As human rights groups document an ethnic cleansing of Burma’s Rohingya Muslim minority, the country’s national security adviser told a closed-door audience in New York that he has not seen evidence of war crimes committed by its military.
Then Ambassador Thaung Tun indicated to the audience at the Council on Foreign Relations that the Rohingya refugees who have fled the country may not want to return to their homes anyway.
The government of Burma (also known as Myanmar), “headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, has indicated that we know it’s a problem, we’re willing to resolve it, we’re happy to receive back people who want to come into their homes,” Tun said on Tuesday afternoon.
But “we can’t take just everybody,” Tun continued. “They must want to come back.”
Tun was initially supposed to speak before an open audience at the Council. But on Monday, his hosts abruptly announced that the planned address would occur without press access. Council members could attend, provided the event was not for attribution. The Council on Foreign Relations removed a page promoting the event from its site (a cached version is on Google).
Burma’s military government is currently engaged in a campaign of ethnic cleansing, targeted at the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority group.
Scores of Rohingya villages have been burnt since this summer; hundreds of thousands of people have fled to neighboring Bangladesh, drawing scorching criticism from human rights advocates. So it’s not surprising one of the country’s officials would try to avoid media scrutiny when speaking with Council on Foreign Relations members.
Despite that effort, The Daily Beast obtained audio of Tun’s talk.
Derek Mitchell of Albright Stonebridge Group, who advises American businesses on investing in Burma, moderated the discussion. Representatives for the Council on Foreign Relations and Albright Stonebridge did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Thaung Tun referred obliquely to the ethnic cleansing––taking place in the country’s Rakhine State, which borders Bangladesh––as “a problem.”
Tun added that any refugees hoping to return to their homes in Burma would need papers proving they previously lived there.
He also joked about the issue, suggesting it’s driven by illegal immigration and that Trump-style approach would alleviate the region’s conflict.
“We probably need a strong president who wants to build a wall and make the other side pay for it,” he said, drawing some chuckles from the audience. “I don’t think that can happen.”
Many Burmese people justify the ethnic cleansing by arguing that Rohingya Muslims aren’t actually Burmese, and don’t have a legitimate claim to living in the country. They often refer to it as the “Bangladeshi problem,” and say the Rohingya people are a national security threat.
In his remarks, Thaung Tun suggested the most significant problem were the conditions in the Bangladeshi refugee camps that are now home to thousands of Rohingyas fleeing the Burmese military.
“In the immediate time right now, we recognize that we need to alleviate the suffering of people in these camps,” he said. “It is not humane. We need to help them. So on our side, we have been using scarce funds to provide aid and assistance.”
He also said that if there were “clear evidence” of human rights violations by the Burmese military, the government would “take action.” Then he indicated he does not believe such evidence exists.
“There are a lot of allegations,” he said, “but allegations will remain allegations until and unless someone can come up with evidence and say, ‘Ok, ok, this and this happened.’”
In fact, human rights groups have spent years corralling evidence that the military is engaged in ethnic cleansing. In the last few weeks, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have both released details of the military’s ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. Amnesty concluded that the military has burned down more than 80 Rohingya villages since August 25, and HRW noted that health workers have “treated dozens of Rohingya women and girls who had escaped to Bangladesh for injuries consistent with violent sexual attacks.”
After his opening remarks, Thaung Tun began fielding questions.
“We have your evidence,” Minky Worden, Human Rights Watch’s director of global initiatives, said. “I’m here to actually share some of that with you.”
Worden then asked when human rights groups would have access to Rakhine State.
“I will be happy to see the allegations,” Thaung Tun replied.
“We will take action,” he added. “Give us the evidence, we will take action. And we are going to be very transparent.”
Thaung Tun also said that Rohingya refugees looking to return to their homes would have to just trust the civilian government that the violence and ethnic cleansing would stop.
“You will have to test the waters,” he said. “There is no other way. For the first time, you have a civilian government. I ask you to come and test us.”
He also said that the “root causes” of the violence in Rakhine State were “poverty, underdevelopment, and lack of jobs.”
The notion that hundreds of thousands of people fled from burning villages to squalid refugee camps because of lack of jobs is laughable.
One CFR member asked Thaung Tun why he didn’t want the event to be on the record, and he didn’t provide a particularly elucidating explanation.
“We need at this moment to have a civilized conversation, but still to be able to keep it in a more doable way,” he said.
“Perhaps when I come back next year it will be open,” he added.
Derek Mitchell, the former U.S. ambassador to Burma who now helps American businesses invest there, wrapped up the discussion with vague comments about leadership.
“This is a moment of very profound importance, as I think you know,” he said. “It is a defining moment for this country in transition. What kind of country do you want to be? Um, what are the principles under which you are going to define a new Myanmar that is forming? And so this issue of the Rohingya, of the Muslims and Buddhists, all of this, frankly gets to some core defining moments, that frankly regard leadership, very strong leadership.”
He then said people hope Burma will protect human rights and justice for all.
“If that doesn’t happen, I think the fear and insecurity you feel will just continue,” he said, “and I think it will be detrimental for everybody.”