Posts Tagged ‘Myanmar’

Blaze guts historic teak wood Yangon hotel

October 19, 2017


© AFP | Firefighters tackle the fierce blaze which gutted the Kandawgyi Palace hotel in Yangon
YANGON (AFP) – One person died in a pre-dawn blaze on Thursday that tore through a teakwood hotel in Yangon popular with foreign visitors to Myanmar’s main city.

The fire gutted the lakeside Kandawgyi Palace Hotel, a colonial-era building owned by a Myanmar businessman notorious for making his fortune under the former junta.

Hundreds of firefighters tried to quell the blaze which broke out at around 3am local time (2030 GMT), but they could not stop the flames from consuming the luxury hotel.

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An AFP reporter at the scene saw a white plastic sheet covering a body retrieved from the fire, but there was no immediate confirmation of further casualties.

“We don’t know why the fire started. We’re sad that such a historic and beautiful place was completely destroyed,” a witness Kyi Kyi told AFP, standing near the still smouldering ruins of the building.

Another witness, wearing a branded shirt of the Htoo company which owns the hotel, said: “It is really bad. All has gone now.”

The Htoo company, which spans construction, timber, resorts and an airline, was founded by Tay Za – a controversial tycoon who spun millions of dollars through close junta links.

Guests at the destroyed hotel had been moved to other hotels in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city which has made its mark on Southeast Asia’s tourist trail since the country emerged from full junta rule.

The oldest parts of the Kandawgyi hotel date to the 1930s when British army officers used the site as rowing club.

Myanmar’s reputation as one of the region’s hottest new destinations has also been battered by global censure over an army crackdown on its Rohingya population.


Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi ‘appalled’ at Rohingya crisis: adviser

October 13, 2017

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Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

GENEVA (Reuters) – Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi is “appalled” at the Rohingya refugee crisis in her country and is determined to fix it, but needs to be careful not to inflame the situation further, an adviser to Suu Kyi told reporters on Friday.

“She is appalled by what she has seen. She does care deeply about this. I know that does not always come across. But she really does,” said the adviser, who asked not to be quoted by name.

Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Gareth Jones

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Myanmar’s army chief Min Aung Hlaing

Buddhist Leader Spreads Hatred of Muslims in Myanmar

October 12, 2017

With army’s blessing, the Ven. Wirathu stokes public support for purge of ethnic Rohingya

Myanmar Buddhist leader Ven. Wirathu is shown during a gathering of a Buddhist nationalist group at a monastery on the outskirts of Yangon in June, 2016.Photo: ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images

HPA-AN, Myanmar—The Venerable Wirathu hitched up his orange robes, stepped up onto a stage on a recent Sunday and tapped the microphone.

“What kind of people are these Muslims?” he barked as a crowd of 1,000 in this small town east of Yangon cheered him on. “Do they eat rice through their backsides and excrete through their mouths? They are the opposite of everything in nature.”

Ven. Wirathu, the abbot of the Masoeyein monastery in Mandalay, has taken a leading role in spreading the anti-Muslim sentiment among Myanmar’s Buddhist majority that has underpinned the army’s campaign against the ethnic Rohingya minority.

Ven. Wirathu delivers a speech during a rally in Yangon, Myanmar, in late August.Photo: LYNN BO Bo/European Pressphoto Association

Since the military released Ven. Wirathu from prison in 2012 after he had served nine years of a 25-year sentence for inciting religious riots, he has traveled and taken to YouTube and Facebook to whip up resentment against the stateless group, alongside other less prominent Buddhist hard-liners.

In recent weeks, the army and allied militias have attacked Rohingya villages, driving hundreds of thousands of people to seek refuge in neighboring Bangladesh in a campaign that Bangladesh authorities say has left 3,000 people dead.

The United Nations Human Rights Office in a new report Wednesday said the purge was planned in advance, and accused troops of using rape as weapon. The agency’s chief, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, described Myanmar’s actions as a “cynical ploy to forcibly transfer large numbers of people without possibility of return.”

Myanmar officials have rejected accounts that members of the military have committed rape and murder of Rohingya and torched their villages.

Religious Divide / Muslims are a minority in the majority-Buddhist country.Source: 2014 Myanmar census

Civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi hasn’t publicly challenged the generals orchestrating the clearances. In her silence, a vacuum has developed, “and the nationalists and radical monks are filling it,” said former U.S. Ambassador Derek Mitchell. And while she has tried to curb Ven. Wirathu—banning him from preaching after he applauded the killing of a Muslim lawyer this year—the abbot simply pivoted to addressing political rallies like the one in Hpa-an.

Interviews with people who know Ven. Wirathu paint a picture of man who was stung in childhood by his father’s death and came under the sway of Myanmar’s military establishment.

