Burmese military admits soldiers killed Rohingya found in mass grave

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE WASHINGTON POST)

 

In a first, Burmese military admits that soldiers killed Rohingya found in mass grave

 January 10 at 4:23 PM

Burmese troops and villagers were behind the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslims whose bodies were found in a mass grave in Rakhine state’s Inn Din village, the military’s commander in chief, Min Aung Hlaing, said Wednesday in a statement on Facebook.

The admission marks the first time that Burma’s powerful military has acknowledged wrongdoing in the violence that gripped Rakhine last year. In just a few months, more than 650,000 members of the Rohingya minority fled across the border into Bangladesh. The crisis was labeled a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” by the United Nations’ top human rights official.

The military statement may also offer further hints to help address one of the most urgent questions in a crisis that is thought to have left thousands dead: Where are the bodies? Late last year, the humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders estimated that at least 6,700 Rohingya had died violently during the exodus last year, mostly from gunshot wounds. The government of Burma, which is also known as Myanmar, has blocked numerous attempts by outside groups to investigate on the ground.

“It’s not as though there are human remains lying around everywhere,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “We have reason to suspect that authorities have disposed of human remains, whether maliciously to hide evidence or for other reasons.”

With access to the area limited, proof of killings has been hard to establish. U.N. human rights investigators and others have been denied access to the areas hit hardest by violence, while two Reuters journalists who were reported to be investigating evidence of a mass grave at Inn Din are on trial in Rangoon. Prosecutors are seeking charges that could impose a maximum prison sentence of 14 years, according to the reporters’ attorney.

Matthew Smith, chief executive officer of the human rights group Fortify Rights, said it was noteworthy that the grave referenced on Wednesday was the same being investigated by the Reuters journalists. “The authorities appear to have arrested them in order to halt the investigation while also sending a chilling message to other journalists and would-be truth tellers,” Smith wrote in an email.

After numerous accounts of massacres emerged from survivors, human rights groups resorted to using commercial satellite imagery to look for evidence of violence. Matt Wells, senior crisis adviser at Amnesty International, said that although it was difficult to find mass graves using that technique, images seen by Amnesty had made it clear that Rohingya homes in the Inn Din area were burned down in what appeared to be a coordinated campaign.

“It is one of the most striking examples of how targeted the burning has been in the military’s campaign,” Wells said in a phone call. “The Rohingya portion of the village has been completely burned to the ground, whereas non-Rohingya buildings very nearby have been completely untouched.”

In Wednesday’s military statement, the office of the Burmese military’s commander in chief said that villagers and security forces had acknowledged that they killed “10 Bengali terrorists” — a reference to the Rohingya whose bodies were found in Inn Din last year. The statement went on to claim that the soldiers involved were responding to provocations but added that they would be dealt with.

“The army will take charge of those who are responsible for the killings and who broke the rules of engagement,” the statement continued, according to an Associated Press translation. “This incident happened because ethnic Buddhist villagers were threatened and provoked by the terrorists.”

The Rohingya have been established in Burma for generations, but the government refuses to recognize members of the minority community as citizens and refers to them as Bengalis, implying that they are immigrants from Bangladesh who live in Burma illegally.

Though limited in scope, Wednesday’s message appears to contradict previous denials of a Burmese military involvement in violence against the Rohingya. In a report released in November, the military exonerated itself of accusations involving several atrocities, including rape and killings.

The government has strongly denied suggestions of “ethnic cleansing” in Rakhine. It has estimated that 400 Rohingya died last year but said that 376 of them were terrorists involved in an armed insurgency. Last year, a group of foreign journalists was flown into the country to see a mass grave in northern Rakhine that authorities said contained the bodies of Hindu villagers who had been killed by Rohingya insurgents.

Rights groups said that Wednesday’s acknowledgment of involvement showed the need for Burma to allow outside investigators into Rakhine.

“This grisly admission is a sharp departure from the army’s policy of blanket denial of any wrongdoing,” James Gomez, Amnesty International’s regional director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, said in a statement. “However, it is only the tip of the iceberg and warrants serious independent investigation into what other atrocities were committed amid the ethnic cleansing campaign.”

Human Rights Watch’s Sifton said of the Burmese military: “This is not an institution that has any credibility. That is precisely why you need international observers and investigators involved now.”

Pope Francis To Visit Burma In Late November

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE CATHOLIC NEWS AGENCY)

 

.- When Pope Francis visits Burma, also known as Myanmar, later this month, his visit will come at one of the most contentious periods of the country’s history.

