YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar President Thein Sein has denied that minority Muslim Rohingya are fleeing “torture” in western Rakhine state, telling the Voice of America Burmese Service such media reports were fabrication.
According to the Arakan Project, which plots migration across the Bay of Bengal, about 100,000 Rohingya have left Rakhine since 2012. Violent clashes with ethnic Rakhine Buddhists that year killed hundreds and left 140,000 homeless, most of them Rohingya.
Some Rohingya, as Reuters reported last year, are held for ransom by trafficking gangs at jungle camps in Thailand until relatives pay to secure their release.
International concern was overblown, Thein Sein told the VOA on Thursday at his presidential residence in Naypyitaw, the capital of Myanmar.
“It is just a media story that boat people are fleeing torture,” he said.
The president said that there were more people who wanted to live in Myanmar “because it is spacious, (with) many places to live in and work”, he continued.
“Some people are writing negative things with malice,” he said. “International organizations are also helping them well.”
The comments by Thein Sein, a general who left the military to lead the reformist government, reflect the government line regarding the 1.1 million Rohingya, but they fly in the face of reports by domestic and international media as well as leading international NGOs. Prejudice against the Muslim minority is widespread in Myanmar, which says many have no right to citizenship, despite having lived in the area for generations.
In recent weeks, thousands of Rohingya, a mostly stateless people, have sailed across the Bay of Bengal to the west coast of Thailand, from where human-smugglers deliver them to neighboring Malaysia. Many thousands more have escaped across Myanmar’s borders to neighboring countries.
Thai authorities largely pin the exodus on the Myanmar government, arguing that Rohingya are fleeing persecution and violence. “The problem starts with Myanmar. The reason they’re coming over is because Myanmar does not want them (the Rohingya) and they are being persecuted and forced to flee because of violence over there,” Sanya Prakobphol, chief of police for Kapoe district in southern Thailand, told Reuters. Last Friday, U.S. President Barack Obama, on a visit to Myanmar, called on the government to grant the Rohingya equal rights.
Myanmar began its emergence from international pariah status in 2011 when military leaders launched reforms after nearly half a century in power and installed a quasi-civilian government.
But substantial power is still held by the military.
Writing by Paul Mooney; Additional reporting by Amy Lefevre in Bangkok; Editing by Nick Macfie