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Rohingya Muslims are not native to Burma, 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.
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 Burma 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.
The military campaign is popular in Burma, where there is little sympathy for the Rohingya, and where Buddhist nationalism has surged.
Min Aung Hlaing, referring to Rohingya 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 Burma, 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 Burmese security forces had brutally driven out half a million Rohingya from northern Arakan State to Bangladesh, torching their homes, crops and villages to prevent them from returning.
Coordinated Rohingya insurgent attacks on some 30 security posts on 25 August sparked a ferocious military response.
The UN rights office said in its report, based on 65 interviews with Rohingya who had arrived in Bangladesh, that abuses had begun before the 25 August 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 Burma until its military puts sufficient accountability measures in place.
The European Union and the United States are considering targeted sanctions against Burma’s military leaders, officials familiar with the discussions said this week.
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.
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 Rohingya linked to the government.
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.”
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 Burma 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.