Ven. Wirathu declined to comment for this article. The military didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Ven. Wirathu, who is now 49, was born Win Khaing Oo in Kyaukse, a dusty town a short drive from Mandalay. His father was a retired soldier who drank heavily, friends and neighbors said. His mother did laundry for neighbors to help make ends meet.

Win Khaing Oo used to kick a ball about with a neighbor and classmate, Ko Than Mani. “We were close. We did everything together,” Mr. Ko Than Mani said.

After his father died, Win Khaing Oo’s mother began a relationship with a Muslim shopkeeper. Not long after, at the age of 14, the boy entered the monkhood and took his monastic name.

“He changed after that,” Mr. Ko Than Mani said.

Ven. Wirathu was viewed by many as a talented preacher as a young man, said a former neighbor who knew him well, Pyar Nyar Thiri. He appears to have been particularly receptive to the teachings of a former monk and military officer named Kyaw Lwin, according to senior monks who know him.

Monks attend class at the Masoeyein monastery, where Ven. Wirathu is abbot, in May, 2017 in Mandalay, Myanmar.Photo: Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images

Mr. Kyaw Lwin, who died several years ago, founded a Buddhist university and warned that the country needed to turn the faith into a buffer against the Muslim population in Bangladesh and, on the other side of Myanmar, China’s growing influence.

In 2003, Ven. Wirathu began to take action on his own, Mr. Ko Than Mani said. In Kyaukse, he began handing out pamphlets accusing local Muslims of trying to take over his hometown. He also accused Muslim men of taking advantage of Buddhist women. Mr. Ko Than Mani said Ven. Wirathu tried to enlist his help in distributing the pamphlets, but he refused.

“I tried to reason with him, but he wouldn’t listen,” Mr. Ko Than Mani said.

Shortly after, a crowd of Buddhists burned down two mosques and two people were killed. Ven. Wirathu was arrested and handed the 25-year sentence.

In prison in Mandalay, the monk would share special lunches that no one else received, according to a former political prisoner who shared a cell with him.

“He told us it was from military intelligence,” said the cellmate, Mg Hmaing Lwin. “The food was so good: homemade dishes like fish curries, and lots of rice. It was so different from what we ordinary prisoners received. We would just get scraps of rice, and once a week we could choose between a boiled egg or some pork gristle.”

The Growing Rohingya Diaspora / There are now more Rohingya in relief camps in neighboring Bangladesh than in Myanmar.Source: International Organization for Migration

Read more

  • Myanmar Refugees Tell of Atrocities; ‘A Soldier Cut His Throat’
  • Behind the Silence of Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi
  • U.S. Says Myanmar’s Rohingya Assault Appears to Be Ethnic Cleansing

Myanmar’s government faces growing pressure from the United Nations and protesters around the world over its violent military campaign that has already forced hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims to flee the country. Photo: Reuters

Mr. Mg Hmaing Lwin, now a published poet, said a former military intelligence officer named Moe Thu was in the same prison after falling victim to one of the army’s periodic internal purges.

“He told us how Ven. Wirathu was recruited” before his imprisonment, Mr. Mg Hmaing Lwin said, which in Myanmar could entail anything from being an informer to carrying out tasks for the military. “He said they used his family background and his resentment toward Muslims for their own purposes.”

Mr. Mg Hmaing Lwin said Ven. Wirathu would talk about how military intelligence looked after him but never discussed his ties in more details.

Mr. Moe Thu acknowledged working with military intelligence but declined to comment further.

In 2012, with Ms. Suu Kyi and other members of her political party preparing to enter the country’s parliament, Ven. Wirathu was released early. Authorities flew him to an airstrip near his monastery in Mandalay. Hundreds of monks were waiting to welcome him. An aide to the country’s retired military leader Gen. Than Shwe visited him there, as seen in photos of the event. So did the former head of military intelligence, Khin Nyunt, who also served as prime minister until he was purged in 2004 and forced to spend eight years in prison. Mr. Khin Nyunt declined to comment.

Ven. Wirathu resumed his anti-Muslim sermons. In September 2012, after communal riots erupted in Rakhine State, where Myanmar’s Rohingya population was concentrated, he led a march of monks through Mandalay to support the military’s plans to send the Rohingya to a third country. Saying that it is impossible to sleep next to a mad dog, he warned that if Buddhists didn’t stand up and take action, Myanmar would become an Islamic nation.

New Rohingya arrivals travel in a truck from the border to camps in Bangladesh on Tuesday after fleeing a crackdown in Myanmar.Photo: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Shortly after fresh clashes erupted in Rakhine State. In 2012, 160 Rohingya were killed and 140,000 fled their homes. The following March, Buddhist mobs killed dozens of Muslims in the town of Meiktila, not far from Mandalay.

