Myanmar army chief says Rohingya Muslims not native, refugee numbers exaggerated

Rohingya Muslims are not native to Myanmar, the army chief told the US ambassador in a meeting in which he apparently did not address accusations of abuses by his men and said media was complicit in exaggerating the number of refugees fleeing.

Published : 12 Oct 2017, 08:49 AM
Updated : 12 Oct 2017, 09:34 AM

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing gave his most extensive account of the Rohingya refugee crisis aimed at an international audience in the meeting with Ambassador Scot Marciel, according to a report posted on his Facebook page.

The general is the most powerful person in Buddhist-majority Myanmar and his apparently uncompromising stance would indicate little sensitivity about the military's image over a crisis that has drawn international condemnation and raised questions about a transition to democracy under Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

Mujan Begum, a 8-year-old Rohingya refugee, who arrived one month ago with her family poses outside her makeshift tent at a refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh Oct 11, 2017. Reuters

The military campaign is popular in Myanmar, where there is little sympathy for the Rohingyas, and where Buddhist nationalism has surged.

Min Aung Hlaing, referring to Rohingyas by the term "Bengali", which they regard as derogatory, said British colonialists were responsible for the problem.

"The Bengalis were not taken into the country by Myanmar, but by the colonialists," he told Marciel, according to the account of the meeting posted on Thursday.

"They are not the natives, and the records prove that they were not even called Rohingya, but just Bengalis during the colonial period."

The UN human rights office said on Wednesday Myanmar security forces had brutally driven out half a million Rohingyas from northern Rakhine state to Bangladesh, torching their homes, crops and villages to prevent them from returning.

Coordinated Rohingya insurgent attacks on some 30 security posts on Aug 25 sparked a ferocious military response.

Rohingya refugees who fled from Myanmar make their way through the rice field after crossing the border in Palang Khali, Bangladesh October 9, 2017. Reuters

The UN rights office said in its report, based on 65 interviews with Rohingyas who had arrived in Bangladesh, that abuses had begun before the Aug 25 attacks and included killings, torture and rape of children.

US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley last month denounced what she called a "brutal, sustained campaign to cleanse the country of an ethnic minority" and called on countries to suspend providing weapons to Myanmar until its military puts sufficient accountability measures in place.

The European Union and the United States are considering targeted sanctions against Myanmar's military leaders, officials familiar with the discussions said this week.

A Rohingya refugee woman with her child rest after crossing the border in Palang Khali, Bangladesh October 9, 2017, Picture taken October 9, 2017. Reuters

Suu Kyi is due to make a speech on television later on Thursday.

She was swept into office last year after winning an election, but the military holds immense power, including exclusive say over security.

'Feel insecure'

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein has described the government operations as "a textbook example of ethnic cleansing" and said the action appeared to be "a cynical ploy to forcibly transfer large numbers of people without possibility of return".

Min Aung Hlaing did not refer to such accusations, according to the published account, but said the insurgents had killed 90 Hindus and 30 Rohingyas linked to the government.

Rohingya refugees collect water at the Balukhali refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh October 10, 2017. Reuters

Insurgents' opposition to a citizenship verification campaign, which used the term Bengali, was behind the attacks, he said.

"Local Bengalis were involved in the attacks under the leadership of ARSA. That is why they might have fled as they feel insecure," he said, referring to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army insurgents.

"The native place of Bengalis is really Bengal," he said. "They might have fled ... assuming that they would be safer there."

He said it was an exaggeration to say the number fleeing to Bangladesh was "very large" and there had been "instigation and propaganda by using the media from behind the scene".

A Rohingya refugee, who fled with his family from Myanmar a day before, carries his two daughters in baskets after thousands of newly arrived refugees spent a night by the road between refugee camps near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh Oct 10, 2017. Reuters

He did not elaborate, or say how many people he thought had fled, but said the "real situation" had to be relayed to the international community.

UN political affairs chief Jeffrey Feltman is due to visit Myanmar on Friday.

Min Aung Hlaing repeated a promise from Suu Kyi that refugees would be accepted back under an agreement with Bangladesh in the early 1990s, adding that details were being worked out.

Many refugees doubt their chances of going home fearing they will not be able to prove their right to return.

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