YANGON — Myanmar’s military chief defended his military’s violent crackdown on the Rohingya community in Rakhine State by comparing it to Britain’s campaign to tackle sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland, according to a statement released by his office Friday.
UN investigators believe Myanmar’s security forces may have carried out ethnic cleansing of the persecuted minority during a months-long operation in the north of Rakhine State.
The military campaign has left hundreds of Rohingya dead and forced some 75,000 to flee across the border to Bangladesh, bringing harrowing accounts of rape, torture and mass killings by soldiers.
Myanmar has repeatedly rebuffed the allegations, saying troops were carrying out necessary counter-insurgency operations after Rohingya militants attacked police border posts in October.
On Thursday Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing compared the crackdown to Britain’s operations in Northern Ireland in a meeting with Jonathan Powell, a former top British negotiator in the peace process.
Powell, who was chief of staff to former British prime minister Tony Blair, helped broker the Good Friday agreement in 1998 that ended decades of violence between Catholic Irish nationalists and Protestant British unionists in Northern Ireland.
After the “terrorist attack … the Tatmadaw helped the police take security measures,” the army commander said, according to a statement released on Friday.
“Such occurrence was similar to that of Northern Ireland.”
He also used the meeting to denounce any claim to citizenship by the more than one million Rohingya Muslims who live in Rakhine State.
Stripped of citizenship by Myanmar’s former military leaders in 1982, the Rohingya, who have lived in Rakhine for generations, are loathed by many in the Buddhist-majority country who claim they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and refer to them as “Bengalis”.
Deadly communal violence in 2012 forced more than 120,000 Rohingya into squalid displacement camps where they live in apartheid-like conditions with little access to food, healthcare or education.
“First, they must accept themselves [as] Bengalis, not Rohingya,” Min Aung Hlaing said.
“Then, those who reside in that region need to accept enumeration, registration, and citizenship scrutiny under the law.”
Powell was Britain’s chief government negotiator on Northern Ireland from 1997 to 2007 and now heads conflict resolution NGO Inter Mediate.