housed Rohingya communities. Separately, rights groups have documented more than 300 Rohingya villages in northern Rakhine that were razed by fire since last August.
The Myanmar government says that any recent bulldozing has been for benign purposes.
“We are clearing the land to make it suitable for rebuilding for the refugees,” Mr. Aung Tun Thet said on Wednesday at a news conference in Naypyidaw, the Myanmar capital.
Both the Bangladesh and Myanmar governments have talked up voluntary repatriations as a solution to one of the world’s most urgent refugee crises. So far, only 8,032 of the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya now crowded into the Bangladesh camps have said they are willing to be repatriated, according to a list drawn up by the Bangladeshi authorities last month.
On Wednesday, U Myint Thu, Myanmar’s permanent secretary for foreign affairs, said that Bangladesh’s repatriation list was missing “essential information” needed to verify that those people had indeed fled from Myanmar. Consequently, only 374 of the 8,032 applicants had been verified and approved by his government, he said.
“They can come back anytime at their convenience,” Mr. Myint Thu said, without specifying a timeline.
Multiple deadlines to begin the repatriation process have passed without any movement. Each government has blamed the other for the delay.
Any returnees would be sent first to dismal transit centers. Human Rights Watch has called those internment camps, with their long houses and barbed-wire fences, “open-air prisons.” U Zaw Htay, a Myanmar government spokesman, said on Wednesday that repatriated individuals would spend no more than a month in the camps.
“Then they can move to their original homes, or to the nearest places,” Mr. Zaw Htay said.
But about 120,000 Rohingya who were displaced during violence in 2012 are still confined to internment camps in central Rakhine State. Mr. Zaw Htay said on Wednesday that, more than five years later, the “process of moving them to their original places” had finally begun.
“We are trying our best,” he said.
United Nations officials were not as sanguine. “Under the present conditions, returning to Myanmar will put the Rohingya population at risk of further crimes,” said Mr. Dieng, the genocide prevention expert at the United Nations.
“We must not fail the Rohingya population again,” he said. “They have endured what no human beings should have to endure.”
(c) 2018 The New York Times