Myanmar’s minister of religious affairs has been rebuked by “top leaders” for using the term “extremist religion” to refer to Islam in recent racially charged comments he made referring to the country’s persecuted Rohingya Muslim ethnic minority, said a government spokesman on Friday.
Zaw Htay, director general of State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi’s office, did not specify which leaders warned the minister or what was said, when he referred to the criticism of the minister during a news conference.
He also said that ministers should publicly speak only about government policies and keep their personal opinions to themselves.
Former general Aung Ko, who was appointed religious affairs minister by Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, told reporters earlier this week that he was specifically speaking about “Bengalis” during previous comments about an “extremist religion” that would threaten Myanmar’s Buddhist majority.
“While we Buddhists practice monogamy and have only one or two children, an extreme religion encourages having three or four wives and giving birth to 15 to 20 children,” he said in a video published by RFA. “After three, four, five decades in this Buddhist country, the Buddhist community will certainly become the minority.”
Myanmar views the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, though many have lived in the country for decades, and refers to them as Bengalis. The Rohingya were stripped of citizenship 35 years ago and have been denied access to jobs and basic services such as health care and education.
Two brutal crackdowns by the Myanmar military in Rakhine state in 2016 and 2017 together drove more than 800,000 Rohingya from their communities and into neighboring Bangladesh where they have been living in massive displacement camps.
No bearing on repatriation
Zaw Htay said that Aung Ko’s views will have no bearing on the planned repatriation of some of the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees who will return to Myanmar under a much-delayed program that is now set to begin in December or January following general elections in Bangladesh.
The two countries signed an agreement in November 2017 to repatriate refugees who want to voluntarily return to Rakhine state.
“The refugee repatriation process will keep going as it was made by step-by-step agreements,” he said.
Officials from both Myanmar and Bangladesh discussed the repatriation program again on Friday, Zaw Htay said, and Myanmar officials proposed that a group of Hindu refugees who fled across the border during the crackdown be among the first group of returnees.
“About 430 Hindus really want to return home, and they have informed both the Bangladeshi and Myanmar governments that they want to return,” Zaw Htay said. “That’s why we have proposed to Bangladesh that it would be good if we included these Hindus in the first group together with other Muslims who want to return. If we do, then the repatriation process will get off to a smooth start.”
Myanmar had included the Hindus on the initial list of approved refugees to be repatriated, but officials said that Bangladesh didn’t want to send them back first and that it would try to put them on the list after the first batch of Rohingya refugees had been returned.
The program was postponed after none of the Rohingya refugees showed up at the border to be processed for repatriation on the appointed day in November.
For now, it appears the Hindus are the only refugees willing to return to Myanmar from Bangladesh.
Hindus residing in northern Rakhine suffered violence at the hands of Muslim militants who invaded their villages and drove out or killed them following deadly attacks on police outposts that sparked the crackdowns on Rohingya communities.
The militants detained nearly 100 people from several Hindu villages, killed most of them, and dumped their corpses in mass graves. They also forced the young Hindu women to convert to Islam and took them to a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh.
Reported by Thiha Tun, and Win Ko Ko Latt for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.