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Arakan crisis: still more questions than answers

FILE PHOTO: Local Rohingyas stand on a road in Aung Mingalar, Sittwe, in 2012. (Lux Capio Photography)

Appeals for independent journalists and human rights monitors to be allowed access into Arakan State to investigate alleged abuses have been raised this week.

Speaking at a news conference in Naypyidaw on Wednesday, the Office of the State Counsellor acknowledged that some buildings had been burned down in three Rohingya villages in Maungdaw Township — but refuted previously published satellite imagery by Human Rights Watch (HRW), identifying 430 destroyed buildings.

“It is positive that the government is admitting that there has been widespread property damage, but this has to be followed up by unfettered access by the media and researchers to ascertain the causes of the destruction and clarify what role the security forces or the militants had,” said David Mathieson, HRW representative in Rangoon.

Despite rejecting HRW’s report, Zaw Htay, deputy director-general of the President’s Office, said the government would co-operate with non-state media access to the area. However no timeline on the restrictions lifting was announced.

HRW’s Asia director Brad Adams said he welcomed the President’s Office pledge for co-operation with all media, but said, “This is long overdue.”

He added: “Prompt and unhindered access to affected areas for independent investigations by the media and human rights organisations is crucial.”

State media reported this morning that during clearance operations in Kyargaungtaung yesterday, border guards from Maungdaw Township arrested 59 persons suspected of being armed attackers.

Earlier this week, Amnesty International released a statement expressing concern over the continuing allegations of human rights violations being committed against Rohingyas by members of Burma’s security forces. “The government has denied these allegations, yet has effectively barred independent observers and human rights monitors from accessing the area,” the report stated.

Amnesty urged members of the public to write letters to the Burmese authorities calling for protection of all citizens in northern Arakan State, also known as Rakhine, and allow humanitarian organisations and agencies access to the region.

The President’s Office on Wednesday unveiled details of a new committee, called the State Counsellor Office’s Information Committee, which aims to deliver real-time information on issues in Arakan State. Government spokesperson Zaw Htay said the commission aimed to “clarify” any misinformation. In the same breath Zaw Htay denied allegations of rape and sexual violence committed by security forces against Rohingya women and girls during the military’s “clearance operations”.

HRW’s Mathieson said, “Zaw Htay simply cannot dismiss serious allegations of sexual violence with such disdain. It stains the government’s credibility and commitment to rule of law every time he refutes these reports.”

The military’s True News Information Team also rejected claims that its soldiers had razed Rohingya villages. Instead they released a statement on November 15, claiming that the buildings had been “torched by members of the violent attackers in northern Rakhine.”

Thirteen observers from the UN and international NGOs are currently in Sittwe where they will visit relief camps and villages in the area. This follows a statement by former UN chief Kofi Annan, who chairs the commission tasked with finding solutions to the violence in Arakan State, expressing his deep concern over the recent violence in the region.