Myanmar makes first arrests for police abuse against Rohingya after video goes viral

A disturbing video appears to show Myanmar's security forces beating Rohingya villagers. Zaw Myo Htike, who shot the video, has been arrested along with three others. (Credit: Ro Nay San Swin/ Facebook)

The government of Myanmar has arrested four police officers in connection with a video making rounds on social media that appears to show police beating unarmed Rohingya men. It is the first time the government has taken action against security forces, despite numerous reports of abuse since a severe military crackdown began in October.

The video, which was posted to Facebook on Saturday, appears to capture officers whipping and kicking unarmed men, who are sitting on the ground in rows with their hands behind their heads. Other officers look on, while one films the operation “selfie-style” with a cigarette casually hanging from his mouth.

“[We] have 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, according to the Irrawaddy.

However, multiple reports, videos and satellite images have surfaced over the last few months accusing security forces of raping and torturing Rohingya villagers and burning down their homes amid the severe crackdown following two border post attacks by Rohingya Muslim insurgents in October and November.

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Htay said the officers were responding to a tip that six suspects involved in the Nov. 4 attack were hiding in the village. The operation captured on video took place the next day. A Rohingya activist told Agence France-Presse that the footage has been verified by a refugee from a camp near the village.

The ethnic and religious feud between Rakhine state’s majority Buddhist population and the 1.3 million stateless Rohingya Muslims has taken its most violent turn since hundreds died in a bloody clash in 2012. Denied citizenship and basic rights like freedom of movement, the Rohingya – considered illegal migrants from Bangladesh despite generations in Myanmar – are gaining more attention, and international criticism is mounting against the country’s de facto leader, Nobel Peace laureate Aun San Suu Kyi for her inaction.

Last week, a group of other Nobel laureates and public figures published an open letter to the United Nations Security Council, calling the crisis a “human tragedy amounting to ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity” with “all the hallmarks” of Rwanda, Darfur, Bosnia and Kosovo.

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The Bangladeshi Foreign ministry said on Saturday that about 50,000 Rohingya have fled across its borders since November.

“We urge the United Nations to do everything possible to encourage the Government of Myanmar to lift all restrictions on humanitarian aid, so that people receive emergency assistance,” the open letter read. “Access for journalists and human rights monitors should also be permitted, and an independent, international inquiry to establish the truth about the current situation should be established.”

Although the government’s action against the officers shown in the video is welcome news for activists and the human rights community, many in Myanmar think the arrests are unfair, and it seems the government is treating it as an isolated incident.

An investigative commission formed by President Htin Kyaw reported on Tuesday “no genocide or religious persecution” against the Rohingya, and action against those accused of abuse, rape and arson would only be taken if sufficient evidence is found.

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Joanne Lu

Joanne Lu is a South Carolina-based writer and editor dedicated to global development, poverty alleviation and social justice. After a year in Rwanda, she now covers the Asia-Pacific and economics. Find her on Twitter @joannelu or email joanne@humanosphere.com.