The Myanmar government on Tuesday pledged to crack down on the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army a day after the Muslim militant group ended a temporary unilateral cease-fire in northern Rakhine state.
“The government declared ARSA a terrorist organization and is working on an investigation to find links to the terrorists,” Zaw Htay, director-general of State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi’s office, told RFA’s Myanmar Service, referring to the group’s deadly attacks on police outposts on Aug. 25 and the military counteroffensive that led to a massive Rohingya exodus into Bangladesh.
“We are working to secure the region and coordinating with the Bangladeshi government on this issue, but we can’t say much about it to the media,” he said.
ARSA declared a monthlong cease-fire on Sept. 9 to allow humanitarian aid into the region, but it has accused the government of blocking much of it.
When asked if the government believes that ARSA will carry out other attacks, Zaw Htay said officials are assuming that the group will strike again because it is engaging in terrorism in northern Rakhine.
“ARSA is based in the conflict area and has been trying to spread terrorism in the region,” he said. “After its attacks, people fled from the region because of ARSA’s threats and out of concern for their safety.”
Zaw Htay’s statement contradicts accounts from some of the half-million Rohingya Muslims who have fled to neighboring Bangladesh, who say they were pushed out by Myanmar army attacks that included rapes, killings and the burning of villages.
Kyaw Tint Swe, minister of the State Counselor’s Office, on Tuesday met with Rohingya trying to flee to Bangladesh along the border area and tried to dissuade them from leaving Myanmar, Zaw Htay said.
“They [ARSA] want the world to see that a lot of people have to flee, so they are still threatening Muslim people to flee to Bangladesh,” Zaw Htay said. “These terrorists highlighted this point, so that Myanmar received pressure from the international community.”
Kyaw Tint Swe, who was accompanied by a group of foreign diplomats and journalists on a state-sponsored trip, also visited conflict-torn Maungdaw and Rathedaung townships in northern Rakhine.
The minister told the residents of a Muslim community in Rathedaung not to flee, but rather to live peacefully where they are.
He also said the Myanmar government will give them food support and work diligently on the citizenship verification process for the Rohingya, whom Myanmar considers illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Thein Swe, Myanmar’s minister of labor, immigration and population, and Win Myat Aye, minister of social welfare, relief and resettlement, accompanied the group on the visit.
‘Ready to take them back’
Zaw Htay said Myanmar is prepared to take back the Rohingya who are living in refugee camps in Bangladesh.
“We are ready to accept them back,” Zaw Htay said.” We have been discussing with Bangladesh about accepting these Muslims back according to a 1993 agreement between Myanmar and Bangladesh. We have to negotiate with them on the final process of accepting these Muslims back."
The agreement allows Rohingya who can prove residence in Myanmar to return to the country.
Myanmar officials will place the returned Rohingya in internally displaced persons camps in Taung Pyo Let Wae and Nga Khu Ya villages in northern Maungdaw township, and seek advice from international organizations about building houses for those who lost their homes in the recent violence, Zaw Htay said.
When asked about the huge discrepancy between the Myanmar government’s recent figure that more than 17,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh since Sept. 26 and the 519,000 cited by the United Nations, Zaw Htay said Myanmar officials based its number on documents of those living in the region.
“The U.N. and international media can say 500,000 or 1 million people have fled, but we have documents of the people who lived on our land,” he said. “We have maps, lists of villages, households in those villages, and numbers of people in each household with each family member’s photo.”
“We will check them against these documents, and then we will know the number of people who are eligible to be accepted [back into Myanmar],” he said. “We will accept people who are on our lists.”
Rohingya refugees wait in line during a food distribution at the Thangkhali refugee camp in Ukhia, Cox's Bazar district, in southeastern Bangladesh, Oct. 10, 2017. [AFP]
Possibility of sanctions
In response to the Aug. 25 attacks, the Myanmar army unleashed a brutal campaign against Rohingya civilians to try to find ARSA militants and those who collaborated with them.
Rights groups, the United Nations, and some of the half-million Rohingya who fled to safety in Bangladesh have accused soldiers of committing atrocities against the minority group amounting to genocide and crimes against humanity.
The Myanmar government, however, has denied the allegations and accused ARSA militants of burning down villages and attacking and killing non-Muslim residents.
In the latest move to punish those responsible for the violence, the United States and European Union are considering targeted sanctions against Myanmar military leaders, Reuters reported on Monday, citing interviews with more than a dozen diplomats and government officials based in Washington, Myanmar’s commercial capital Yangon, and Europe.
But Zaw Htay indicated that the possibility of the U.S. and EU imposing the sanctions as punishment for the army’s alleged treatment of the Rohingya during the crackdown is not a key concern of officials.
“Our state counselor has already said that when you want to see Myanmar, you can’t look only at northern Rakhine,” he said. “You have to look comprehensively at the entire country’s situation.”
“We have given this message to the international community,” he said
“We need the international community’s support as a go-ahead to resolve this problem, and we already said Myanmar will work with the international community on it,” he said, referring to the Rohingya crisis.
“We are currently giving priority to accepting back the Muslims who have fled, to placing them in temporary camps, and to beginning a resettlement process for them,” Zaw Htay said. “After that, we have to work on not having further problems in this region and on promoting development there for the long term. The international community should see that we are working on the Rakhine problem.”
Last December, former U.S. President Barack Obama lifted sanctions on American government aid for the Myanmar government, citing the country’s “substantial progress in improving human rights” despite another military crackdown in northern Rakhine in response to ARSA attacks on border guard stations in October.