In the years since, Ven. Wirathu has since gained in prominence; he was the subject of a 2016 documentary by Barbet Schroeder. He last visited Rakhine State in May 2017, when he repeated his support for Buddhist villagers and met with border security forces.

In a population that remains around 4% Muslim even excluding the Rohingya, there are signs that the monk is again expanding his range of targets.

“Myanmar doesn’t have only a Bengali problem,” he told the crowd in Hpa-an, using a local term for the Rohingya. “It has a Muslim problem.”

Bangladesh border guards stand by as Rohingya fleeing from Myanmar walk along a muddy rice field after crossing the border into Bangladesh on Monday.Photo: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Write to James Hookway at

China Wants To Duplicate Its South China Sea Success in the Indian Ocean

October 12, 2017

By Brahma Chellaney

Beijing is looking to repeat its aggressive success in the South China Sea

Indian Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, right, greets U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis upon his arrival at the Defense Ministry in New Delhi on Sept. 26. © AP

The Indian Ocean, with its crowded and in some cases contested sea lanes, is becoming the focus of international maritime rivalry as various powers joust for advantage and influence in one of the global economy’s most vital transit routes.

As if to highlight this trend, the Chinese navy recently conducted live-fire drills in the western Indian Ocean. China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency quoted the fleet commander as saying that his ships “carried out strikes against ‘enemy’ surface ships.” Earlier this year, a Chinese fleet carried out similar live-fire drills in the eastern Indian Ocean.

As these exercises show, the geostrategic maritime environment in the Indian Ocean is changing fundamentally. A 1971 United Nations resolution declaring it a “zone of peace” has fallen by the wayside.

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EXTENDING OUTWARD China’s increasing activity reflects a strategic shift from “offshore waters defense” to “open seas protection,” carried out in the name of safeguarding its trade and energy interests. This mirrors the evolution of its land-combat strategy from “deep defense” (luring enemy forces into Chinese territory, where they can be annihilated) to “active defense” (a proactive posture designed to fight on enemy territory).

Beijing is also pursuing ostensibly economic initiatives to advance its geostrategic ambitions, including implementing its Maritime Silk Road project to gain a major foothold in the Indian Ocean and chip away at India’s natural geographic advantage.

The growing importance of the Indian Ocean’s resources and sea lanes is apparent. More than half of the world’s container traffic, two-thirds of its seaborne petroleum trade and a third of all maritime traffic traverse the ocean, much of it through chokepoints such as the Malacca and Hormuz straits. The Indian Ocean is also rich in mineral wealth, with deep seabed mining emerging as a major new strategic issue.

The dangerous rush to exploit its mineral and fishing resources threatens to exact a considerable environmental cost and may spark new conflicts. For example, several studies have indicated that commercial fishing by foreign fleets, by depleting local resources, has driven poor Somali fishermen to piracy.

The rise of nonstate actors such as pirates, terrorists and criminal syndicates off the Horn of Africa and elsewhere is also linked with the increasing density and importance of maritime flows through the Indian Ocean. At the same time, this development has become a pretext for outside powers to intervene and project their naval power. China, for example, has cited piracy as an excuse to launch naval operations around the Horn of Africa and to set up its first overseas naval base at Djibouti.

China’s increasing boldness in the Indian Ocean is inspired by its success in changing the status quo in its favor in the adjacent South China Sea, where it has pushed its borders far out into international waters in a way that no power has done elsewhere. By erecting military facilities on man-made islands in the Spratly and Paracel archipelagos, China has positioned its naval and air power at the mouth of the Indian Ocean.

It is now rapidly expanding its Indian Ocean footprint. In addition to setting up the Djibouti base, it is also investing in building regional ports, including in Pakistan at Gwadar, in Sri Lanka at Hambantota, and in Myanmar at Kyaukpyu. It also has port projects in the Seychelles and the Maldives. China’s fast-growing submarine fleet is best suited not for the shallow South China Sea but for the Indian Ocean’s deep waters, a message Beijing has conveyed by dispatching attack submarines to the area.

It was always clear that if China got its way in the South China Sea, it would turn its attention to the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific. Yet U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration allowed China to forcefully change the status quo in the South China Sea with impunity. Under Donald Trump, the U.S. has shown no desire to rectify the situation. As a result, China is solidifying its dominance there while the U.S. conducts symbolic freedom-of-navigation operations.

NO CONSEQUENCES In effect, China has demonstrated that defiant unilateralism carries no costs. This has left countries bearing the brunt of Beijing’s aggressive policies with difficult choices. China’s actions have, however, prompted Japan to reverse a decade of declining military outlays and India to revive stalled naval modernization.

Japan, which is heavily dependent on the Indian Ocean region for supplies of energy and raw materials, has also stepped up its regional engagement. For example, it is investing in eight port construction or renovation projects in Indonesia, India, Iran, Oman, Kenya, Mozambique, Madagascar and the Seychelles. Japan is also seeking to play a more active role in protecting the Indian Ocean sea lanes.

