Rights activists have condemned comments from Myanmar’s Home Affairs Minister accusing Rohingya Muslims of “invading” the country as “blatantly inflammatory” and “disturbing”.
Even as the government seeks to calm fears of further strife in Rakhine state following deadly attacks on border police, the senior official gave an angry interview on Monday echoing nationalist fears of an Islamization of the country.
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Speaking to reporters in Rakhine state, Lieutenant General Kyaw Swe, of the military-controlled Home Affairs Ministry, said: “I am not happy with this happening. The police, together with the army, should protect from an invasion by any inches.”
He claimed Rohingya Muslims, an oppressed minority in Rakhine state, were outbreeding their Rakhine Buddhist counterparts, framing their presence as a threat. The October 9 attacks, which killed nine police in northern Rakhine, have been blamed on a little-known alleged Rohingya outfit named Aqa-Mul-Mujahidin. Rohingya leaders have condemned the violence.
“If our ethnic people [Rakhine] leave their own places, [Rohingya] will replace them. I don’t want this to happen,” Lieutenant General Kyaw Swe said, referring to the flight of Buddhists from northern Rakhine following the attacks. “For us, one man only marries a woman. For them, a man marries four women. If one is breeding 10 children, there can be 40 people in a family. So I want our ethnic people to love their own places.”
Data on religious and ethnic affiliation from the most recent 2014 census did not take Rohingya Muslims into account, but showed the countrywide Muslim population to be far lower than expected.
The politician also implied the Rohingya in northern Rakhine state, where the violence happened, were recent arrivals. Many members of the group can trace their presence back generations.
“As we are the Ministry of Home Affairs, we should do according to law enforcement,” he said. “Whatever their race is, they have to stay under our control if they are staying in Myanmar. Otherwise, get out.”
Activists and human rights groups said the minister’s comments threatened to further inflame the delicate situation.
“What the minister said is so egotistic and emotional,” said a Muslim activist who declined to be named for fear of retaliation. “[The Rohingya] are not those who came to stay there, it is their original place… So this is propagative, factually incorrect and inflammatory and I am really sad about it.”
Shaivalini Parmar of Civil Rights Defenders, a Swedish NGO, said it was critical that the government defuse tension to prevent an escalation in violence.
“Any effort to maintain peace and security in Rakhine is severely undermined when the Minister of Home Affairs is publicly making blatantly inflammatory comments about the Rohingya,” she said.
Myanmar’s government officials have a history of driving anti-Muslim sentiment, added Matthew Smith, founder and CEO of nonprofit Fortify Rights.
“It’s disturbing that a government minister would imply the Rohingya don’t belong or that they’re invaders who pose a threat to Buddhist culture. It’s flagrant, especially at such a critical time.
“For years the authorities have tried to change the ethnic demographics of Rakhine State. We’ve exposed severe population-control restrictions, violence that may amount to acts of genocide, and more subtle methods, such as incentivizing Buddhists to move to Muslim-populated areas.
“The notion that the Muslim population is exploding is contradicted by data. We appreciate knowledge based on credible data rather than craven assumptions rooted in religious discrimination. We would expect more from a senior government minister.”
While state counselor Aung San Suu Kyi has appeared to seek a levelheaded approach to the crisis, saying that justice should be doled out in accordance with the “rule of law” and emphasizing allegations against Aqa Mul Mujahidin were based on a single source, other members of the administrated have had a more hot-headed response.
Deputy defense minister Maj-Gen Myint Nwe told a press conference on Monday that supporting a ‘peoples’ militia’ in Rakhine state was, while not feasible currently, a “long-term plan that needs serious consideration”.