Advocates for Myanmar's ethnic Rohingya community said Wednesday that more than 100 members of the minority group have been killed in recent government counterinsurgency sweeps in the western state of Rakhine.
Ko Ko Linn of the Arakan Rohingya National Organization said that according to villagers, at least 150 people had been killed in Maungdaw district by security forces since Saturday. Independent verification of both army and activists' claims is difficult because the government has restricted access to the area.
"The reason why the international news agencies and aid groups are not allowed to go there is because the military is trying to cover up what they are doing there, the killings and other things," Ko Ko Linn said by phone. "They are lying."
The government on Tuesday acknowledged the deaths of 69 "violent attackers" and 17 members of the security forces. The attackers weren't specifically identified, but the army has aligned with Rakhine Buddhists against the Rohingya.
The government says the attackers burned down hundreds of homes, but rights groups blame the army for such actions and other abuses of Rohingya civilians.
The two parties are also engaged in a propaganda battle. The government has said the international media are reporting "fabrications" about the situation, while Rohingya activists allege the army has taken pictures of captured Rohingya, including children, posed with various weapons such as spears and clubs.
The government held a news conference late Wednesday in the capital, Naypyitaw, seeking to rebut critical news reports. President's office spokesman Zaw Htay accused the U.S.-based group Human Rights Watch of exaggeration in reporting Saturday that satellite imagery showed a total of 430 destroyed buildings in three villages, and said international media had misreported the situation.
He said journalists were not yet allowed to go to Maungdaw for security reasons, and that the affiliations of the "attackers" were unknown.
Tensions have been high in Rakhine since fighting in 2012 between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims. More than 100,000 Rohingya are still in squalid camps for the internally displaced after being driven from their homes at that time. Although many have lived in Myanmar for generations, they are widely regarded as having illegally migrated from Bangladesh, and the government denies citizenship to most.
Government military operations intensified last month after nine police officers were killed in attacks on posts along the border with Bangladesh.
International concern has been building since then.
On Tuesday, the United States called for Myanmar to do more to stem the violence. State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau said a U.S. delegation holding previously scheduled talks in Myanmar urged the government to "improve transparency."
The U.S. also repeated its call for an independent investigation and humanitarian access.
Concern was also expressed by former U.N. chief Kofi Annan, who heads a commission appointed by Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi to investigate the cause of tensions in Rakhine.
"As chair of the Rakhine Advisory Commission, I wish to express my deep concern over the recent violence in northern Rakhine state, which is plunging the state into renewed instability and creating new displacement," Annan said in a statement Tuesday. "All communities must renounce violence and I urge the security services to act in full compliance with the rule of law."
In the meantime, Myanmar has barred an American documentary photographer Greg Constantine from entering the country and attending his own photo exhibition, which is aimed to shed light on the plight of the persecuted Rohingya Muslims.
Greg Constantine, who was to visit Yangon to attend his “Nowhere People” exhibition, said he had been stopped at the airport on Friday and told he was on a “blacklist.”
“I’ve done a significant amount of work on stateless people in Rakhine [state]...I can only speculate that that would be the reason,” Constantine told media.Myanmar’s immigration department confirmed that the US photographer had been blacklisted, but refused to explain why.
“I cannot tell you what kind of blacklist he is on,” said Ye Tun Oo, the director of the immigration department.
Constantine’s exhibition on stateless people, which has been postponed, was to include images of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims residing in destitute camps, where many have been denied their basic needs and the right to free movement.
The minority Rohingya community is mainly based in northern Rakhine.
The Muslims have been subject to all kinds of atrocities and persecution in Myanmar since the outbreak of communal violence fueled by Buddhist extremists in 2012.
The government denies full citizenship to the 1.1 million-strong Rohingya population, branding them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Rakhine has been under a military lockdown since early October, when an alleged attack on Myanmarese border guards left nine officers dead. The government accused the Rohingya of being behind the assault.
Since then, government forces have left dozens of Rohingya Muslims dead during what they call search operations for the alleged attackers.
On Wednesday, the London-based Arakan Rohingya National Organization said at least 150 Muslims had been killed since Saturday during the new wave of government crackdown on the troubled region.
The government has also restricted media access to the area, leading many to believe Myanmar’s forces are acting with impunity.
A leading English-language daily, Myanmar Times, has also banned writing on Rakhine. It recently fired an editor for publishing reports of gang rape by the military in the state.
Myanmar’s troops have also torched hundreds of Rohingya homes over the past days.
“Reports of homes and mosques being burnt down and persons of a certain profile being rounded up and shot are alarming and unacceptable,” said UN Special Rapporteur Agnes Callamard.
The United Nations has described the Rohingya as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.-------
It is a sad story that is getting repeated over and over again. Shame on our generation for not being able to stop this crime!