Myanmar’s government on Friday shrugged off a report detailing the killing of Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state that prompted calls from the U.S. State Department for an independent investigation into the claims, saying the foreign media was “hurting our work” restoring stability to the region.
Late on Thursday, Reuters news agency published a special report on the events that led to the killing of 10 Rohingya men, including two teenagers, from Rakhine’s Inn Din village who it said were buried in a mass grave after being hacked to death or shot by Buddhist neighbors and soldiers.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told Reuters that “as with other, previous reports of mass graves, this report highlights the ongoing and urgent need for Burmese authorities to cooperate with an independent, credible investigation into allegations of atrocities in northern Rakhine.”
“Such an investigation would help provide a more comprehensive picture of what happened, clarify the identities of the victims, identify those responsible for human rights abuses and violations, and advance efforts for justice and accountability,” she said.
When asked about the report – which cited interviews with Buddhists who confessed to burning Rohingya homes, burying bodies and killing Muslims amid violence provoked by attacks on security posts by Rohingya insurgents last August – Minister for Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement Win Myat Aye told the Myanmar Service of Radio Free Asia (RFA), a sister entity of BenarNews, that it undermined government efforts to bring peace to Rakhine state.
“It is hurting our work,” the minister said, questioning the validity of the claims in the report, which included photographs of bound victims kneeling before the killing, and of their bodies lying in a trench afterwards.
“Some members of the international media write what they think it is the truth, and I don’t want to blame them, as it is their job. We are doing our job as well.”
Meanwhile, Win Myat Aye said, the government remains focused on repatriating some 700,000 refugees who have been forced across the border to neighboring Bangladesh since Myanmar’s military began a crackdown in Rakhine state following the August attacks carried out by Muslim militant group the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).
“We are working on receiving and resettling them according to the law,” he said, adding that the government is responsible for the refugees “that can prove they were residents of Rakhine state.”
The United Nations and rights groups have warned against a quick return of the Rohingya, saying that the minority group would continue to face repression and discrimination in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, where they are considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and are denied citizenship and access to basic services.
The Reuters report marks the first time soldiers and paramilitary police have been named in eyewitness accounts from security personnel in atrocities including killings, torture, rape, property theft, and arson that have been widely documented by both news agencies and human rights organizations, and which the United Nations has said might amount to genocide.
Prior to the report’s publication, Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay told Reuters “we are not denying the allegations about violations of human rights and we are not giving blanket denials,” adding that if “strong and reliable primary evidence” indicated abuses had taken place, authorities would investigate the claims.
There was no immediate comment from the government following the publication of the report.
Myanmar’s government has consistently denied allegations of atrocities and, citing the foreign media’s “one-sided” reporting, has banned independent news outlets from visiting northern Rakhine state where the violence occurred.
In addition to the ban, Myanmar authorities have been arresting or filing lawsuits against those who work for foreign media outlets to further clamp down on reports about the crackdown and its aftermath.
Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo are on trial for “obtaining state secrets” while reporting on the Inn Din incident and face up to 14 years in prison. The pair, whose bylines were on Thursday’s special report, were arrested on Dec. 12 just after they had dinner with two police officers who gave them documents about the crackdown.
Rights groups and the Myanmar media have accused the police of entrapment and have criticized Myanmar’s civilian government under de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi for backpedaling on press freedom.
The Rakhine state government this week said it would sue the Associated Press for publishing a report confirming the existence of at least five previously unreported mass graves containing the remains of Rohingya in a village in Buthidaung township.
Both the national and state governments have rejected the report as “false” and claimed that the bodies of 19 “terrorists” – a reference to Muslim militants – had been killed and buried in the area. Rakhine officials have yet to announce under which laws they plan to sue the AP.