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Myanmar religion minister says Rohingya 'brainwashed' to 'march' on the country

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By Poppy McPherson and Thu Thu Aung

YANGON (Reuters) – Myanmar’s Minister for Religion on Tuesday said Rohingya Muslim refugees living in neighbouring Bangladesh are being “brainwashed” into “marching” on the Buddhist-majority nation, amid a diplomatic feud over the fate of the persecuted minority.

More than 730,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar’s Rakhine state in the wake of a brutal army crackdown last August, U.N. agencies say, and are now living in crowded Bangladeshi refugee camps. U.N. investigators have accused Myanmar soldiers of carrying out mass killings, rapes and burning hundreds of villages with “genocidal intent”. Myanmar denies most of the allegations.

Thura Aung Ko said Bangladesh was “not letting them return”, referring to the Rohingya as “Bengalis”, a term commonly used in Myanmar to imply that they are recent interlopers from Bangladesh. Rohingya say they are native to Rakhine state.

“If [they] release them, the population will drop,” he said in a video shared by NewsWatch, a news website. “And then, they, at the camps, also feed and brainwash Bengali youths to truly march. They will march on Myanmar. The future goal of those over populated Bengalis is to march on Myanmar.”

Plans to repatriate an initial group of 2,260 Rohingya from the camps last month were scuppered after none of the refugees agreed to go back, saying they wanted guarantees of safety and citizenship.

Thura Aung Ko, a former general who was appointed to the cabinet by Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi after she came to power in 2016, was expanding on comments he made at the funeral of a prominent monk last week. On Nov. 27, he expounded on birth rates among members of an unnamed “extreme religion” and the threat it posed to Buddhism in Myanmar.

“While we Buddhists practise monogamy and have only one or two children, an extreme religion encourages to have three or four wives and give birth to 15 to 20 children,” he said in a video published by Radio Free Asia. “After three, four, five decades in this Buddhist country, the Buddhist community will certainly become the minority.”

On Tuesday, he clarified: “In fact, ‘other religion’ means Bengalis.”

San Aung, the chairman of an Islamic society based in Yangon, told Reuters by phone the comments were “very sad”.

“As a minister for religion he shouldn’t speak irresponsibly,” he said.

(Reporting by Poppy Elena McPherson and Thu Thu Aung; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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