As It Happens

Myanmar ex-minister says UN has 'no proof' of ethnic cleansing against Rohingya

Ye Htut led the transition that saw Aung San Suu Kyi win the de facto leadership in Myanmar. He says criticisms of her response to the ongoing Rohingya crisis are unfair and unfounded.
Ex-Information Minister of Myanmar Ye Htut denies that forces are burning down Rohingya villages. (Ye Aung Thu/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

Amid international criticism and claims of ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims, Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi is defiant.

"Myanmar does not fear international scrutiny," Suu Kyi said in a speech Tuesday. 

The Nobel laureate did not blame her country's army in her first public address since the current crisis began in late August. She said there were "allegations and counter-allegations," but unlike Suu Kyi, international observers and Rohingya Muslims aren't equivocating. 

They tell stories of villages burned to the ground by Myanmar security forces, refugees shot and killed as they try to flee, and the mass exodus of more than 400,000 Rohingya people crossing into Bangladesh.

Ye Htut is Myanmar's former minister of information, who oversaw the transition to Suu Kyi's de facto leadership. He spoke with As it Happens guest host Helen Mann from Singapore. Here's an excerpt of that conversation: 

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has called the situation in Rakhine state "a textbook example of ethnic cleansing." How do you respond to that?

I reject the remark. ... You need the strong, legal evidence to use this term. Without this type of precaution, you will give the Rohingya group, like ISIS, a good propaganda platform.

How do you define what is happening in Rakhine? 

First, there is a conflict between the terrorist group and the security forces. Second, that created a lot of humanitarian crises on both sides of the border. 

Rohingya Muslims stretch out their arms to reach food being distributed near Balukhali refugee camp in Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh. (Bernat Armangue/The Associated Press)

There is fire-detection data, there's satellite imagery, photographs, videos — they show entire Rohingya villages being burned down by vigilante Buddhist mobs [and] also by Myanmar security forces. Given all that evidence, how can you deny what's happening? 

What the satellite images show is that villages are burning. There is also Rakhine villages that are burning. So satellite photos just show the image. There is no proof who is responsible. But I admit it. This is not a good thing for our country.

Former Myanmar information minister Ye Htut denies allegations of ethnic cleansing by the Myanmar army. (The Associated Press)

Who are you suggesting is burning down these villages if not the military and vigilantes who support them?

There are three possibilities. One. Most of the close fighting in the villages [is] using the grenades and IEDs (improvised explosive devices). Also, most of the houses are bamboo houses so [caught flame] during the fighting.

Second is the terrorists — or some of the security force — may be responsible for that issue.

Third is when most of the villagers left the villages, the looters come in and take properties and they started the fires.

A Rohingya Muslim man stands by the entrance to his tent at Balukhali refugee camp in Cox's Bazar. (Bernat Armangue/Associated Press)

You are suggesting that Rohingya guerrillas are burning down the residences — pushing out their own people — which seems absolutely outrageous. What evidence do you have that they would do that? 

When you talk about the security forces burning these villages, what is the reason behind this?

Everybody knows we have to receive the refugees back and burning their home is only more burden on the government and a bad image for the government.

My suggestion is allow the media access to that area and allow diplomats and other people to travel that area and find the reason.

Your government has been saying that, and at the same time observers and journalists have been denied entry to the areas most affected. No one is actually allowing them access. 

In the 2012/2013 violence between the two communities, we allowed the free media access. We found out that is the best thing to counter the rumours and false information. I think the government have to reconsider their position on this issue.

Aung San Suu Kyi has come under fire for not speaking out against the Myanmar army. (Aung Shine Oo/The Associated Press)

When Aung San Suu Kyi was elected in late 2015, many took it as a sign that your country was turning a corner — that peace was finally coming.  Now she's being criticized as an apologist for this ethnic cleansing that is going on in the country.

Do you think you've lost an opportunity here to repair your image and to be welcomed into the global community? 

I think the international community — especially the Western countries — are not fair on Aung San Suu Kyi. You have to understand she is no longer the activist. Now, she's becoming the politician and the statesman.

Like the leader of your country, she had to consider every aspect of the problem and she had to consider public opinion in every issue.

The leader of my country and many other countries are highly critical of her. Prime Minister Trudeau says he's disappointed in how she has handled this situation. Is that not a fair assessment given the suffering that we're seeing? 

(Laughs). Your country doesn't have any armed conflict. It doesn't have any problem of illegal immigration, or refugee problem. You can live in the mostly ideal situation. So you have to step in our shoes before blaming her. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. To hear more, listen to the audio above. 


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