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Dispute Continues Over Death Reports in Western Burma

  • Gabrielle Paluch

FILE - Soldiers keep watch as they sit in a vehicle outside of Thandwe in Rakhine state Oct. 3, 2013.

FILE - Soldiers keep watch as they sit in a vehicle outside of Thandwe in Rakhine state Oct. 3, 2013.

The Burmese government continues to reject reports that at least 24 people were killed in a violent incident involving ethnic minority Rohingyas in the country’s remote northwest earlier this month. Rights groups and news agencies have reported scores of Rohingya died in a crackdown by security forces that drew concern from the U.S. Embassy.

Details remain unclear about an incident that occurred in the early morning hours of January 14. Locals say they were unfairly targeted by security personnel, and then driven from their homes by a mob. But the government insists that a policeman was kidnapped by the villagers, and then likely killed.

Since then, rights groups have interviewed people who say as many as 60 people, nearly all of them ethnic Rohingya, died when security forces and ethnic Rakhine villagers retaliated for the kidnapping. The government says the Rohingya are alive but fled their village after the policeman’s death.

Government's version

Presidential spokesperson Ye Htut says villagers likely exaggerated the story because they were guilty of killing a police officer.

"Nobody except the police sergeant [are] missing from in that incident. That's why we are trying to recover the body and find the people who committed that crime. No civilians from Rakhine or Bengali [Rohingya] are missing from that accident, because police refrained from firing in that mob and they only retreated from the village," said Ye Htut.

The U.S. and other foreign governments have urged Burmese authorities to investigate the alleged deaths and abuses of the villagers. Ye Htut says they plan to investigate the death of the police sergeant.

Local member of parliament Shwe Maung told VOA’s Burmese service that he has seen many conflicting reports about what happened, but some indicate that a violent incident and looting did occur. He says he has not been able to travel to the village itself, and is relying on reports from locals.

He says a group of villagers captured a police officer, U Aung Kyaw Thein, from a patrolling police group. Then, they beat him and four other policemen escaped. At midnight, he says police came back to the village and searched for the police officer. The next day, a group of Rakhine villagers also came to that village and looted it.

AP says report accurate

The Associated Press and other news agencies reported multiple deaths in the incident. Burma’s Ministry of Information later disputed the AP story and said it fears false reports could fuel further violence.

The Associated Press issued a statement saying it believes the story was reported accurately. It also urged the government to allow better access to the region.

Like past reports of violence in remote parts of Burma’s Rakhine state, facts have been difficult to confirm because the government restricts access to outsiders.

Senior researcher on Burma for Human Rights Watch, David Mathieson, told reporters at a news conference in Bangkok Tuesday that the confusion over what happened is a direct result of the government’s policies.

"They've got a lot to hide. They've been hiding what they've been doing in Maundgaw and Buthitaung for decades," he said. "This is just another sad episode in what we know has been going on for 30 years. They basically lock down those townships and keep people there in such a miserable state that they will leave."

Mathieson says researchers are convinced that a violent clash did occur, but they still are working to determine what exactly happened and how many people died.