India, despite its strategic depth in the Indian Ocean, faces a new threat from the oceanic south. With Chinese submarines now making regular forays into India’s maritime backyard, New Delhi must devise concrete steps to deal with China’s growing presence. It needs a comprehensive maritime security strategy backed by naval capabilities that can take on tasks ranging from protecting and securing the seas to projecting power across the Indian Ocean region.

The Andaman and Nicobar archipelago, in the Bay of Bengal, is a critical asset for India to counter China’s growing maritime presence and to blunt its increasing land-based, trans-Himalayan military threat. Located next to the Strait of Malacca, the archipelago offers control of this strategic chokepoint, which is one of China’s greatest maritime vulnerabilities. Just as the Chinese military harasses and threatens Indian border patrols in the Himalayas, India can potentially play the same game off the Andaman and Nicobar chain, including by establishing China-style civilian maritime militias backed by the Indian Coast Guard.

The importance of this chokepoint can be easily stated: A third of the 61% of global petroleum and other liquid products transported on maritime routes transits the Strait of Malacca, including around 82% of China’s fuel imports.

More fundamentally, greater maritime cooperation among democratic powers is becoming an unavoidable necessity. Cooperation between Japan, India, Australia, Indonesia and the U.S. must extend to guarding the various “gates” to the Indian Ocean by exerting naval power at critical chokepoints. The aim should be to forestall the emergence of a destabilizing Sinocentric Asia. The common observation that “whoever controls the Indian Ocean dominates Asia” is unattributed but nonetheless true.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including the award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground.”

Myanmar’s army chief says Rohingya exodus ‘exaggerated’

October 12, 2017


© AFP | Rohingya Muslim refugees wait for food at the Nayapara refugee camp in Bangladesh’s Ukhia district

YANGON (AFP) – The media has “exaggerated” the number of Rohingya refugees fleeing an army crackdown, Myanmar’s commander-in-chief said Thursday, in a brash rebuttal of accusations of ethnic cleansing by his forces.Some 520,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar’s western Rakhine state since August 25, when the military launched a sweeping campaign against militants from the Muslim minority.

The crackdown has been so intense that the UN on Wednesday accused Myanmar of trying to purge its entire Rohingya population.

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Myanmar’s army chief Min Aung Hlaing with Aung San Suu Kyi

A new UN report released Wednesday described the army-led crackdown as “well-organised, coordinated and systematic, with the intent of not only driving the population out of Myanmar but preventing them from returning to their homes”.

Half of Myanmar’s Rohingya have bolted over the last seven weeks, fleeing incinerated villages to join what has become the world’s largest refugee camp in neighbouring Bangladesh.

Thousands more are still trying to escape, massing on beaches and hoping to cross the Naf River before their food runs out.

But in a Facebook post on his official page on Thursday, army chief Min Aung Hlaing was unrepentant, describing the military response as proportionate and playing down the scale of the exodus.

It is an “exaggeration to say that the number of Bengalis fleeing to Bangladesh is very large,” the post quoted him as saying, using a pejorative term for the Rohingya that classifies them as illegal immigrants.

Instead, he blamed “instigation and propaganda” by the media, who have become a punching bag for anger inside Myanmar, a Buddhist-majority country where there is little sympathy for the Rohingya.

The humanitarian needs of the refugees who have made it to Bangaldesh are immense with limited food, shelter and the threat a disease outbreak deepening by the day.

But Min Aung Hlaing, who rights groups say carries personal responsibility for the crisis, insisted the Rohingya are merely returning to their motherland.

“The native place of Bengalis is really Bengal,” he said. “They might have fled to the other country with the same language, race and culture as theirs by assuming that they would be safer there.”

He also reiterated the army’s view on the contested history of the Rohingya, saying they were moved in from Bangladesh by British colonialists and have no legitimate claim to lineage on Myanmar soil.

While immigration increased under British rule, historians say Muslim communities were recorded living in the Rakhine region long before the colonial era.

His comments followed a meeting with US Ambassador Scot Marciel, who according to the post “expressed concern” over the half million refugees and offered to help aid efforts.

This week an AFP reporter on a rare government-steered trip to the conflict-hit Rakhine heard testimony from Rohingya villagers who are scared and fast running out of food.

They said ethnic Rakhine Buddhist villagers are trying to starve them out of their homes.

Authorities are providing supplies to the Rohingya left behind, Min Aung Hlaing, glibbly adding food is plentiful in Rakhine where “fish can easily be caught” in its waterways.


