Rights groups are concerned that “blatant falsehoods” in state media could exacerbate tensions in Rakhine State, after The Global New Light of Myanmar published a denial that Muslim residents face restrictions on their movements and are refused access to vital services.
The opinion piece in the state-run newspaper follows deadly attacks on three border guard posts in Maungdaw and Rathedaung townships on October 9. The government has blamed the attacks on Islamist terrorists, prompting widespread fear in Rakhine State and beyond. Videos of unclear origin have since appeared online with armed men calling for jihad and for Rohingya rights.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has vowed the investigations into the attacks will be “fair” and according to rule of law.
But yet-to-be confirmed reports of extra-judicial killings and widespread destruction of Muslim villages in northern Rakhine State by the military as they hunt for the culprits has led to fears that the attacks will be used to justify further rights abuses on the more than 1 million Rohingya who live in the state.
The Global New Light of Myanmar article calls on “international communities to review their policies, towards the atrocities of the extremist attackers” and contrasts what it calls the “neighborliness” of Bangladesh “against a backdrop of heightened fabrications that a number of Muslims living in Rakhine state face discrimination, restrictions of movements and denial of access to services”.
The restrictions under which the Rohingya minority are forced to live have been widely attested to and condemned by numerous organisations, including the UN.
Responding to the article Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch Asia division, said “the reality is the Rohingya face severe restrictions on movements” which curtail their ability to earn a livelihood and access basic services.
“The government should realise that its efforts to elicit sympathy and cooperation to find those who attacked the border police camps in Maungdaw are undermined when its mouthpiece prints blatant falsehoods about the continued restrictions Rohingya face in Rakhine State,” he said.
Amnesty International said that their observers had witnessed firsthand the damaging impact of the restrictions placed on Muslim communities in Rakhine State.
“Denying the existence of long-standing restrictions on the Rohingya population, and the serious difficulties they create for people’s daily lives, not only ignores the reality on the ground, it will hinder any efforts towards finding durable solutions to the situation in Rakhine State,” said Laura Haigh, Amnesty International’s Myanmar researcher.
Ms Haigh cautioned against additional restrictions. “The government has the duty and the right to maintain law and order, however, it must ensure that its response to these recent attack does not further compound the longstanding discrimination and rights abuses that Rohingya in northern Rakhine State suffer,” she said.
Her warning came as the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) reported yesterday that humanitarian response interventions in northern Rakhine State were being coordinated but were “hampered by movement restrictions”.
Over 40, and according to some reports as many as 90, people – mainly Muslims – have been killed as Tatmadaw troops conduct “clearance operations” in their search for culprits. Hundreds of homes are reported to have been razed with thousands of people feared displaced. Further attacks on police have also been reported.
The Global New Light of Myanmar did not respond to requests yesterday from The Myanmar Times as to what had prompted the article.
Western media are frequently accused by authorities and nationalist activists in Myanmar as being biased in favour of the Rohingya population.
Asia-based publications have generally been less critical; however, on October 16, the Thai newspaper The Nation published a strongly worded editorial headlined: “The [Myanmar] government and military will have to bear the blame if estranged Muslim community decides to take up arms.”
The Nation’s opinion piece said, “The situation would not have descended to this level if Myanmar had been more even-handed in its treatment of the Rohingya.” It went on to depict recent events in northern Rakhine State in terms of ethnic minority resistance elsewhere in the country.
The Global New Light of Myanmar opinion piece emphasised Bangladesh’s “neighbourly” response to the current situation, including the fact it handed over suspects alleged to have taken part in the October 9 attacks. Around 230,000 Rohingya are estimated to be live in Bangladesh and some of the attackers are alleged to have spent time there.
The state media article also sought to promote Myanmar’s relationship with the EU. “At a time when we are taking effective action to defend against, respond to and defeat all armed violent attacks and attempted attacks in according to the law … the provision of assistance by Bangladesh and the EU in the form of encouragement is an [sic] valuable asset capable of holding the perpetrators ultimately accountable.”
Asked for a response to the article, an EU spokesperson pointed to the latest Council Conclusions on Myanmar adopted jointly by the Foreign Ministers of all 28 EU member states in June 2016, which says, “Restrictions on the freedom of movement should be lifted and unimpeded access to basic services should be ensured for all.”
The spokesperson referred to a previous statement from October 11 in which the EU said it “stands with Myanmar in these difficult moments”, but rejected the implication in state media that the EU statement could be taken as an “encouragement” of the current military response in northern Rakhine.
“The only thing we encourage is a police investigation in accordance with the rule of law as well as responsible action and restraint by all parties,” she said.