YANGON (Reuters) – Rohingya Muslims are not native to Myanmar, the army chief told the U.S. ambassador in a meeting in which he apparently did not address accusations of abuses by his men and said media was complicit in exaggerating the number of refugees fleeing.
The U.N. human rights office said on Wednesday Myanmar forces had brutally driven out half a million Rohingya from northern Rakhine state to Bangladesh in recent weeks, torching homes, crops and villages to prevent them from returning.
Thousands of Rohingya were leaving the state on Thursday, aiming to reach Bangladesh by boat, citing a shortage of food and fear of repression, residents said. A Myanmar official said people were leaving but he dismissed the suggestion hunger and intimidation were factors.
The army chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, gave his most extensive account of the Rohingya refugee crisis aimed at an international audience in the meeting with Ambassador Scot Marciel, according to a report posted on his Facebook page.
The general is the most powerful person in Buddhist-majority Myanmar and his apparently uncompromising stance would indicate little sensitivity about the military’s image over a crisis that has drawn international condemnation and raised questions about a transition to democracy under Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
The military campaign is popular in Myanmar, where there is little sympathy for the mostly stateless Rohingya, and where Buddhist nationalism has surged.
Min Aung Hlaing, referring to Rohingya by the term “Bengali”, which they regard as derogatory, said British colonialists were responsible for the problem.
“The Bengalis were not taken into the country by Myanmar, but by the colonialists,” he told Marciel, according to the account of the meeting posted on Thursday.
“They are not the natives.”
Coordinated Rohingya insurgent attacks on some 30 security posts on Aug. 25 sparked a ferocious military response.
The U.N. rights office said in its report, based on 65 interviews with Rohingya who had arrived in Bangladesh, that abuses had begun before the Aug. 25 attacks and included killings, torture and rape of children.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley last month denounced a “brutal, sustained campaign to cleanse the country of an ethnic minority” and called on countries to suspend providing weapons to Myanmar until its military put sufficient accountability measures in place.
The European Union and the United States are considering targeted sanctions against Myanmar’s military leaders, officials familiar with the discussions said this week.
Suu Kyi is due make a speech on television later on Thursday.
She was swept into office last year after winning an election, but the military holds immense power, including exclusive say over security.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra‘ad al-Hussein has described the government operations as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” and said the action appeared to be “a cynical ploy to forcibly transfer large numbers of people without possibility of return”.
Min Aung Hlaing did not refer to such accusations, according to the published account, but said the insurgents had killed 90 Hindus and 30 Rohingya linked to the government.
Insurgent opposition to a citizenship verification campaign, which used the term Bengali, was behind the Aug. 25 attacks that sparked the violence, he said.
“Local Bengalis were involved in the attacks under the leadership of ARSA. That is why they might have fled as they feel insecure,” he said, referring to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army insurgents.
“The native place of Bengalis is really Bengal,” he said.
He said it was an exaggeration to say a “very large” number were fleeing to Bangladesh and there had been “instigation and propaganda by using the media from behind the scene”.
He did not elaborate but said the “real situation” had to be relayed to the international community. U.N. political affairs chief Jeffrey Feltman is due to visit on Friday.
Rohingya residents of Rakhine said up to 10,000 people had left over two days.
“I’ve seen a lots leaving, on motorbikes, on foot,” said one.
Another, a teacher, said there had been no military offensive recently but people were going.
“There’s no work, nowhere to get food and the government isn’t helping,” said the teacher, who, like the first resident, declined to be identified.
Rakhine state’s secretary, Tin Maung Swe, said people were leaving “every day” to join relatives already in Bangladesh.
”Nobody is starving in death in Myanmar. The government is trying to support those in need,“ he said. ”They can fish or catch shrimps in the creeks near their villages.
“No one’s killing them or intimidating them.”
Min Aung Hlaing repeated a promise from Suu Kyi that refugees would be accepted back under an agreement with Bangladesh in the early 1990s.
But many refugees doubt their chances of going home fearing they will not be able to prove their right to return.
Additonal reporting by Wa Lone; Editing by Nick Macfie