The director general of an international coalition of 61 Rohingya organizations said he was “disappointed” at Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi for saying ethnic cleansing was “too strong” a term to describe what was happening in the Muslim-majority Rakhine region.
Wakar Uddin also called on her to reinstate a pre-independence system that showed Rohingya’s citizenship.
“I was very disappointed,” said Uddin of the Arakan Rohingya Union. “I can understand why she said that because she’s the head of state. If she admits it is ethnic cleansing, and for that matter genocide, there will be consequences from the international community.”
BBC televised a rare interview with the Myanmar’s state counselor on Wednesday. Attacks on Myanmar border guard posts in October last year by a previously unknown insurgent group set off the biggest crisis of Aung San Suu Kyi's year in power. More than 75,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh in the ensuing army crackdown.
"I don't think there is ethnic cleansing going on," Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi said of the situation in Rakhine state. "I think ethnic cleansing is too strong an expression to use for what is happening."
"It is not just a matter of ethnic cleansing,” she said. “It is a matter of people on different sides of a divide, and this divide we are trying to close up as best as possible and not to widen it further.”
"What we are trying to go for is reconciliation, not condemnation," Aung San Suu Kyi told the BBC. "It is Muslims killing Muslims as well."
Uddin, a professor of plant pathology and environmental microbiology at Penn State University, said in response that “Ethnic cleansing … is defined by what is going on on the ground. … She needs to understand, to know, the truth of what is going on -- the violence, the turbulence, the population displacement.“
The recent violence is the latest in a long cycle. Zar Ni, a genocide scholar in London, said “Half of the [Rohingya] population was deported from the country in 1978. Almost 300,000 were then driven out of [Myanmar]. About 200,000 of them later came back. This kind of harassment is repeated every five or 10 years.
“The expression ‘genocide’ is used based on these actions of about 40 years,” he said. “There is no necessity to actively kill the entire population to say that is genocide.”
Burmese authorities consider most Rohingya to be "resident foreigners," not citizens, according to Human Rights Watch. In a report, the organization says “This lack of full citizenship rights means that the Rohingya are subject to other abuses, including restrictions on their freedom of movement, discriminatory limitations on access to education, and arbitrary confiscation of property.”
Uddin called on Aung San Suu Kyi to reinstate the national registration certificate (NRC), cards issued to Rohingya as proof of citizenship in 1947, a year before Myanmar - then known as Burma - gained independence from Britain. The military effectively voided the NRC with the 1982 citizenship law, by defining who was not a citizen and making some 800,000 Rohingya stateless.
“Reinstate the NRC,” Uddin said. “Many people still have those cards. The NRC cardholders and their children, who hold white cards, Aung San Suu Kyi can reinstate those and go from there. That is a fundamental issue.”
Myanmar has launched its own probe into possible crimes in Rakhine and appointed former United Nations chief Kofi Annan to head a commission tasked with healing long-simmering divisions between Buddhists and Muslims.
A U.N. human rights report issued earlier this year said Myanmar's security forces had committed mass killings and gang rapes against Rohingya during their campaign against the insurgents, which may amount to crimes against humanity.
The military has denied the accusations, saying it was engaged in a legitimate counterinsurgency operation. The U.N. Human Rights Council has called for an investigation, which Myanmar has refused to accommodate.
In the interview, Aung San Suu Kyi tried to reassure those who fled that "if they come back they will be safe."
Thar Nyunt Oo contributed to this report which originated with the VOA Burmese Service.