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Myanmar Holds Officers After Video Purports to Show Police Beating Rohingya

By Mike Ives
January 3, 2017

HONG KONGMyanmar has detained four border police officers after a video surfaced online that appears to show two of them beating unarmed men in the restive border state of Rakhine, putting more pressure on the government to address tensions there between the authorities and the Rohingya, a persecuted Muslim minority.

The video was posted to Facebook on Saturday and seems to show officers with military-grade weapons kicking or whipping two unarmed men who are seen cowering on the ground in a village, as another officer looks on passively with a cigarette dangling from his mouth. By Tuesday evening, it had been viewed on Facebook nearly 200,000 times.

Myanmar’s de facto leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, has faced heavy international criticism in recent months for what many human rights advocates see as her failure to respond more forcefully to the state-sanctioned violence in Rakhine.

“This video came out as the international community is criticizing her, so she will face more criticism now,” said Ro Nay San Lwin, a Rohingya activist and blogger who lives in Europe and posted the video on his Facebook page.

On Sunday, after the video became public, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s office said in a statement that the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Myanmar Police Force had detained four officers in connection with the incident, adding that they “will be punished.”

The statement said two of the four detained officers, Pyae Phyo Thwin and Tay Zar Lin, had participated in the beating. It said the third detained officer was a supervisor, Maj. Ye Htun Naing, a member of the Border Guard Police Force. Two other officers who appear to be joining in the violence on the video were not identified.

The statement said the fourth detained officer, Zaw Myo Htike, had recorded the images during what it described as a clearance operation in the village of Koe Tan Kauk on Nov. 5. It said the officers were responding to a tip that six suspects that had previously attacked a nearby border post were in the village.

The village is in Rathedaung Township, near Maungdaw Township, the site of much of the recent violence against the Rohingya. The population in both townships, in northern Rakhine, is mostly Muslim.

The government has “time and again stressed the need to be careful with each and every action, to make sure there is no violation of human rights and to act in line with the law,” U Zaw Htay, a government spokesman, told reporters on Sunday in Naypyidaw, the capital.

But Rohingya activists disputed that narrative, saying in interviews on Tuesday that the episode illustrated a larger pattern of abuse.

“Shockingly, our Buddhist brothers and sisters in Burma have lost the virtue of Buddhism,” said Kyaw Win, the executive director of the Burma Human Rights Network, an advocacy group based in London, using the country’s former name. He said the video helped explain why the government had restricted the international news media’s access to northern Rakhine.

The Rohingya have been persecuted for decades. The government refuses to grant them citizenship, even though some of their families have lived in the country for generations, and many people in Buddhist-majority Myanmar call them “Bengali.”

Rakhine State, which borders Bangladesh, has been on edge since October, when nine border guards were killed in an assault there and the authorities began what they call a counterinsurgency campaign that has mainly targeted Rohingya civilians. Human rights activists say that the scale of the campaign has been disproportionate to the threat and that hundreds of Rohingya have died in operations that have included rapes and killings in their villages.

The United Nations said in late November that at least 10,000 Rohingya had fled Rakhine for neighboring Bangladesh since the October attacks. The Bangladeshi Foreign Ministry said on Saturday that about 50,000 “Myanmar citizens” had taken shelter in Bangladesh over the same time period, referring to the Rohingya.

In an open letter last week to the United Nations Security Council, a group of former Nobel Peace Prize laureates and other public figures called the situation in Rakhine “a human tragedy amounting to ethnic cleansing” with the same hallmarks as previous tragedies in Rwanda, Darfur, Bosnia and Kosovo. They urged the Myanmar government to lift restrictions on humanitarian aid in northern Rakhine and to allow journalists and human rights monitors to visit.

“If we fail to take action, people may starve to death if they are not killed with bullets, and we may end up being the passive observers of crimes against humanity, which will lead us once again to wring our hands belatedly and say ‘never again’ all over again,” the letter said.

On Tuesday, Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, called for a transparent investigation of the violence and said that the government’s response would test its commitment to the rule of law.

“If the police feel so immune that they film themselves committing such brutal beatings, one wonders what other horrors might be taking place off camera that they were not willing to record,” Mr. Robertson said in an email.

But on social media, some people in Myanmar, including journalists, said that the authorities’ handling of the police was unfair. They said the detained officers should not be punished.

“Bengali deserve to be beaten because they are not from our country,” one user wrote.

James T. Davies, a doctoral candidate at the University of New South Wales in Canberra, Australia, who studies Myanmar, said that the government had probably felt forced to take action against the police officers after the video of purported abuse spread widely online. But the government has continued to deny involvement in other recent abuses against the Rohingya, he added, including the death of six people in its custody over the last three months.

“Essentially, the Rohingya are not a priority” for the government, said Trevor Wilson, a visiting fellow in the Department of Political and Social Change at the Australian National University in Canberra. “But national security is.”

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