Rohingya continue to flee violence, persecution in Myanmar: UN rights boss

A Rohingya refugee is seen in Balukhali refugee camp at dawn near Cox's Bazaar, Bangladesh.
A Rohingya refugee is seen in Balukhali refugee camp at dawn near Cox's Bazaar, Bangladesh.PHOTO: REUTERS

GENEVA (REUTERS, AFP) - Muslim Rohingya continue to flee Myanmar's Rakhine state, many testifying about violence, persecution, killings and burning of their homes, the United Nations human rights chief said on Wednesday (July 4).

So far this year, 11,432 have arrived in Bangladesh, where more than 700,000 have fled since an August 2017 military crackdown in Myanmar's northern Rakhine state, Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein said.

"No amount of rhetoric can whitewash these facts. People are still fleeing persecution in Rakhine - and are even willing to risk dying at sea to escape," Zeid told the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Many Rohingya refugees also report being pressured by Myanmar authorities to accept a national verification card that says they need to apply for citizenship, he said.

The citizenship issue is at the core of discussions on their status, Zeid said, adding that the cards "mark the Rohingya as non-citizens, in keeping with the government's characterisation of them as foreigners in their own homeland".

Zeid added that Myanmar has detained dozens of Rohingya refugees trying to return home. His office had received reports that 58 Rohingya who tried to make it back to Rakhine were "arrested and convicted on unspecified charges", he said.

"They then received a presidential pardon, but have simply been transferred from Buthidaung prison to a so-called 'reception centre', in conditions that appear tantamount to administrative detention," Zeid said.

"Government representatives have repeatedly stated that Myanmar is ready to accept returnees and yet... many - if not all - of those who have returned of their own accord have been detained."

Myanmar has signed agreements with Bangladesh and the UN laying out the framework for a large-scale Rohingya return, but only a handful of the refugees have decided to move, while senior aid officials insist Rakhine remains too dangerous for repatriation. The Rohingya fled a violent army crackdown in August (2017) that witnesses say included rapes by security forces, summary executions and a merciless campaign of violence, which the UN has described as ethnic cleansing.

Authorities in mainly Buddhust Myanmar deny carrying out large scale human rights abuses. Authorities say a crackdown in Rakhine is a necessary response to violence by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) militant group, which attacked Myanmar security posts.

Kyaw Moe Tun, director-general of Myanmar's foreign ministry, said a top priority for his government was to find a"sustainable solution" in Rakhine. It had agreed with Bangladesh in January 2018 that repatriation of refugees would be completed within two years, he said, without using the word Rohingya.

He said that Zeid's report contained information that was"distorted or exaggerated".

"The root cause of the tragedy was terrorism and terrorism cannot be condoned under any circumstance," Kyaw said.

KILLINGS IN BANGLADESH CAMPS

Bangladesh, meanwhile, is deploying thousands of extra police to Rohingya refugee camps in the south, officials said, after a series of mostly unexplained killings.

Since August, 19 people, some of them community leaders, have been killed. Police have made a number of arrests in connection with some of the killings, but say the motives often remain unclear.

Conducted after dark and often by groups of men wielding pistols, knives, and sticks, the killings have sent a chill through the camps, which are guarded by the Bangladesh army during the day but manned by fewer police officers at night.

Even before the August exodus, there had been violence in the camps, which Bangladesh police and aid workers have previously blamed on a struggle for control of supplies to the camps.

The latest killing, of a 35-year-old named Arifullah, took place last month on a busy road outside the Balukhali camp, where he had been appointed a leader of thousands of refugees.

A group of men surrounded him on the evening of June 18, stabbing him at least 25 times, police said. A pool of blood stained the spot the next morning, and a crowd of refugees could be seen gathered around.

AKM Iqbal Hossain, police superintendent of the coastal town of Cox's Bazar under whose jurisdiction the camps fall, said a special force of roughly 2,400 men was being formed to guard the refugees.

A second senior officer, Superintendent Afrujul Haque Tutul, said police numbers were already being increased.

"We have 1,000 police officers right now for a million people, so you can imagine," he said.