The media is using “instigation and propaganda” to influence international responses to the situation in Rakhine State, Myanmar’s commander-in-chief said in a meeting with US ambassador Scot Marciel yesterday in Yangon. The remark was part of a lengthy response to the ambassador’s expression of concern over the allegations of excessive force and “genocide” committed by Myanmar security forces against the Rohingya population.
An estimated 520,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh since August 25, when the Myanmar military launched a heavy crackdown against the Rohingya insurgent group ARSA.
Yesterday, the UN released a report that described the military operations as “well-organized, coordinated and systematic, with the intent of not only driving the [Rohingya] population out of Myanmar but preventing them from returning to their homes.”
During the meeting, Ambassador Marciel mentioned food shortages and the torching of homes as causes of the Rohingya exodus and said, according to a post on the commander-in-chief’s Facebook page, that “the US wants to make constructive approach in order to reduce pressures on Myanmar.”
The military chief countered that those who identify as Rohingya are not native to Myanmar to begin with. Rather, he said, they are descendants of Bengali laborers who were brought to Myanmar soil during the British colonial period.
“The Bengalis were not taken into the country by Myanmar, but by the colonialists,” the senior general said. “The native place of Bengalis is really Bengal. Therefore, they might have fled to the other country [Bangladesh] with the same language, race, and culture as theirs by assuming that they would be safer there.”
Historians say that although migration increased during the colonial era, Muslim populations in Rakhine State predate the British conquest by centuries. On top of that, other critics take issue with Myanmar’s equation of citizenship with membership among a recently fabricated list of “ethnic national races” that does not include the word “Rohingya.”
The reason Myanmar’s critics take these views, the senior general said, is because “most of the media express as they wish by hiding the truth.”
Among these truths, according to Min Aung Hlaing, is the scale of the refugee crisis. To call the number of refugees “very large,” he said, is an “exaggeration.”
Furthermore, the senior general went on to question whether any humanitarian disaster is taking place in Rakhine State at all, saying: “There is a lot of farmland in the villages of the Buthidaung-Maungtaw region. They have a lot of cattle. As the region is blessed with creeks and rivers, fish can easily be caught. The state government and relevant ministries are also providing food and rations.”
In fact, Rohingya communities in Rakhine State have been subjected to restrictions on movement beyond their own neighborhoods, cutting them off from work and natural resources, and food aid has been blocked by the Myanmar government for months, prompting accusations from rights groups that Myanmar is starving the Rohingya out of the country.
On Wednesday, residents of one Rohingya village reported that they had just received the first significant food aid delivery in three months.