Rohingya human rights activist Tun Khin, recently spent several weeks in Muslim refugee camps in southeastern Bangladesh to which hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fled during a military crackdown in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state. The founder and president of the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK, a leading voice for Rohingya around the world, was in Washington on Wednesday, participating in a panel discussion on Capitol Hill about the ongoing violence in Rakhine, the mass displacement of Rohingya, and the work that international and domestic NGOs are doing to alleviate the crisis. The following is an edited version of an interview Tun Khin did with Kyaw Kyaw Aung of RFA’s Myanmar Service.
RFA: You went to Bangladesh to observe and interview Rohingya refugees a few weeks ago. What did you see?
Tun Khin: I went there in mid-September and stayed there about a month. The situation of refugees there is terrible. They were cracked down on by the Myanmar army, which killed them, set fire to their homes, and raped women when they were in Rakhine state. The refugee camps they are living in now have no clean water or proper shelter. I saw some women who had given birth on the way to Bangladesh after traveling about 10 days from Buthidaung township [in northern Rakhine state].
RFA: Bangladesh and Myanmar are in the process of repatriating Rohingya refugees based on a 1993 agreement between the two countries that allows the return of Rohingya who can prove residence in Myanmar. What is the best way for both countries and the international community to see that they are accepted back?
Tun Khin: In my opinion, they shouldn’t be sent back to Rakhine state right now because all their property has been destroyed. Where would they live if they are sent back?
RFA: The Myanmar government has been building houses for them, so if both countries agree on the repatriation process, what other difficulty would they face?
Tun Khin: The Rohingya whom I met in Bangladesh told me that they have nothing left in Rakhine state and they don’t have any right to travel, marry, or get an education. The question is, how can they return to a place where they have no rights?
RFA: The international community has pointed out that Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law bars these Muslims from becoming citizens. If the law needs to be amended, which points should be changed?
Tun Khin: Before the Citizenship Law was issued, Rohingya already constituted an ethnic group in Myanmar. After this law was issued, other people were given national identity cards, but the Rohingya were given temporary registration certificates, commonly known as white cards. This Citizenship Law is not up to international standards, and the Rohingya can become citizens only if this law is amended.
RFA: After the deadly attacks by the Muslim militant group the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on 30 police posts in northern Rakhine on Aug. 25, local ethnic Rakhine people became worried about their territory, and 600,000 Muslims had to flee to Bangladesh. Do the activists and organizations that work for Rohingya rights support ARSA’s activities?
Tun Khin: As far as I know, the activists and organizations working on Rohingya rights don’t support ARSA. We don’t know them, and we don’t have any connections to them. ARSA’s target is the Myanmar army and police who have oppressed the Rohingya.
RFA: What about the many hundred deaths of local civilians from other ethnic groups in northern Rakhine state, such as Hindus, Mro, and Daingnet?
Tun Khin: Only the Myanmar army and government announced such news. We don’t know who killed them, because the Myanmar government hasn’t allowed international reporters to go to these areas.
RFA: ARSA’s leader Ata Ullah released a video urging all Muslims in Rakhine to unite and fight to take over territory in the state as their own land. Now Bangladesh and the United Nations are calling on Myanmar to create a safe zone for Rohingya. Because of this, ethnic Rakhine non-Muslims, including the Burmese, are concerned about losing their territory, and they have been holding rallies to support the army and the government. Do you think these campaigns are reasonable?
Tun Khin: No, they are not reasonable. People who are fighting against the Myanmar army are young people with knives and sticks. How can they fight to have a territory of their own? The Myanmar government and army are doing this to incite more hatred against the Rohingya.
RFA: The media in India have published reports that said Al-Qaeda provided military training to the Rohingya. Are you concerned about the Rohingya making contact with terrorist groups such as ISIS or Al-Qaeda and about increased instability in Rakhine?
Tun Khin: We all are worried about increased instability in the region, but the media in India have published baseless news.
RFA: Do you think ARSA will carry out further attacks?
Tun Khin: ARSA members are young people, and they are not well organized, but they have been saying they will continue the fighting. Actually, we have to search for a political solution.
RFA: Since 2016, international activists like you who work for Rohingya rights have blamed State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi for the crisis in Rakhine state. Why?
Tun Khin: Actually, the Myanmar army is committing crimes against the Rohingya, such as killing them, raping women, and burning down their houses, but Aung San Suu Kyi is protecting the army by saying that what the international media say [about the military’s atrocities] is not true. She is a Nobel Peace Prize winner whom we depended on and had expectations of. We [Rohingyas] even campaigned for her and other political prisoners’ freedom about seven years ago. We are very disappointed that she is protecting the army.
Reported by Kyaw Kyaw Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.