Interview with Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch

Myanmar's denier-in-chief: ″An utter failure of moral leadership″

An estimated number of 270,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled ethnic cleansing in Myanmar and have crossed over to Bangladesh. Aid agencies are struggling to cope with the influx and are reporting an acute shortage of provisions. Roma Rajpal Weiss spoke to Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch in Asia

Mr. Robertson, what is behind the escalation in the Rakhine?

Robertson: The recent offensive against the Rohingya community by Myanmar security forces is in direct response to a series of Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacks on 25 August. They appear to have been the straw that broke the camel′s back. The government has used the ARSA attacks as an excuse to enter Rohingya areas and engage in a scorched earth campaign, targeting civilians. Systematically targeting the civilian population while claiming they are going after the insurgents is a favourite tactic of the security forces.

We suspect that they are destroying what may ultimately be hundreds of villages. There is now satellite imagery for at least 40 villages, showing how systematic and widespread this destruction of villages is. The testimonies we have obtained from refugees coming across the border confirm that Rohingya villages were surrounded by security forces. Some inhabitants fled and got away, some were shot and some were not, but many said that as they were fleeing the areas, they could see their village going up in flames.

What is Aung San Suu Kyi′s role?

Robertson: What can I say? Firstly, Suu Kyi published some very serious allegations on her website claiming that local UN and NGO staff were involved in supporting terrorist activities, but neglected to give any evidence. When the story broke, it essentially put a target on the back of all the humanitarian agencies trying to operate in Rakhine state. Many were forced to suspend operations as a result. The impact has been huge. Even the IDPs (internally displaced persons) in the camps located west of Sittwe – where about 120,000 persons live well away from the north of Rakhine, with its ongoing violence and clearance operations – even those people are unable to obtain food, because local aid agency staff are scared to enter the camps.

Secondly, she has said that what′s happening is all about the terrorists spreading an ″iceberg of fake news.″ So either she has political reasons for not defending the Rohingya, or she is fully complicit with what the security forces are doing. Either way, she has become the denier-in-chief regarding the current situation. Instead of standing up to the army and saying that they have gone too far, she is providing them with the ideal defence and taking all the flak.

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