US Says ‘Very Concerned’ About Alleged Abuses in Myanmar’s Rakhine State
The U.S. State Department says it is “very concerned about sustained allegations of abuses” in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state and “very focused” on restoring humanitarian assistance to that area.
Patrick Murphy, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Southeast Asia, told reporters by phone Friday that the United States is urging all parties to take steps to calm tensions in the area. He said that since August, “probably well over” 200,000 refugees have crossed over the border into Bangladesh to escape the violence. The U.N. puts the number at over 270,000.
He said the number of internally displaced persons — those who have left their homes but not left Myanmar — is unknown. But he said those displaced include members of the Rohingya ethnic group and non-Rohingya in the area.
Discussions with the Myanmar government are “ongoing,” he said, through the U.S. ambassador to the country, which is also known as Burma.
On Thursday, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters that the United States has “deep concerns” about the situation. She said the State Department is in close contact with Myanmar’s government on the situation in Rakhine state.
“We are deeply concerned by the troubling situation in Burma’s northern Rakhine state,” she said. “There has been a significant displacement of local populations following serious allegations of human rights abuses, including mass burnings of Rohingya villages and violence conducted by security forces and also armed civilians.
“We again condemn deadly attacks on Burmese security forces, but join the international community in calling on those forces to prevent further violence and protect local populations in ways that are consistent with the rule of law and with full respect for human rights,” she continued. “We urge all in Burma, including in the Rakhine state, to avoid actions that exacerbate tensions there.”
Nauert also said the U.S. welcomes acknowledgement by the Myanmar government of the need to protect all communities, and its pledge to implement recommendations of the advisory commission on the Rakhine state aimed at addressing long-standing challenges that predate the country’s democratic transition.
Asked if the U.S. has confidence at this point in the desire of the government of Myanmar to protect the Rohingya community, Nauert said the U.S. would certainly like to call on Myanmar to allow better access, both to reporters to enter the country and to humanitarian aid groups to reach those in need.
The latest round of violence began August 25 when a group of Rohingya insurgents attacked police posts and an army base in what they said was an effort to protect their ethnic minority from persecution. Rakhine state is home to most of the Rohingya minority group.
Subsequent clashes and a military counteroffensive have killed at least 400 people and triggered the latest exodus of Rohingya villagers to Bangladesh.
U.N. Refugee Agency Asia Director Vivian Tan in Bangladesh told VOA Burmese that aid workers estimate there are about 164,000 new arrivals in Bangladesh.
The United Nations said about 146,000 people have crossed the border into Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazaar district since August 25.
Officials said the U.N. World Food Program has provided tens of thousands of people with food, including high-nutrient porridge to women and children who are arriving in Bangladesh hungry and malnourished. The agency said that it needs $11.3 million to support the influx of people, in addition to those already living in camps.
The United States had strongly condemned the August 25 deadly attacks on security posts by a group called Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), and urged all ethnic groups in Burma to “work toward peace and stability.”
Aung San Suu Kyi under fire
Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has been criticized over her response to the violence.
Many observers say she has played down reports of the Burmese military’s brutal treatment of Rohingya civilians. Aung San Suu Kyi maintains there has been “a huge iceberg of misinformation” about the Rohingya crisis and violence in Rakhine following the attacks on security posts.
A series of Twitter photos that allegedly showed dead Rohingya people were later proved to be unrelated to the current violence, according to a statement posted on Facebook by Aung San Suu Kyi’s office.
The Nobel Peace laureate said “fake information” was used to promote the interests of “terrorists,” a word she used to describe ARSA insurgents.
State Department spokesperson Nauert declined to comment when asked if Aung San Suu Kyi should return her Nobel Peace Prize.
Priscilla Clapp, who served as chief of mission and permanent charge d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Myanmar from 1999 to 2002, said a lot of the criticism of Aung San Suu Kyi is unfair, due to the limitations on her power and influence.
“In a way, she’s at a great disadvantage with the military, which controls all the security of the country and much of the government administration from before,” said Clapp, currently a senior adviser at the U.S. Institute of Peace and Asia Society.
Clapp also blames the ARSA group, which she calls terrorists who have deliberately provoked the extreme reaction on the part of the security forces. But she also maintains security forces must be “much more moderate in a way they approach these things and sensitive to community relations.”
But human rights advocates are urging the Burmese government to stop the violence.
“The governments of the world have to press very hard on Aung San Suu Kyi and also the Burma military to stop the violence,” Human Rights Watch’s Deputy Asia Director Phil Robertson told VOA, adding that independent monitors should be granted access to assess allegations of serious human rights violations made by ethnic Rohingya refugees who have fled into Bangladesh.
Robertson urged the United States and the international community to provide more humanitarian relief and medical assistance to the refugees.
“So far, we have seen very little comments from the Trump administration about the situation, which is quite shocking,” he said. “There is a massive humanitarian crisis in a country which, until recently, the United States spent a great deal of time trying to understand them and work with the government on various developments and trade.”
Former U.S. diplomat Clapp says the complexity of the situation merits a more nuanced reaction from the international community.
“To reduce it to simplicity and black-and-white equations is not helpful. It’s just inflaming further problems inside the country and it’s making the population more resistant to international advice,” Clapp said. “We have to be much more understanding and get involved on the ground in helping them resolve this problem.”
Abuses against and restrictions on members of the Rohingya population were cited as one of the leading human rights problems in Myanmar, according to the State Department’s 2016 Human Rights Report.
The Rohingya are one of Myanmar’s many ethnic minorities in the Buddhist-majority nation. The Myanmar government considers the Rohingya to be economic migrants from Bangladesh, and has never granted them citizenship, even though most can show their families have been in the country for generations.