In recent months, state-supported violence against Burma’s Rohingya Muslim community – an ethnic and religious minority– has reached staggering levels, causing the United Nations to declare the situation “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

“The scope of the humanitarian crisis is enormous and it’s ongoing,” said Daniel Mark, Chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, in an interview with CNA at the end of September. “Once again we unfortunately have another terrible crisis that’s focusing people’s attention on something that’s already a terrible situation.”

“This is a deep and longstanding problem that we’ve been trying to call attention to for a long time, but it’s going to need an extremely long and concerted effort to address,” Mark told CNA. “Even addressing the immediate humanitarian crisis is not going to solve this profound underlying issue of the Rohingya Muslims in Burma.”

For years, the Rohingya, an ethnic group whose main religion is Islam, have faced grave persecution in the Burmese state of Rakhine, where the majority of them live. An estimated 1.1 million Rohingya live within the majority-Buddhist country. Members of the group have been denied citizenship since the foundation of Burma in 1948, and have suffered violence, and lack the freedom to move or access clean water since a military coup d’etat in 1962.

After a different military regime took control in 1988, with even harsher military crackdowns throughout the country, the country has been referred to as Myanmar.

Pope Francis will visit the country at the end of November, following stories of horrifying human rights abuses and a mass exodus of Rohingya civilians from Burma.

The most recent wave of violence began on Aug. 25, 2017, after which the Burmese military and local Buddhist vigilantes enacted a campaign of burning Rohingya villages and massacring the civilians within them. It is still unclear exactly how many people have been killed in the violence, but aid agencies estimate that thousands are dead and more than 600,000 people have been displaced since late August. Neighboring Bangladesh has accepted the majority of those refugees, and more people have been internally displaced within the country.

The military claims the violence is a response to attacks by a small group of Rohingya against border agents in the Rakhine province, which left 12 officers dead. However, the violence – which includes arson, sexual violence, and internal displacement – long precedes those attacks, and other demonstrations within Rohingya communities, said Olivia Enos, a policy analyst in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation, who specializes in human rights.

“Maybe some individual Rohingya are acting out in self-defense, but to place blame on Rohingya is misleading,” Enos said.

“The military has a long, long history of burning homes and villages, raping women and children. The track record is so long that to place the blame on any kind of radical agents within the Rohingya would be really inaccurate.”

While violence and discrimination against the Rohingya people at the hands of Burmese authorities have been ongoing since the 1960s, with increases in persecution in 2012 and 2015, the current crisis is of particular concern, Enos said.  She explained that the high levels of displacement and increased incidents of violence and destruction set this conflict apart from the ones that have come before.

Also concerning, she said, is the fact this conflict is occurring after democratic reforms which took place between 2011-2015. While the nation is becoming more democratic, she said, the military still maintains significant control within Burma. Furthermore, the country’s leader – Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi– has remained silent when asked about the persecution of the group within her country.

To add to the worries, Enos fears that by focusing on the ethnic element of the conflict, Western leaders may overlook its religious aspect. “The vast majority of people in Burma are Buddhist and they view the Muslim minority group Rohingya as a threat to the native Burman society,” she said. “It’s a religious conflict.”

Mark stated that the religious element of the conflict has been a concern of the Commission since its founding in 1998.  “As a result of this, we’ve been following this very, very carefully and for a long time,” he said We’ve recommended Burma is designated as a Country of Particular Concern every year,” a recommendation the U.S. Department of State has followed each year it’s made such designations.

The long history of the conflict means that while there are immediate steps that need to be taken to address the humanitarian situation, work to end the conflict will need to look at the long-term solution.

“This is all a result of the systematic exclusion of these people from Burmese society,” Mark explained. “All the things we’re saying now about the treatment of Rohingya Muslims going forward are the thing that we have been saying all along,” he continued.

“It’s been a tinderbox and that needs to be addressed.”

In the short term, Mark advocated for immediate humanitarian aid and assurance that humanitarian goods will get to those in need of them. He also called for accountability for human rights violations and a cessation of violence.

He noted the need for the international community to help support Bangladesh as it takes in tens of thousands of people a day, so a secondary crisis is not created there.

“Attacks need to stop and aid needs to start.”

An earlier version of this article was published Sept. 28, 2017.

Tags: Pope FrancisBurmaRohingyaPope in Burma

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