Myanmar army chief says Rohingya crisis is exaggerated

Myanmar's army chief has refuted the scale of the Rohingya refugee crisis. Around half of the Rohingya population has been forced into Bangladesh.

Myanmar's powerful army chief said Thursday the media has "exaggerated" the number of Rohingya fleeing a crackdown, a day after the UN accused security forces of a "systematic" attacks aimed at expelling the Muslim minority group.

More than 500,000 Rohingya have fled from Rakhine state to Bangladesh since August 25, when the army started military operations following militant attacks on security posts.

The UN Human Rights Office said Wednesday security forces in the majority Buddhist nation had murdered, raped, tortured, pillaged and burned down Rohingya villages and crops "not only to drive the population out in droves but also to prevent the fleeing Rohingya victims from returning to their homes."

Read: UN: Myanmar army systematically Rohingya so they won't return

But General Min Aung Hlaing, who wields immense power despite Myanmar's partial transition to democracy, downplayed the exodus of Rohingya and said the military response was proportionate.

"Instigation and propaganda" by the media has misrepresented the military crackdown, Min Aung Hlaing said in a Facebook post after meeting with US Ambassador Scot Marciel.

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Seeking refuge

A series of coordinated attacks by Rohingya insurgents on Myanmar security forces in the north of Myanmar's Rakhine State triggered a crackdown by Myanmar forces that has sent a stream of Rohingya villagers fleeing to Bangladesh. About 400 people have been killed in the clashes in Buddist-majority Myanmar.

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Mass evacuation

A Rohingya man passes a child though a barbed wire border fence on the border with Bangladesh. Myanmar accused the Rohingya insurgents of torching seven villages, one outpost, and two parts of Maungdaw town.

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Buddhist refugees on their way south

The crackdown by Myanmar forces also sparked a mass evacuation of thousands of Buddhist residents of the area. Tension has long been high between the Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists, leading to bloody rioting in 2012. Rakhine Buddhists, feeling unsafe after the upsurge in fighting, are moving south to the state's capital, Sittwe, where Buddhists are a majority and have greater security.

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No entry

Bangladeshi border guards block people from crossing. Thousands of Rohingyas have sought to flee the fighting to Bangladesh, with nearly 30,000 crossing over. Bangladesh, which is already host to more than 400,000 Rohingya said it will not accept any more refugees, despite an appeal by U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres for Dhaka to allow Rohingya to seek safety.

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Humanitarian crisis

An aid worker with an international agency in Bangladesh reports: "What we're seeing is that many Rohingya people are sick. This is because they got stuck in the border before they could enter. It's mostly women and children." The Rohingya are denied citizenship in Myanmar and classified as illegal immigrants, despite claiming roots there that go back centuries.

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Not welcome in Bangladesh

A group of Rohingya refugees takes shelter at the Kutuupalang makeshift refugee camp in Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh. Bangladesh's unwillingness to host more refugees became apparent in the government's plan to relocate Rohingyas to a remote island that is mostly flooded during the monsoon season.

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Stranded in no man's land

Rohingya children make their way through water as they try to come to the Bangladesh side from no man's land. Tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees are believed to be stuck at the border to Bangladesh.

Using a derogatory term to describe the Rohingya, the general said "the native place of Bengalis is really Bengal."

"They might have fled to the other country with the same language, race and culture as theirs by assuming that they would be safer there," he said, referring to neighboring Bangladesh where Rohingya are packed into squalid refugee camps.

Read: Myanmar's Rohingya: A history of forced exoduses

Myanmar's government does not consider Rohingya citizens, referring to them instead as Bengalis from Bangladesh, despite their presence in the country for decades.

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Min Aung Hlaing accused British colonialists of moving Rohingya into Myanmar from Bangladesh and said the minority had no claim to citizenship.

"They are not the natives, and the records prove that they were not even called Rohingya but just Bengalis during the colonial period," the general wrote.

Myanmar Luftaufnahme eines verbrannten Rohingya Dorfes in der Nähe von Maungdaw

An aerial view shows a torched Rohingya village near Maungdaw, Rakhine state.

The UN report on Wednesday cited evidence that "clearance operations" started in the beginning of August, countering the Myanmar government's position that the army acted after Rohingya militants attacked security posts on August 25.

Min Aung Hlaing, while not referring the UN report, said Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) insurgents were against a citizenship verification program.

"Local Bengalis were involved in the attacks under the leadership of ARSA. That is why they might have fled as they feel insecure," he said.

The comments come amid reports that the United States and European Union are considering targeted sanctions on military leaders over the crackdown.

cw/kms (AFP, Reuters)