‘Cynical’ Myanmar army operation aimed at preventing Rohingya return, U.N. says — Rape, Arson Murder — “Climate of fear and intimidation”

October 11, 2017

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United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein. REUTERS/Pierre Albouy Reuters

GENEVA (Reuters) – Myanmar security forces have brutally driven out half a million Muslim Rohingya from northern Rakhine state, torching their homes, crops and villages to prevent them from returning, the U.N. human rights office said on Wednesday.

Jyoti Sanghera, head of the Asia and Pacific region of the U.N. human rights office, called on Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi to “stop the violence” and voiced fear that if the stateless Rohingya refugees return from Bangladesh they may be interned.

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Aung San Suu Kyi

“If villages have been completely destroyed and livelihood possibilities have been destroyed, what we fear is that they may be incarcerated or detained in camps,” she told a news briefing.

In a report based on 65 interviews with Rohingya who have arrived in Bangladesh in the past month, it said that “clearance operations” had begun before insurgent attacks on police posts on Aug. 25 and included killings, torture and rape of children.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra‘ad al-Hussein – who has described the government operations as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” – said in a statement that the actions appeared to be “a cynical ploy to forcibly transfer large numbers of people without possibility of return”.

“Credible information indicates that the Myanmar security forces purposely destroyed the property of the Rohingyas, scorched their dwellings and entire villages in northern Rakhine State, not only to drive the population out in droves but also to prevent the fleeing Rohingya victims from returning to their homes,” the report said.

It said the destruction by security forces, often joined by mobs of armed Rakhine Buddhists, of houses, fields, food stocks, crops, and livestock made the possibility of Rohingya returning to normal lives in northern Rakhine “almost impossible”.

The campaign was “well-organized, coordinated and systematic” and began with Rohingya men under 40 being arrested a month earlier, creating a “climate of fear and intimidation”.

“We are not in a position to make a finding of genocide or not, but this should in no way detract from the seriousness of the situation which the Rohingya population is currently facing,” said Thomas Hunecke, who led the team that went to Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, from Sept. 14-24.

The sun rises as thousands of Rohingya refugees who fled from Myanmar a day before wait by the road where they spent the night between refugee camps, near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh October 10, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

It was “highly likely” that Myanmar security forces planted landmines along the border in recent weeks to prevent Rohingya from returning, he said, citing doctors treating injuries.


Despite growing international condemnation of the crisis, the military campaign is popular in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, where there is little sympathy for the Rohingya, and for Muslims in general, and where Buddhist nationalism has surged.

Myanmar on Tuesday launched its first bid to improve relations between Buddhists and Muslims since the eruption of deadly violence inflamed the communal tension and triggered an exodus of some 520,000 Muslims to Bangladesh.

But Sanghera, noting that 11,000 Rohingya crossed into Bangladesh on Monday alone, said: “Clearly it seems that some level of eviction, displacement, forced movement and violence may be continuing.”

The U.N. experts documented Myanmar security forces “firing indiscriminately at Rohingya villagers, injuring and killing other innocent victims, setting houses on fire”.

“Almost all testimonies indicated that people were shot at close range and in the back while they tried to flee in panic,” the report said.

The U.N. report quoted a 12-year-old girl from Rathedaung township as saying the security forces had surrounded her house and started shooting.

“It was a situation of panic – they shot my sister in front of me, she was only seven years old. She cried and told me to run. I tried to protect her and care for her, but we had no medical assistance on the hillside and she was bleeding so much that after one day she died. I buried her myself.”

The girl did not know what happened to her mother and four brothers, nor her father jailed a month earlier.

Rohingya refugees desperate to flee Burma (Myanmar) — Scorched earth campaign of murder, arson, rape

October 11, 2017
© France 24 screen grab

Video by Clovis CASALI

Text by FRANCE 24 

Latest update : 2017-10-11

The devastation in Burma’s northern Rakhine state continues, with entire Rohingya villages burned to the ground. FRANCE 24 joined a rare government trip to the refugee camps and spoke to some of those who had fled the violence.

Officials told the refugees that Burma and Bangladesh are working together to tackle the burgeoning humanitarian crisis and cautioned them that life for refugees in Bangladesh is difficult too. Authorities are working on a plan to return those who fled back to Burma, but it is difficult to imagine them returning willingly.

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The Myanmar military’s response to attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army has been so sweeping and savage that the UN says it likely amounts to ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslim minority. (Photo: AFP)

“We can’t live in Burma,” one refugee told FRANCE 24. “We’re afraid. We don’t even have the right to leave our homes or to go to our fields to work.”

The exodus began in late August after raids by Rohingya militants were met with a Burmese army campaign the UN says amounts to “ethnic cleansing”.

Those that get to Bangladesh will join over 500,000 other Rohingya in overcrowded camps stalked by disease, hunger and insecurity.

