DHAKA/SHAMLAPUR, BANGLADESH (AFP, Reuters) - Global outrage over Myanmar’s treatment of its Rohingya Muslims is being fuelled by “a huge iceberg of misinformation”, Aung San Suu Kyi said on Wednesday (Sept 6), after the UN led calls for her government to end violence that has forced 125,000 to flee to Bangladesh.
Rohingya refugees have poured over the border with Bangladesh, fleeing a massive security sweep in western Rakhine state by Myanmar forces following a series of deadly ambushes by Rohingya militants on Aug 25.
Suu Kyi’s government has faced growing international condemnation for the army’s response with refugees bringing with them renewed stories of murder, rape and burned villages at the hands of soldiers.
But in her first public comments since last month’s ambushes, she said sympathy for the Rohingya was being generated by “a huge iceberg of misinformation calculated to create a lot of problems between different communities and with the aim of promoting the interest of the terrorists”.
The comments were made in a statement put out by her office following a call with Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan who has been particularly critical of Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya, dubbing it a “genocide”.
But Suu Kyi defended her government’s actions saying her administration was “defending all the people” in Rakhine state.
The statement highlighted a now deleted tweet last week by Turkey’s deputy prime minister Mehmet Simsek showing a series of gruesome pictures of bodies he wrongly claimed were of dead Rohingya.
"She said that kind of fake information which was inflicted on the deputy prime minister was simply the tip of a huge iceberg of misinformation calculated to create a lot of problems between different countries and with the aim of promoting the interests of the terrorists," the social media statement said.
The leader of the Buddhist-majority country has come under pressure from countries with Muslim populations over the crisis, and on Tuesday UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned of the risk of ethnic cleansing and regional destabilisation.
In a rare letter expressing concern that the violence that has raged for nearly two weeks in the northeastern state could spiral into a "humanitarian catastrophe", Guterres urged the UN Security Council to press for restraint and calm.
Myanmar’s Rohingya are the world’s largest stateless minority and have lived under apartheid-like restrictions on their movement and citizenship for years.
They largely eschewed violence but in October a new militant group called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army launched a series of deadly ambushes on border police prompting a massive army-led crackdown.
More than 200,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh since October. That includes 125,000 in the last two weeks, piling huge pressure on an impoverished neighbour that already hosted 400,000 Rohingya who had fled Myanmar over the past four decades.
The latest violence in Rakhine state began 12 days ago when Rohingya insurgents attacked dozens of police posts and an army base.
The ensuing clashes and a military counter-offensive have killed at least 400 people and triggered the exodus of villagers to Bangladesh.
Myanmar says its security forces are fighting a legitimate campaign against “terrorists” responsible for a string of attacks on police posts and the army since last October.
Myanmar officials blame Rohingya militants for the burning of homes and civilian deaths.
But rights monitors and Rohingya fleeing to neighbouring Bangladesh say the Myanmar army is trying to force them out with a campaign of arson and killings.
Reuters reporters saw hundreds more exhausted Rohingya arriving on boats near the Bangladeshi border village of Shamlapur on Tuesday, suggesting the exodus was far from over.
The latest estimate of the numbers that have crossed into Bangladesh, based on calculations by UN workers, is 125,960, some 80 per cent of whom are women and children.
At least five children were killed when several boats carrying Rohingya refugees from Myanmar sank early Wednesday, Bangladesh border guards told AFP.
“So far, the bodies of five male and female children have been found at different locations,” Border Guard Bangladesh officer Alyosius Sangma said.
The latest violence has also hit Rakhine’s Buddhist and Hindu populations with nearly 27,000 people displaced and fleeing in the opposite direction.
Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who spent years under house arrest when Myanmar was under military rule, has come under intense pressure over her refusal to speak out against the treatment of the Rohingya or rein in the army.
Analysts say her obduracy despite the years of pressure from rights groups is a sop to the powerful army and surging Buddhist nationalism in the South-east Asian country.
The Rohingya are widely dismissed in Myanmar as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh despite many tracing their lineage back generations.
They are not formally recognised as an ethnic group and are derided by many in Myanmar as “Bengalis” – making supporting them hugely unpopular.
She also has little control over the army, which has a long track record of rights abuses and using overwhelming force against domestic insurgencies.
But detractors say Suu Kyi is one of the few people with the mass appeal and moral authority to swim against the tide on the issue, adding she has routinely defended the military’s response.
Earlier this year, United Nations investigators said Myanmar’s military has used “devastating cruelty” in its security crackdown in what might constitute ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya.
Suu Kyi’s government has dismissed those allegations and has refused to grant visas to UN officials charged with investigating reports of atrocities.
LANDMINES ON BORDER
The new arrivals at the border - many sick or wounded - have strained the resources of aid agencies and communities already helping hundreds of thousands of refugees from previous spasms of violence in Myanmar.
Many of those arriving in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district have no shelter, and aid agencies are racing to provide clean water and sanitation, a UN source working there said.
“People have come with virtually nothing so there has to be food,” the source said. “So this is now a huge concern – where is this food coming from for at least the elderly, the children, the women who have come over without their husbands?”
Officials in Bangladesh said the government would press ahead with plans to develop an isolated, flood-prone island in the Bay of Bengal to temporarily house tens of thousands of Rohingya.
The plan to develop the island and use it to house refugees was criticised by humanitarian workers when it was proposed in 2015 and revived last year. Bangladesh insists it alone has the right to decide where to shelter the refugees.
The UN source said Bangladesh may have revived the island plan to keep pressure on the international community, and not be left to handle the crisis on its own. “Bangladesh is getting desperate in wanting to get some political traction on this Rohingya issue. They feel incredibly isolated,” said the source, who declined to be identified.
Myanmar has been laying landmines across a section of its border with Bangladesh for the past three days, two government sources in Dhaka said, adding that the purpose may have been to prevent the return of Rohingya Muslims fleeing violence.
Bangladesh will formally lodge a protest on Wednesday against the laying of land mines so close to the border, said the sources who had direct knowledge of the situation but asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.
A Myanmar military source said landmines were laid along the border in the 1990s to prevent trespassing and the military had since tried to remove them, but none had been planted recently.