Myanmar Protests U.N. Official’s Comments on ‘Ethnic Cleansing’ in Rakhine

The Myanmar government lodged a protest on Monday over remarks by a United Nations human rights official that the country is conducting a genocide campaign on stateless Rohingya Muslims in the northern part of volatile Rakhine state.

Htin Linn, Myanmar’s permanent representative to the U.N. in Geneva, Switzerland, lodged a protest against John McKissick, head of the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) in the nearby Bangladeshi border town of Cox’s Bazar, for allegations he made against the Myanmar military in an interview that aired Nov. 24.

McKissick accused Myanmar army soldiers and border guard police of killing villagers, raping women and girls, and burning down homes in Rohingya communities during a security crackdown and search of Maungdaw and Buithidaung townships for armed militants following deadly attacks on border guard posts on Oct. 9.

The military has denied the accusations and blamed the Rohingya for burning down their own homes.

The security forces had “engaged in collective punishment of the Rohingya minority” after the attacks, which some locals and Myanmar officials blamed on a Rohingya militant group, the BBC reported.

“Now it’s very difficult for the Bangladeshi government to say the border is open because this would further encourage the government of Myanmar to continue the atrocities and push them out until they have achieved their ultimate goal of ethnic cleansing of the Muslim minority in Myanmar,” McKissick told the BBC.

Security forces have locked down the area and restricted access so that independent journalists and international aid organizations have been unable to evaluate the abuse allegations.

Htin Linn said he requested a meeting with UNHCR High Commissioner Filippo Grande who was out of town, so he met instead with assistant high commissioner Volker Turk on Nov. 25 to lodge the protest.

“If such allegations were indeed made by the UNHCR, then Myanmar lodges strong objection against the UNHCR for unjust allegations made without substantiating evidence [against] the Myanmar government which is also tantamount to a breach of the code of conduct of the U.N.,” said a statement posted on Nov. 26 on the Facebook page of Myanmar’s State Counselor’s Office.

The statement went on to say that the allegations “had a damaging effect on the Myanmar government” and “corroded the integrity of the UNHCR.” It added that if necessary, Myanmar would also lodge an official written complaint.

Turk responded that officials at the UNHCR were surprised by McKissick’s comments, and that they did not represent the agency’s official position, according to the statement. He also said the UNHCR would look into the matter and issue an appropriate response to Htin Linn’s request.

The Myanmar embassy in the United Kingdom sent a complaint letter to the BBC on Friday about its Nov. 22 report on the Rohingya, which it said was one-sided and based on hearsay.

The violence that has occurred in Maungdaw township has forced thousands of Rohingya, viewed by Myanmar’s Buddhist majority as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, to flee on foot and in boats to the Bangladeshi border. Guards have turned many away, while others have made it across and are staying in makeshift refugee camps.

Nearly 90 people have been reported killed, and about 30,000 have been displaced by the recent violence in northern Rakhine.

State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto leader, delayed a three-day visit to Indonesia on Monday following protests in the predominantly Muslim country over Myanmar’s crackdown on the Rohingya.

Indonesian police on Sunday said they arrested an Islamic State-linked militant for planning to bomb Myanmar’s embassy in the capital Jakarta.

A government spokesman, however, said Aung San Suu Kyi decided to postpone the trip so she could devote her attention to the situation in Rakhine and the conflict between ethnic armed groups and the army in northern Shan state.

Hundreds of Rohingya protested on Nov. 25 against the crackdown in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of predominantly Muslim Malaysia.

That same day, Malaysia’s foreign ministry called on the Myanmar government to address the alleged ethnic cleansing and said it would summon the country’s ambassador to convey its concerns about the matter, Reuters reported.

Also on Nov. 25, members of Islamic groups marched in a rally in Dhaka, Bangladesh, to protest what they called the persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar.

The Myanmar government created a Rakhine Advisory Commission three months ago to examine conflict resolution, humanitarian assistance, and development issues in the impoverished and restive western state.

Former U.N. chief Kofi Annan, who leads the nine-member commission, will visit Maungdaw township on Friday, the online journal The Irrawaddy reported, citing Tin Maung Swe, secretary of the Rakhine state government. The two-day trip will be Annan’s second visit to Rakhine since his appointment.

Seven other commission members canceled a visit to Maungdaw in October because of security concerns.

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