The UN’s refugee arm has said nearly a fifth of new arrivals are suffering from acute malnutrition, underpinned by hard conditions the Rohingya have endured over the last several years inside Burma, also known as Myanmar.

The Burmese army denies that ethnic cleansing is underway and has locked down the conflict-stricken area of Rakhine, denying free access to aid agencies and media.

But refugees in Bangladesh and rights groups say the army conducted a “scorched earth” campaign of murder, arson and rape to systematically drive Rohingya over the border.

Half of Myanmar’s Rohingya population have fled since August, joining around 400,000 already in Bangladesh, which now hosts the world’s largest refugee camp.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

U.S. Pressure on North Korea’s Global Ties Bears Fruit

October 9, 2017

Campaign to close Pyongyang’s embassies and curb its business activities world-wide has led more than 20 nations to restrict operations

WASHINGTON—Over 20 nations have curbed the diplomatic or business operations of the North Korean government following a more-than-yearlong effort by the State Department, an indication of the kind of behind-the-scenes pressure the U.S. is using to tackle an emerging nuclear standoff.

U.S. officials have asked countries to shut down businesses owned by the North Korean government, remove North Korean vessels from ship registries, end flights by the country’s national air carrier and expel its ambassadors. At the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit earlier this year, U.S. diplomats made sure North Korea couldn’t secure any bilateral meetings.

Mexico, Peru, Spain and Kuwait all expelled their North Korean ambassadors after the U.S. warned that Pyongyang was using its embassies to ship contraband and possibly weapons components in diplomatic pouches and earn currency for the regime. Italy became the latest country to do so on Oct. 1.

Kuwait and Qatar, among other countries, have agreed to reduce the presence of North Korean guest workers, according to U.S. officials and people familiar with the matter.

The campaign abroad is intensifying as the Trump administration adopts stricter sanctions at home, and the United Nations pursues enforcement of its tightest sanctions on Pyongyang yet. The talks are also a contrast to the heated exchanges between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Mr. Trump, who has issued a series of vague threats of possible military action, saying diplomacy has failed.


  • Kim Jong Un Defends Nuclear Program

The latest threat came in a Twitter message Saturday from the president. “Sorry, but only one thing will work,” Mr. Trump wrote. On Thursday, he said a White House meeting with military leaders represented “the calm before the storm.” The White House refused to clarify either remark.

Asked on Sunday what the president meant in his Twitter message, White House budget director Mick Mulvaney said on NBC that what Mr. Trump “is clearly telegraphing—and this should not be news to anybody—is that military options are on the table with North Korea. They absolutely are.”

Sen. Ron Johnson (R., Wis.), by contrast, said diplomacy was the only option for curtailing North Korea’s nuclear program. He said the U.S. should encourage China to step up pressure on Pyongyang.

“There is no viable military option. It’d be horrific,”’ Mr. Johnson, chairman of the Senate’s homeland security committee, said on CNN.

The previous weekend, Mr. Trump tweeted that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was “wasting his time” by exploring the possibility of negotiations with North Korea. Mr. Tillerson days later held an unusual, unscheduled news conference to deny reports that he had considered resigning.

This photo released on Sunday, a day after it was taken, by North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) shows the nation’s leader, Kim Jong Un, center, at the Second Plenum of the 7th Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) in Pyongyang. Photo: KCNA/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

The U.S. diplomats, pursuing a quieter campaign alongside U.N. sanctions and talks with China, have been approaching nations as big as Germany and as small as Fiji with highly specific requests, sometimes based on U.S. intelligence, to shut down North Korea’s foreign links.

For example, a U.S. official said, the State Department flagged a North Korean hostel operating in the center of Berlin that they said was sending currency back to the Kim regime. In May, Germany announced it was closing the hostel.

U.S. diplomats asked Fiji to inform the U.N. that as many as 12 North Korean vessels were operating under the Fijian flag without permission, according to a State Department spokesman.

The idea, according to U.S. officials, is to show Mr. Kim that, so long as he seeks missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads, he will find no refuge from Washington’s pursuit.

U.S. policy makers, led by Mr. Tillerson, have said they hope that Mr. Kim eventually will conclude his program comes at too high a cost to his regime and his nation a nd enter disarmament talks.

The likelihood of success has become a matter of debate. The U.S. intelligence community has concluded that no amount of pressure would convince Mr. Kim to disarm because the North Korean leader sees the nuclear and missile program as his regime’s ticket to survival, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, said at a recent hearing.

“Tillerson’s working against—I applaud what he’s done, but he’s working against the unified view of our intelligence agencies, which say there’s no amount of pressure that can be put on them to stop,” Mr. Corker said.

Susan Thornton, the State Department’s top diplomat overseeing the pressure campaign, said at the hearing that the department’s efforts were testing the intelligence community’s assessment and added China’s position was slowly shifting, viewing North Korea as more of a liability than an asset. “I think Secretary Tillerson has made a lot of progress on that front,” she said.

