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Rohingya refugees take little heart from speech by Myanmar’s Suu Kyi

The violence in western Myanmar began on August 25 when Rohingya insurgents attacked about 30 police posts and an army camp, killing about 12 people.

world Updated: Sep 20, 2017 22:52 IST
Reuters, Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh
Rohingyas,Rohingya Muslims,Aung San Suu Kyi
Rohingya Muslim boys, who crossed over from Myanmar into Bangladesh, cries as men push them away during distribution of food aid near Balukhali refugee camp, Bangladesh.(AP Photo)

Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh said on Wednesday they were dismayed by a speech by Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi in which she condemned rights violations against them but, as far as they could see, offered little hope of them ever going home.

Suu Kyi, the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner, on Tuesday made her first address to her nation on violence in the western state of Rakhine that began last month and has forced 422,000 Rohingya Muslims into Bangladesh, fleeing a military offensive the United Nations has branded ethnic cleansing.

“I’m very disappointed. She will not get another prize from the international community,” said Shafi Rahman, 45, who said he had arrived in Bangladesh two weeks ago after soldiers and civilian mobs burned his village.

“I have no hope to go back. My documents were stripped from my forefathers decades ago.”

The violence in western Myanmar began on August 25 when Rohingya insurgents attacked about 30 police posts and an army camp, killing about 12 people.

Rights monitors and fleeing Rohingya say the army and Rakhine Buddhist vigilantes responded with a campaign of violence and arson aimed at driving out the mostly stateless Muslim population.

The UN rights agency said it was “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

Myanmar rejects the charge, saying its forces are tackling insurgents of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army who it has accused of setting the fires and attacking civilians.

Smoke could be seen rising from at least two places in Myanmar on Wednesday, a Reuters reporter in Bangladesh said. It was not known what was burning but rights groups say almost half of Rohingya villages in the region have been torched.

In her Tuesday speech, Suu Kyi condemned abuses and said all violators would be punished, adding that she was committed to the restoration of peace and the rule of law.

She did not address UN accusations of ethnic cleansing by the security forces, drawing a cool international response.

On the return of refugees, she said Myanmar was ready to start a verification process under a 1993 arrangement with Bangladesh and “those who have been verified as refugees from this country will be accepted without any problem.”

But refugees in Bangladesh who were aware of her comments took no comfort from that, anticipating little change to policies that have denied their community recognition as a distinct ethnic group and citizenship.

Most people in Buddhist-majority Myanmar see the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and refuse to even recognise the term Rohingya.

“She didn’t mention Rohingya. Rohingya is our ethnicity,” said Nizam Uddin, 19, who arrived in Bangladesh in November, following violence the previous month triggered by insurgent attacks on police.

“Most of our documents were burned by the military ... We don’t have proof of citizenship and how can we get it?

“I have no hope.”

Rohingya refugees living in concrete pipes in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. ( Reuters Photo )


Suu Kyi has for years been feted in the West as a champion of democracy during years of military rule and house arrest but she has faced growing criticism over the plight of the Rohingya.

Western diplomats and aid officials had been hoping to see unequivocal condemnation of violence and hate speech in her address.

In a telephone call with Suu Kyi, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson welcomed Myanmar’s commitment to allow the return of refugees, but urged it to facilitate aid to those affected by the violence and address “deeply troubling” rights abuse allegations, the State Department said.

US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Patrick Murphy is in Myanmar and is due to meet government officials and representatives of different communities in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state.

The United States said on Wednesday it would provide an additional $32 million in humanitarian assistance to address the needs of Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh, people displaced in Rakhine state and host communities in Bangladesh, bringing its total assistance in 2017 to $95 million.

“We applaud the government of Bangladesh’s generosity in responding to this severe humanitarian crisis and appreciate their continued efforts to ensure assistance reaches people in need,” the US State Department said in a statement.

The announcement comes after Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said she spoke to US President Donald Trump on Monday about Rohingya Muslims flooding into her country from Myanmar, but expected no help from him as he has made clear how he feels about refugees.

China, which has close economic and diplomatic ties with Myanmar, has called for understanding of the government’s efforts to protect stability.

Britain has suspended a military training programme in Myanmar and French President Emmanuel Macron condemned “unacceptable ethnic cleaning”.

Suu Kyi rejected a suggestion she was soft on the military, telling Radio Free Asia in an interview her objective was national reconciliation.

“We have never criticised the military itself, but only their actions. We may disagree on these types of actions,” she said.

She cited her efforts in parliament to change a military-drafted constitution, which bars her from the presidency and gives the military responsibility over security and a veto over charter reform.

First Published: Sep 20, 2017 19:49 IST