More than a thousand residents of northwestern Myanmar’s Rakhine state may have died in recent weeks of ethnic clashes, a number far greater than that provided in government estimates, a United Nations representative for Myanmar says.
Though official tolls point to only 432 killed, including 15 security personnel and 30 civilians, “perhaps a thousand or more are already dead,” U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar Yanghee Lee told Agence France Presse (AFP) in an interview on Friday.
Most of those killed have been members of Myanmar’s mostly Muslim Rohingya minority group, Lee added.
“It’s going to be one of the worst disasters that the world and Myanmar [have] seen in recent years,” Lee told AFP.
Lee also questioned government reports that Muslim villages in Rakhine are being set on fire by their own residents, noting that Myanmar has entered its rainy season and that nearby villages occupied by Rakhine’s ethnic Buddhist majority have been left largely untouched.
“If you have got people with guns and you’re running away and it’s damp, how easily can you set your own house on fire?” Lee asked.
Around 670,000 Rohingya now live in refugee camps along neighboring Bangladesh’s border with Myanmar, with nearly 357,000 of these fleeing across the border following armed raids by Islamic militants on Myanmar police posts in October.
Doubt over claims
Speaking to a reporter for Radio Free Asia, a sister entity of BenarNews, during a government-arranged tour on Thursday, Muslim residents of Kanyintan Myoma ward in Rakhine’s Maungdaw township voiced doubt over government claims.
“I don’t think that Muslims have set fire to their own houses,” a resident named Einu said. “I think security guards did it when the villagers ran away from their homes.”
“We are being called Bengalis, but we won’t accept this,” Einu said, using a pejorative term for Rakhine’s Muslim Rohingya minority group, who are widely regarded as illegal migrants although many have lived in Rakhine for generations.
“We will accept it if we are called Rohingya and are allowed to live here with the local ethnic people like brothers and sisters,” he said, adding, “We want to live here on our own land.”
“We had about 15,000 people living in this ward,” said Tawrote, another Muslim resident.
“Only two-thirds are still here, though, as the rest have all left. In the past, people moved out to the villages if they had trouble in the town, but now people are escaping to Bangladesh as they can’t stay in other places nearby.”
Thin Yi, a woman living in Mawrawaddy village near Maungdaw, said she had sent her three children and her 65-year-old mother to Buthedaung township for safety while remaining behind to care for her family’s 15 cows.
“I couldn’t go with them to Buthedaung, she said. “We have no money, only these cows. If we lose them, we can’t survive.”
Call for cooperation
Speaking to RFA in an interview on Friday, Aung Thein – a Muslim community leader in Rakhine’s regional capital Sittwe – urged Myanmar’s National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government to work with local groups to resolve the ethnic tensions driving clashes in the region.
“We can all work together with the government to solve these problems and implement solutions. If the military, the political parties, local organizations, and different religious leaders work together with the government, all of this can be solved,” he said.
Muslim countries concerned for the fate of the Rohingya and criticizing Myanmar should be patient, he said.
“Instead of blaming the Myanmar government, please work together and cooperate with it,” he said. “This is how our problems can be solved.”
Speaking to AFP, U.N. representative Yanghee Lee said Myanmar’s NLD party head and de facto national leader Aung San Suu Kyi governs and answers to a country whose population is 86 percent Buddhist.
“What we forget is that she is a politician through and through,” Lee said.
“People expect her to have that big high moral voice, but she’s a politician, and what’s the most important objective if you’re a politician? Getting elected.”
US condemns attacks
In a conference call with reporters on Friday, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Southeast Asia Patrick Murphy urged all parties to the conflict in Rakhine “to take steps to calm tensions.”
“We continue to condemn attacks of a variety of nature – attacks on security forces; attacks on civilians; attacks by civilians, and we’re very concerned about the sustained allegations of abuses being committed that is resulting in the displacement of many people,” Murphy said.
Humanitarian assistance to Rakhine conflict zones should be quickly restored “so that those in need can be assisted by the international community and by Burmese authorities,” Murphy said, using another name for Myanmar.
“We’re very keen to see access restored for the media as well so that journalists can help tell us a more accurate picture of developments there.”