Rep. Ed Royce (R., Calif.), House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, has said that new pressure tactics need time to work, but that North Korea eventually will lack the resources to run its missile program.

Sen. Brian Schatz, a Hawaii Democrat, shared Sen. Corker’s skepticism at the recent hearing. “You’re all, in your own way, doing that which is strategically necessary in your own lane; and yet we have an objective that may not be achievable at all.”

Many U.S. officials believe Washington must pursue a pressure campaign, even if it ultimately fails, because it represents the best chance of a peaceful solution. The White House has said it backs State Department efforts to squeeze Pyongyang, while opposing negotiations.

The pressure campaign has become a cornerstone of Mr. Tillerson’s policy on North Korea. He often requests that his staff provide him with “specific asks” he can make on North Korea when meeting with counterparts from around the world, according to U.S. officials. Mr. Tillerson has made those requests in nearly all bilateral meetings in recent months and has received weekly updates on the results.

Mr. Tillerson has elevated the campaign, which began in early 2016 after the Obama administration saw Mr. Kim make a significant advance in his drive for an intercontinental nuclear weapon, according to current and former U.S. officials.

State Department officials then drew up a detailed spreadsheet that listed all of North Korea’s known political, economic and military interests around the world—diplomatic missions, cargo ships, guest worker contingents, military relationships and more, a former U.S. official said. The document functioned as a “to do” list of entities to target for closure.

The U.S. diplomats began coordinating on roughly a weekly basis with South Korea and on a monthly basis with Japan, mapping out a strategy and comparing notes, according to the former official.

Initially, the U.S. diplomats faced resistance. Some countries, particularly in Southeast Asia, expressed skepticism about the American requests and saw little need to curtail their links with Pyongyang, current and former U.S. officials said.

But as North Korea exhibited increasingly flagrant behavior this year—assassinating Mr. Kim’s half-brother in the Kuala Lumpur airport, firing its first intercontinental ballistic missiles and testing what many U.S. officials suspect was its first hydrogen bomb—countries that had previously resisted became more cooperative, the officials said.

Myanmar, which U.S. diplomats have been pushing to cut military-to-military ties with North Korea and stop weapons deals with Pyongyang, has resisted the U.S. entreaty.

Kyaw Zeya, permanent secretary for Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said the country had ordinary ties with North Korea and no special military ties. Myanmar has responded to the U.S. entreaties by asking Washington for evidence of any military dealings, the permanent secretary said.

Similarly, Chile said it has declined to reclassify its wine as a luxury export or to cut diplomatic relations with North Korea, despite personal requests made by Vice President Mike Pence on a recent trip to the country.

—Myo Myo contributed to this article.

Write to Paul Sonne at and Felicia Schwartz at

U.N. fears ‘further exodus’ of Muslim Rohingya from Myanmar

October 7, 2017

By Stephanie NebehayRobert Birsel

 Image may contain: 1 person
Mark Lowcock, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, attends a news conference on his visit to Bangladesh for the Rohingya refugee crisis, at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland October 6, 2017. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse Reuters

GENEVA/YANGON (Reuters) – The United Nations braced on Friday for a possible “further exodus” of Muslim Rohingya refugees from Myanmar into Bangladesh six weeks after the world’s fastest-developing refugee emergency began, U.N. humanitarian aid chief said.

Some 515,000 Rohingya have arrived in Bangladesh from Myanmar’s western state of Rakhine in an unrelenting movement of people that began after Myanmar security forces responded to Rohingya militant attacks with a brutal crackdown.

The United Nations has denounced the Myanmar military offensive as ethnic cleansing but Myanmar insists its forces are fighting “terrorists” who have killed civilians and burnt villages.

Rights groups say more than half of more than 400 Rohingya villages in the north of Rakhine state have been torched in a campaign by the security forces and Buddhist vigilantes to drive out Muslims.

Mark Lowcock, U.N. under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, reiterated an appeal for access to the population in northern Rakhine, saying the situation was “unacceptable”.

Buddhist-majority Myanmar has blocked most access to the area, although some agencies have offices open in towns there and the International Committee of the Red Cross is helping the Myanmar Red Cross to deliver aid.

“This flow of people of Myanmar hasn’t stopped yet. Obviously there’s into the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya still in Myanmar, and we want to be ready in case there is a further exodus,” Lowcock told a news briefing in Geneva.

Lowcock said a senior U.N. official was expected to visit Myanmar in the next few days.

An estimated 2,000 Rohingya are arriving in Bangladesh every day, Joel Millman of the International Organization for Migration, told a separate briefing.

Myanmar officials have said they attempted to reassure groups trying to flee to Bangladesh but could not stop people who were not citizens from leaving.

