Buddhists in Myanmar do not hate the country’s Muslim Rohingyas, with the majority of them continuing to live peacefully there, a retired 4-star general and current Member of Parliament has told Channel NewsAsia.
In a rare interview with Myanmar’s reclusive military, Hla Htay Win, a former Chief of General Staff for the Army, Navy and Air Force who maintains close links with the armed forces, said that the majority of the Rohingyas have not fled.
Referring to them as "Bengalis", which is how most people in Myanmar describe the Rohingya community since the government banned the term in 2016, he said: "Sixty per cent of the Bengali people are living closely with our ethnic Rakhine people in peace. They have not left the country.”
The claim cannot be independently verified, and the general, who is currently a Member of Parliament from the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), did not elaborate on how he arrived at this figure.
His comments come after an estimated 650,000 Rohingyas fled from Myanmar’s Rakhine state to Bangladesh to escape a massive military crackdown triggered by attacks from the militant Arakan Rohinga Solidarity Army (ARSA) against government security forces last August.
ARSA’s attacks on 30 police posts and one army base saw the military respond with "clearance operations" that resulted in the deaths of more than 300 militants and thousands of civilian Rohingyas, according to human rights groups.
The United Nations has since accused Myanmar of carrying out ethnic cleansing against the Rohingyas.
Hla Htay Win firmly rejected these accusations, adding that the military stands ready to take action against wrongful killings if those cases are reported and are found to be true.
He also denied that systematic rapes of Rohingya women and killings of civilians had occurred.
"In general, we are not against Muslims and we have lived peacefully together. Most Bengalis just want to live peacefully," said Hla Htay Win.
Still, large segments of Myanmar society see the country's 1.1 million Rohingyas in the 54-million population as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh seeking to occupy their land.
Anti-Rohingya sentiment has also been stoked by extremist Buddhist monk, Ashin Wirathu, who refers to the Rohingyas as “sub-human”. In 2003, he was sentenced to 25 years’ imprisonment for his anti-Islamic sermons but was released after serving nine years.
Asked whether the description of "sub-human" went against Buddhist teachings, Hla Htay Win said: "There is no such saying in Lord Buddha’s teachings. I guess it is just a wrong interpretation."
MILITARY WILL TAKE ACTION AGAINST CLAIMS OF WRONGFUL KILLINGS
Soft-spoken with a friendly demeanour, Hla Htay Win was conversant in both economic and security matters. But sitting down with him for a long and wide-ranging conversation, it was clear that the way Myanmar has been portrayed internationally is a source of concern and frustration. Still, despite challenging and detailed questioning about the way the authorities have dealt with the Rohingyas, he remained calm and measured as he laid out the Myanmar perspective on recent events.
He expressed frustration the foreign press "did not believe" what his government was trying to tell the world.
"For example, we still have Bengalis living peacefully here or that there are terrorist Bengalis who attack fellow Bengalis if they are accused of collaborating with the government. But nobody believes us," he said.
Hla Htay Win, who stepped down from the military in 2015 to contest in the country’s first democratic elections,went on to say that action will be taken if wrongful killings and rapes are reported to the authorities.
In a rare admission on Jan 10, the military said its soldiers had murdered 10 Rohingya Muslims whose bodies were found in a mass grave in Rakhine state's Inn Din village, the military's commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing, said in a statement on Facebook.
The military said legal action would be taken against members of the security forces, who violated the rules of engagement in the killings, as well as ethnic Rakhine Buddhist villagers who were also involved.
The US ambassador to Myanmar, Scot Marciel, welcomed the move, calling it "an important step".
Nonetheless, while the military will take action when such reports are made, the former general also claimed that the figures for civilian casualties are not accurate.
MEDECINS SANS FRONTIERE DATA IS "UNRELIABLE"
According to Medecins Sans Frontieres, an estimated 6,700 Rohingyas have been killed since violence erupted in Rakhine last August, a figure which the Hla Htay Win rejected.
He said Rohingyas have been ordered by their Muslim clerics to inflate the casualty figures.
"It is impossible. The media usually exaggerates the news about the Muslims. I understand that they (Medecins Sans Frontiere) gathered those data from the displaced people and I believe that this data is not reliable," said Hla Htay Win.
"The Bengalis are always under the constant threat of the militants and imams (Muslim clerics). They will say whatever the imams ordered them to say," he added.
