Myanmar says 40% of Rohingya villages targeted by army are now empty

Spokesman says 176 villages have been cleared by army, as Aung San Suu Kyi pulls out of UN general assembly

Scores of villages that were inhabited by Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya minority are now completely empty, a government spokesman has said.

Of 471 villages targeted in “clearance operations” by the Burmese army since late August, 176 were now empty and at least 34 others partially abandoned, Zaw Htay said.

The violent crackdown, launched in response to attacks by militants, has sent at least 370,000 Rohingya scrambling across the border to Bangladesh and prompted a barrage of criticism of Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto leader.

The Nobel laureate had been due to attend the UN general assembly next week, but Zaw Htay said she would now skip the event.

“The first reason is because of the Rakhine terrorist attacks,” he said. “The second reason is there are people inciting riots in some areas … The third is that we are hearing that there will be terrorist attacks and we are trying to address this issue.”

The second vice-president, Henry Van Tio, instead will represent Myanmar at the UN.

Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been criticised for blaming “terrorists” for what she called “a huge iceberg of misinformation” about the violence in recent weeks, will give a televised address in Myanmar next week that will cover the same topics she would have addressed at the UN.

Last year, in her first speech to the UN general assembly as Myanmar’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi won praise for pledging to uphold the rights of minorities.

Five fellow Nobel peace prize winners have added their voices to a chorus of international calls for Aung San Suu Kyi to defend the rights of the Rohingya people. Mairead Maguire, Jody Williams, Shirin Ebadi, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkol Karman signed a letter asking her: “How many Rohingya have to die; how many Rohingya women will be raped; how many communities will be razed before you raise your voice in defence of those who have no voice?”

Bangladesh has urged Myanmar to take back the Rohingya who have fled in recent weeks, but on Wednesday Zaw Htay suggested not all of them would be able to return immediately.

“We have to verify them; we can only accept them after they are verified,” he said. His comment was an apparent reference to plans announced on Tuesday to speed up progress on verifying Rohingya under Myanmar’s citizenship laws.

When Aung San Suu Kyi was elected to parliament in 2012 there were high hopes that the Nobel peace prize winner would help heal Myanmar's entrenched ethnic divides.  

Some defenders at the time tried to argue that she was gagged by temporary political concerns because she had to hold on to the votes of nationalist Buddhists. However, her NLD party won a landslide victory in elections in 2015 and yet she remained conspicuously silent.

She has defended the government that she is part of in response to the recent wave of violence, sparking further widespread condemnation.

Her exact motivations remain opaque but the only thing she obviously stands to lose by speaking out is the support of the military power brokers who still ultimately control Myanmar. The only thing she could obviously hope to gain by her silence is more power and influence.

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As criticism of Myanmar mounts, a humanitarian crisis is brewing on both sides of the border. Bangladesh is struggling to provide humanitarian relief for the refugees, 60% of whom are children, while nearly 30,000 ethnic Rakhine Buddhists as well as Hindus have been displaced inside Myanmar.

On Wednesday the UN secretary general, António Guterres, called on Myanmar to suspend its military action, describing the humanitarian situation as “catastrophic” and calling on all countries to supply aid. Earlier this week his colleague Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the UN human rights chief, accused Myanmar of waging a “systematic attack” on the Rohingya that appeared to amount to ethnic cleansing.

Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s first civilian leader in decades, does not control the actions of the military, which ran the country for 50 years before allowing free elections in 2015.

violence against rohingya

There is scant sympathy among Myanmar’s Buddhist majority for the Rohingya, a stateless Muslim group branded “Bengalis” – shorthand for illegal immigrants.

Refugees have given chilling accounts of soldiers firing on civilians and razing villages in northern Rakhine state with the help of Buddhist mobs.

The army denies the allegations and Aung San Suu Kyi has also played down claims of atrocities.

Associated Press reporters on the Bangladesh side of the border said they had seen an elderly woman with devastating leg wounds, one half-blown off and the other also badly injured. Relatives said she had stepped on a landmine.

Rohingya Muslims flee from Myanmar’s Rakhine state to Bangladesh by boat.
Rohingya Muslims flee from Myanmar’s Rakhine state to Bangladesh by boat. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Responding to reports that Myanmar’s military had planted landmines in the path of Rohingya fleeing violence, Australia’s foreign minister, Julie Bishop, said it would be a “gross violation of international law” if confirmed.

The White House issued a statement calling for “Burmese security authorities to respect the rule of law, stop the violence and end the displacement of civilians from all communities”.

The US senator John McCain said he would seek to “remove military cooperation” with Myanmar by changing the language of an upcoming bill authorising increased US defence spending. Senators are scheduled to vote on the bill this week.

At the European parliament, the British MEP Amjad Bashir called for international sanctions against Myanmar and said he would present an urgent resolution to the parliament on Thursday.

“The world is waking up to the horrors being visited upon the Rohingya. This is ethnic cleansing in the 21st century,” Bashir said.


Oliver Holmes, Katharine Murphy and Damien Gayle

The GuardianTramp

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