Burmese government denies ongoing genocide of Rohingya Muslims

Aung San Suu Kyi's ruling NLD party has also been accused of disseminating 'fake news' and imagery in a bid to discredit real reporting on atrocities in the western Burmese state

Charlotte England
Wednesday 04 January 2017 16:28 GMT
(Getty Images)

A Burmese government commission has said the Rohingya Muslim ethnic group is not facing genocide in the country's remote Rakhine State, rejecting any evidence to the contrary as "propaganda".

The official report, published on Wednesday in the state-funded Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper, denied "external allegations" of human rights violations, and cautioned readers against falling for "fabricated news and rumours".

The actions of state forces in the region have been described as ethnic cleansing by senior UN officials, while journalists and aid organisations have documented mass rape, murders, and beatings. Satellite imagery has shown entire villages destroyed by Burmese soldiers.

But according to the commission it is impossible that a genocide is underway in the region, which is currently entirely closed to reporters and foreign aid workers, because a "Bengali population" continues to reside there.

The report cites the existence of mosques and religious edifices as proof the Muslim population is not facing persecution on the grounds of their religion.

Violence has erupted sporadically in Rakhine state since 2012, with state forces implicated in either instigating or actively perpetuating attacks on the up to one million Muslim Rohingya who lived there. Members of the minority ethnic group are denied Burmese citizenship and have been described by the government as illegal immigrants, despite having lived in the country for generations.

Since 2012, many Rohingya people have been confined to inadequate IDP camps, where they have become ill and malnourished and struggled to access healthcare. Many have fled abroad by boat, with thousands believed to have drowned at sea.

The most recent spate of fighting began on 9 October last year, when several Buddhist Burmese border guards were attacked and killed.

Since the incident, dozens of Rohingya villages have been burned to the ground, women have been raped and civilians murdered by the army. At least 10,000 Rohingya have fled across the Bangladeshi border to escape the violence.

But the commission — who were tasked by the president, operating under de facto head of state Aung San Suu Kyi, with “uncovering the truth about terrorist attacks in the region” — failed entirely to address allegations that Burmese security forces had killed civilians. It said there was “insufficient evidence of mass rape”, and argued that police beatings were ordinary in many countries, so did not matter.

Allegations of arson, torture, and arbitrary arrest are still being investigated, the report said.

Human Rights Watch described the report as "very worrisome".

"This commission is looking more and more like the Myanmar government whitewash mechanism that we feared it would be," said Asia Division Deputy Director Phil Robertson.

"This commission report is all about giving the Myanmar government some wiggle room, to try and dispute established facts about burning of Rohingya house and communities and the swelling mountain of evidence about Tatmadaw and police abuses against the Rohingya," he added.

"No doubt that this is the unofficial role of this committee, to raise doubts and counter-points to assertions by the UN, the Kofi Annan Commission, and of course, rights groups like Human Rights Watch – and it’s sad that this is the tactics they are pursuing, rather than allowing a truly credible, internationally assisted investigation that would get both the facts and point to all the perpetrators of the rights abuses on all sides of this situation."

Mr Robertson said that while no one should condone the attacks against government security officials, this is only part of the story of rights abuses happening in Rakhine state.

"The problem is the commission is apparently treating it as the biggest part, and discounting or delaying the other half of the story, which is the disproportionate, rights abusing response by security forces against defenseless Rohingya villagers," he said.

The commission also claimed in the report that they encountered no cases of malnutrition in the north of the impoverished state.

In December, Amnesty International said tens of thousands of people are now at risk of starvation, after the blanket ban on aid.

"Even before 9 October, malnutrition levels were critically high in the region where 150,000 people were dependent on food aid for their survival," the organisation said.

The commission report was also refuted by journalists, who questioned claims they have been allowed to "freely go and cover the news as they wish". In reality, the north of the state is entirely closed to members of the press.

Ms Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, has been widely condemned for her failure to speak up in defence of the Rohingya, and actions which appear to discriminate against the group.

Soon after the NLD government won power — in an election the Rohingya were not allowed to participate in, and in which the party fielded no Muslim candidates — Ms Suu Kyi wrote to foreign ambassadors in the country asking them to stop using the term Rohingya.

In recent weeks, the government has been accused of sharing fake news images of atrocities in other countries, or even in some cases in Hollywood films, and claiming these are being passed off as images of crimes against the Rohingya, in a bid to discredit real reporting.

The government claim the "fake news" stories are damaging the country's reputation abroad, which is confusing many Burmese citizens who do not know what to believe.

The Global New Light, state television channel MRTV, and even a government department have simultaneously showcased the images – the origins of which are unclear – and condemned them.

Posts warning citizens about fake news have been shared thousands of times on Facebook by Burmese citizens, provoking angry nationalistic sentiment.

In a particularly absurd move Ms Suu Kyi's office on Tuesday even sought to use a still from a Rambo movie, alleging it had been shared by Muslims who claimed it showed human rights violations in Rakhine State.

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