The official Myanmar News Agency said on Friday “large numbers” of Muslims were preparing to cross the border. It cited their reasons as “livelihood difficulties”, health problems, a “belief” of insecurity and fear of becoming a minority.


Aid agencies have warned of a malnutrition crisis with about 281,000 people in Bangladesh in urgent need of food, including 145,000 children under five and more than 50,000 pregnant and breastfeeding women.

Mark Lowcock, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, attends a news conference on his visit to Bangladesh for the Rohingya refugee crisis, at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland October 6, 2017. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

Cholera is a risk, amid fears of disease spreading in the rain-drenched camps where aid workers are trying to install sanitation systems, a spokesman for the World Health Organization said.

About 900,000 doses of cholera vaccine are due to arrive this weekend and a vaccination campaign should start on Tuesday.

U.N.-led aid bodies have appealed for $434 million over six months to help up to 1.2 million people – including 300,000 Rohingya already in Bangladesh before the latest crisis and 300,000 Bangladeshi villagers in so-called host communities.

The Rohingya are regarded as illegal immigrants in Myanmar and most are stateless.

Rohingya refugees gather at a water pump at a camp for those who recently fled from Myanmar, near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh October 5, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi has faced criticism for not doing more to stop the violence, although a military-drafted constitution gives her no power over the security forces.

She has condemned rights abuses and said Myanmar was ready to start a process agreed with Bangladesh in 1993 by which anyone verified as a refugee would be accepted back.

Lowcock said talks between Myanmar and Bangladesh on a repatriation plan were a useful first step.

“But there is clearly a long way to go,” he said.

Both the United States and Britain have warned Myanmar the crisis is putting at risk the progress it has made since the military began to loosen its grip on power.

China, which built close ties with Myanmar while it was under military rule and Western sanctions, has been supportive.

In Washington, U.S. officials said sanctions and the withholding of aid were among the options available to press Myanmar to halt the violence but they had to be careful to avoid worsening the crisis.

“We don’t want to take actions that exacerbate their suffering. There is that risk in this complicated environment,” Patrick Murphy, a deputy assistant secretary of state, told a hearing of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee.

Murphy said efforts were under way to identify those responsible for rights violations.

Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle in WASHINGTON; Editing by Nick Macfie

Bangladesh scuttles boats, jails captains to curb Rohingya influx

October 5, 2017


© AFP/File | Bangladesh border guards destroyed at least 30 wooden fishing boats after they were intercepted Tuesday evening bringing more than 700 Rohingya Muslims across the river from Myanmar’s westernmost Rakhine state.

COX’S BAZAR (BANGLADESH) (AFP) – Bangladesh has destroyed at least 30 wooden fishing boats to deter local captains from smuggling Rohingya refugees and illegal drugs across the border from strife-torn Myanmar, officials said Thursday.

Border guards seized the vessels and arrested the captains after they were intercepted Tuesday evening bringing more than 700 Rohingya Muslims across the river from Myanmar’s westernmost Rakhine state.

The boatmen were also caught in possession of about 100,000 “yaba” pills, an illegal stimulant popular in Bangladesh, said a border guard official.

More than half a million Rohingya have fled ethnic bloodshed in Rakhine since late August, many by boat across the Naf River which divides Myanmar and Bangladesh.

“These brokers (boatmen) were smuggling people,” one border guard told AFP on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to media.

“We were asked to destroy the 30 boats. These are hand-pulled vessels, not run by engines”, he added, saying non-motorised boats were used to avoid detection.

A government official confirmed 39 people, mostly Rohingya living in Bangladesh, were jailed for six months for “excessively charging” refugees for passage across the Naf.

“The BGB (Border Guard Bangladesh) has done an appropriate job,” Zahid Siddique, a local magistrate and government administrator, told AFP.

Gangs of boat owners, crew and fishermen have been charging the fleeing Rohingya upwards of $250 for the two-hour journey that normally costs no more than $5.

Bangladesh’s elite Rapid Action Battalion this week rescued 20 Rohingya being held hostage by local gangs demanding huge fares from the refugees.

Some arriving in Shah Porir Dwip told AFP that boatmen had demanded they hand over gold, jewels and cash before taking them across.

The boatmen are accused of not just trafficking people but drugs from Myanmar, with border guards discovering 100,000 “yaba” pills inside the seized vessels.

The BGB officer said the drugs — a blend of methamphetamine and caffeine popular among Bangladeshi youth — were concealed inside the boats.

Bangladeshi security forces have seized millions of yaba pills in recent years from traffickers attempting to smuggle the drugs through the border district of Cox’s Bazar by land and sea from Myanmar.

In the past fortnight at least five Rohingya men have been arrested on the Naf river in possession of 1.23 million yaba pills.