Pressed further with the point that doctors in refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh had treated Rohingyas suffering from gunshot wounds, he said: “It is questionable. What kind of solid proof are the doctors in Cox's Bazar holding on to, (to) tell such things?
"The unreasonable killings and the rapes by the military are just impossible. The military has zero tolerance of rape cases. The military takes serious action on such cases if they happen."
Hla Htay Win added that some Rohingya civilians may have been accidentally shot last August when security forces opened fire to defend themselves when ARSA attacked.
"Our security forces had to defend themselves and shot back at ARSA ... so there were some injuries and deaths (of civilians) from it. But they were not deliberately targeting civilians," he said.
ROHINGYAS FORCED TO JOIN ARSA WHO THREATENED THEM WITH TORTURE
According to Hla Htay Win, ARSA gained momentum by coming to Rohingya-populated villages in Rakhine and forcing people to join the group by threatening to cut their throats if they did not do so.
"Bengalis call ARSA the ‘people in black’. Those ‘people in black’ came to the villages, threatened the villagers that they would cut their throats or torture them if they did not become their recruits. The Bengali villagers were forced to join them," said Hla Htay Win.
He also alleged that ARSA had killed 80 Rohingya who they suspected of giving information to the media and the government during last August’s attacks.
Hla Htay Win said the UN, the US, the EU and international organizations are "unfair and biased" against his government in relation to the Rohingya crisis.
"I believe that they should think fairly and act fairly based on the data that we are providing," he added.
ARSA "APPLIED" TACTICS USED BY AL QAEDA AND IS
On Jan 5 this year, ARSA launched another attack in Rakhine after a hiatus of four months, ambushing a lone civilian truck with lightly armed engineers which was transporting border fencing material.
According to Hla Htay Win, ARSA employed military tactics used by Al Qaeda and Islamic State (IS) in this incident.
“During the recent ambush … ARSA applied military tactics and used landmines that international terrorist groups (Al Qaeda and IS) utilise. That’s why I believe that ARSA and those groups are connected, one way or another,” he said.
Hla Htay Win also rejected ARSA's justification for its attacks.
The group has said it has no choice but to launch offensives as the Myanmar army has continued to kill Rohingyas, rape women, loot their property and starve the local population.
“This is just a fabricated reason from them (ARSA). They are giving those excuses because they are afraid of being labelled a terrorist group … (and then) they will not gain the sympathy of the international community and will be eliminated,” said Hla Htay Win.
"ARSA are just a group of terrorists."
ARSA ALLEGEDLY RECEIVED MILLIONS FROM AL QAEDA AND ISLAMIC STATE
According to the retired general, ARSA politicised the term Rohingya to get support from international Islamic organisations.
"I understand that is how they (ARSA) got millions of dollars.... However, it is difficult to say the exact amount of money they received from Al Qaeda and IS," said General Hla.
The killings of Rohingyas led to Al Qaeda and Islamic State calling on Muslims to wage jihad against Myanmar to avenge their deaths.
Malaysia arrested one Malaysian and one Indonesian for planning to go to Myanmar to wage jihad last year.
ARSA HAS TRAINED OVER 7,000 MILITANTS
According to Hla Htay Win, the threat from ARSA is growing with training camps in Bangladesh and in Rakhine state.
"The training camps in Rakhine are located in villages as well as in jungle hideouts," he said. "They are trained by experienced veterans who have fought in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq."
Hla Htay Win also alleged that village Muslim clerics in Rakhine are also involved in the training of militants.
"Each camp is capable of training around 200 militants," he suggested. "They are given basic para-military training in small arms and battlefield tactics. They are also trained to use mines and handmade bombs.
"Over time, they also learned to produce handmade mines and bombs and they have recruited and trained over 7000 militants."
According to Hla Htay Win, ARSA's longer term goal is to set up an Islamic State in Northern Rakhine as part of the wider plan by Al Qaeda, Islamic State and other miltant groups to establish a caliphate in Greater Bangladesh.
"ARSA wants to establish an Islamic State in northern Rakhine as part of the wider plan by international militant (AL Qaeda and IS) groups to establish a caliphate in Greater Bangladesh covering northern Rakhine, Bangladesh and India’s northeastern states of Assam and Manipur," he claimed.