Yangon: Rohingya refugees cannot return to Rakhine state until “real Myanmar citizens” are ready to accept them, the country’s army chief said Thursday, casting doubt over government pledges to begin repatriating the persecuted Muslim minority.
More than 600,000 Rohingya are languishing in Bangladeshi refugee camps after fleeing a brutal Myanmar army campaign launched in late August.
The UN says the scorched-earth operation, which has left hundreds of villages burned to ash in northern Rakhine state, amounts to ethnic cleansing of the stateless minority.
But Myanmar’s hardline army chief Min Aung Hlaing has steadfastly denied all allegations of abuse, insisting troops only targeted Rohingya insurgents.
He has also taken to Facebook throughout the crisis to fan anti-Rohingya sentiment among the Buddhist public, branding the Muslims as foreign interlopers from Bangladesh despite many having lived in Rakhine for generations.
On Thursday he signalled repatriation of the Rohingya was a long way off, saying their return must first be accepted by ethnic Rakhine Buddhists - many of whom loathe the Muslim minority and are accused of aiding soldiers in torching their homes.
“Emphasis must be placed on wish of local Rakhine ethnic people who are real Myanmar citizens. Only when local Rakhine ethnic people accept it, will all the people satisfy it (sic),” the statement, written in English, said on his Facebook page.
The army commander also said Myanmar would not allow the return of all Rohingya in Bangladesh, a country that was already hosting hundreds of thousands of the minority from previous waves of persecution.
“It is impossible to accept the number of persons proposed by Bangladesh,” the army statement said, after branding the refugees as “terrorists” who fled with their families.
The general’s comments came a day after he met with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who on Wednesday called on the army to support efforts to return “all refugees”, adding that the reports of widespread atrocities by Myanmar’s soldiers were “credible”.
Bangladesh and Myanmar have agreed in principle to begin repatriation but are still tussling over the details.
Questions are mounting over how many Rohingya will be allowed to return, where they will live after they homes have been burned down and how they will coexist peacefully among ethnic Rakhine neighbours.
Tensions between the two groups have simmered for years, erupting into bouts of bloodshed in 2012 that pushed more than 100,000 Rohingya into grim displacement camps.
The Muslim minority has for years suffered under discrimination from a government that denies them citizenship and severely restricts their access to work, healthcare and education.