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Burmese officials ‘in denial’ over UN report on crimes against Rohingya

A helicopter with senior diplomats on board from the UN, United States, China, Britain, the European Union and India departs from Sittwe to visit Rohingya villages in the Maungdaw area of northern Arakan State on 2 November 2016. (Photo: Reuters)

Burma’s government remains “in denial” about alleged atrocities by its military against minority Rohingya Muslims, officials present at a meeting in Bangladesh said, despite leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s pledge to investigate the findings of a devastating UN report.

The closed-door meeting of diplomats, government officials and international agencies in Dhaka follows a report last week from the United Nations human rights office that said soldiers committed mass killings and gang rapes in a “calculated policy of terror” in Burma’s northwestern Arakan State in recent months.

“When Bangladesh cited the horrific acts by Myanmar’s law enforcing agencies, the Myanmar representative did not agree with this and was in complete denial,” said H.T. Imam, a political adviser to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who was at the meeting.

Three international diplomats also present at the Sunday meeting broadly corroborated that account.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein told The New York Times that Suu Kyi had appeared “genuinely moved” by the harrowing 43-page report, released on Friday, expressing no defensiveness or denial.

While the Nobel Peace Prize laureate does not have control of the security forces, which remain powerful under Burma’s military-drafted constitution, she controls the ministries of foreign affairs and information, which have shaped the country’s public response to the four-month-old crisis in Arakan State.

Suu Kyi has been criticised in the West for not speaking out about abuses against the Rohingya.

Burma has previously denied almost all reports of killings, rapes and arson in northwest Arakan, where it says its army is engaged in a lawful counterinsurgency campaign.

Aye Aye Soe, deputy director at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told Reuters on Monday that Burma took the UN findings seriously and would investigate.

But she added that the country had been the victim of “disinformation, misinformation and fake news” on the issue that meant “the international community seems to have made up its mind.”

“We don’t know if these allegations are true,” said Aye Aye Soe. “If we find that these allegations are true, we will take action.”

About 1.1 million Rohingya live in apartheid-like conditions in northwestern Burma, where they are denied citizenship. Many in Buddhist-majority Burma regard them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, while the authorities in Dhaka say they are Burmese nationals and must ultimately go back.

Since the military operation began on 9 October, about 69,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh. The UN report was based on accounts gathered in January from 220 of them.

Sunday’s meeting in Dhaka was focused on Bangladesh’s plan to relocate hundreds of thousands of refugees from makeshift camps on the Burma-Bangladesh border to a remote island in the Bay of Bengal.

A Burmese diplomat also complained at the meeting about Bangladesh’s description of the Rohingya refugees crossing the border as “undocumented Myanmar nationals.”

The presence of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya in the camps in Bangladesh has strained relations between the two countries.

Burma has said it is willing to discuss the return of those who have crossed the border since October, but is only willing to take back 2,415 of those who arrived before then.

“Whether the person is a citizen or not would depend on verification by Myanmar and Bangladesh together. Without going through the process you can’t — one-sided — just label them as our citizens,” said Aye Aye Soe.

“You should call them illegal migrants or undocumented people or illegal refugees or whatever.”

Burma has said the allegations contained in the UN report would be investigated by its own commission on Arakan, headed by Vice-President U Myint Swe, a former general.

Zaw Myint Pe, the secretary of that commission, said it had been unable to substantiate any allegations of rape in northern Arakan since it began its work in December.

Describing the testimony of one woman he said: “The way she was talking to us, it seemed like someone had been teaching her. It was difficult to accept that it must be true.”

Zaw Myint Pe added that Rohingya villages were like “mazes,” where insurgents could easily shoot at troops, and the confusion caused might have resulted in acts of indiscipline.

“So the soldiers might be angry, there might be abuses of power from the government troops,” he said.