YANGON: Myanmar's military has launched an internal probe into the conduct of soldiers during a counteroffensive that has sent more than half a million Rohingya Muslims fleeing to Bangladesh, many saying they witnessed killings, rape and arson by troops.
Myanmar opens probe amid reports of killings of Rohingyas
Coordinated Rohingya insurgent attacks on 30 security posts on Aug. 25 sparked a ferocious military response in the Muslim-majority northern part of Rakhine state that the United Nations has said was ethnic cleansing.
A committee led by military Lieutenant-General Aye Win has begun an investigation into the behaviour of military personnel, the office of the commander in chief said on Friday, insisting the operation was justified under Buddhist-majority Myanmar's constitution.
According to a statement posted on Senior General Min Aung Hlaing's Facebook page, the panel will ask, "Did they follow the military code of conduct? Did they exactly follow the command during the operation? After that (the committee) will release full information."
Myanmar is refusing entry to a U.N. panel that was tasked with investigating allegations of abuses after a smaller military counteroffensive launched in October 2016.
But domestic investigations - including a previous internal military probe - have largely dismissed refugees' claims of abuses committed during security forces' so-called "clearance operations".
Thousands of refugees have continued to arrived cross the Naf river separating Myanmar's Rakhine state and Bangladesh in recent days, even though Myanmar insists military operations ceased on Sept. 5.
Aid agencies now estimate that 536,000 people have now arrived in Cox's Bazar district, straining scarce resources of aid groups and local communities.
About 200,000 Rohingya were already in Bangladesh after fleeing persecution in Myanmar, where they have long been denied citizenship and faced restrictions on their movements and access to basic services.
Myanmar's de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has pledged accountability for human rights abuses and says Myanmar will accept back refugees who can prove they were residents of Myanmar.
The powerful army chief has taken a harder stance, however, telling the U.S. ambassador in Myanmar earlier this week that the exodus of Rohingya - who he said were non-native "Bengalis" — was exaggerated.
In comments to Japan's ambassador carried in state media on Friday, Min Aung Hlaing denied ethnic cleansing was taking place on the grounds that photos showed
Muslims "departing calmly rather than fleeing in terror".
Myanmar security forces have driven out half a million Muslim Rohingya from northern Rakhine state, torching their homes, crops and villages to prevent them from returning, the UN human rights office said on Wednesday.
Jyoti Sanghera, head of the Asia and Pacific region of the UN human rights office, called on the Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi to "stop the violence" and voiced fear that if the stateless Rohingya refugees return from Bangladesh they may be interned.
"If villages have been completely destroyed and livelihood possibilities have been destroyed, what we fear is that they may be incarcerated or detained in camps," she told a news briefing.
The UN political affairs chief, Jeffrey Feltman, is due to visit Myanmar on Friday, said UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric.
In a report based on 65 interviews with Rohingya who have arrived in Bangladesh in the past month, the UN human rights office said that "clearance operations" had begun before insurgent attacks on police posts on 25 August and included killings, torture and rape of children.