By Simon Roughneen
YANGON, Myanmar — Myanmar’s government is continuing to push back against calls for an investigation into the reported massacre of more than 40 Rohingya Muslims in northern Rakhine state, saying that militants had infiltrated the restive region close to the Bangladesh border.
Myanmar’s foreign ministry claimed that an Islamic militant group was behind the disappearance and presumed killing of a police officer Jan. 13 in the village of Du Chee Yar Tan, and warned foreign countries against reaching “unjustified conclusions drawing from unverified information.”
“The attackers include those who took part in the arms training course run by so-called Rohingya Solidarity Organization,” read the foreign ministry statement, referring to a group that analysts in the past have called the main militant Islamist organization in the Myanmar-Bangladesh border area.
The statement was posted Friday on the ministry’s website.
The government did not provide evidence for its claim that armed militants were in the area. Its previous contentions that Islamist groups have entered Myanmar have been met with skepticism.
Myo Thant, a Rohingya politician based in Yangon, told the Los Angeles Times that the government’s accusations were a “groundless” attempt to malign the Rohingya and to divert attention from calls by the United States, the United Nations and others for an investigation into the reported killings of Muslims. He said his Democracy and Human Rights Party had spoken by phone to Rohingyas who had fled Du Chee Yar Tan after Jan. 13 and alleged that the death toll could have been “50 or more.”
The heavy Myanmar security presence along the border would make any jihadist infiltration difficult, he said.
“There is no RSO anymore, as Bangladesh wants cordial relations with Myanmar, so it will not accept mujahideen trying to get to Myanmar from Bangladesh,” he said.
The U.N.’s lead human rights official said Thursday that there was “credible information” that state security forces and local Buddhist residents had massacred more than 40 Rohingya Muslims in Du Chee Yar Tan. The official, Navi Pillay, cited reports that eight Rohingya men were killed Jan. 9 and another 40 Muslims were slain four days later, apparently in retaliation for the disappearance of the police officer.
Myanmar officials immediately rejected the U.N. statement as “unacceptable” and accused the Associated Press and other media that reported on the alleged violence of spreading misinformation.
Rakhine state is home to at least 80% of the estimated 1 million Rohingyas, many of whom are natives of Myanmar — also known as Burma — but are effectively stateless because they are treated as refugees and widely persecuted by the state and the Buddhist majority.
Authorities bar journalists from northern Rakhine and offer only limited access to humanitarian agencies, making it difficult to independently confirm reports of violence in the area.
The U.N. says that more than 110,000 people, mostly Rohingyas, have been uprooted by violence in Rakhine since June 2012.
Observers say that tensions between Buddhists and the Muslim minority could undermine the country’s reform process, which over the last three years has seen the long-running military dictatorship wind down, political prisoners released from detention and activists including Aung San Suu Kyi allowed to campaign for office.
In Myanmar, the Rohingya are denied citizenship, must have government permission to marry and are allowed to have at most two children — restrictions not imposed on any other ethnic or religious group.
Myanmar authorities don’t regard the Rohingya as citizens, often describing them as “Bengalis,” from neighboring Bangladesh. Aye Maung, chairman of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, which is based in Rakhine, said the state’s “Bengali community assimilates some foreign elements.”
A headline Saturday in “The New Light of Myanmar,” a state mouthpiece, termed the deaths of women and children in Rakhine the “false reports of foreign news agencies” and said that villagers in Du Chee Yar Tan told U.N. representatives who visited the area Jan. 22 “that they did not find any killing.”
Aye Maung’s party, along with Wirathu, a Buddhist monk from central Myanmar, has been accused of stoking anti-Muslim feeling. In an interview, he dismissed statistics showing that Muslims have been the main victims of the violence in western Myanmar since mid-2012, saying, “I don’t believe what is published in the foreign media.”