Myanmar: Damning reports of Rohingya women, children raped and slaughtered

Undocumented Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh (Photo credit: EU/ECHO/Pierre Prakash/flickr)

The United Nations human rights office and Human Rights Watch (HRW) both released reports over the weekend detailing accounts of horrific abuses said to have been committed by security forces against Muslim Rohingya women, children and men in Myanmar.

The reports, released Friday and Monday respectively, expose a “calculated policy of terror” and “likely commission of crimes against humanity.”

According to the HRW and the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), military forces and various police forces have brutally assaulted, raped and killed Rohingya villagers, including children as young as eight months old and women as old as 80 years old, in a security crackdown that began after insurgents attacked a border posts last October.

Mothers who reported being sexually assaulted said they also suffered from watching security forces slit the throats of their children. Witnesses recalled the elderly being burned alive and men gunned down at random and at close range. U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said the level of violence documented in the report is “unprecedented.”

“The devastating cruelty to which these Rohingya children have been subjected is unbearable,” Zeid said. The U.N. agency said it released its findings earlier than scheduled because they were so alarming.

Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

“What kind of hatred could make a man stab a baby crying out for his mother’s milk? And for the mother to witness this murder while she is being gang-raped by the very security forces who should be protecting her – what kind of ‘clearance operation’ is this? What national security goals could possibly be served by this?”

Since the security crackdown began in October, more than 69,000 Rohingya have fled northern Rakhine state into neighboring Bangladesh, according to Human Rights Watch, and another 23,000 have been internally displaced.

The Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic minority with a population of about 1 million, most of whom reside in northern Rakhine state. Religious and ethnic conflict with the majority Buddhist population have long-plagued the region, but even under the leadership of Nobel laureate Aun San Suu Kyi since 2016, the government refuses to recognize the Rohingya as citizens of Myanmar. Instead, most Burmese consider them illegal migrants from Bangladesh. Consequently, they are denied a host of basic rights, including freedom of movement.

Map showing locations of Rohingya communities in Myanmar. Wikipedia

Map showing locations of Rohingya communities in Myanmar. Wikipedia

Rights groups and local activists on social media have published disturbing allegations of brutality in recent months, including satellite images of burned down villages. After months of being denied access by the government to the “worst-affected” parts of northern Rakhine, Zeid sent a team to the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.

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There, the four-person OHCHR team interviewed 204 victims and witnesses, plus humanitarian and health workers and other experts. Human Rights Watch also conducted their own interviews with 28 men and women.

According to Human Rights Watch, 11 of the 18 women their researchers spoke with survived sexual assault. Meanwhile, 52 percent of the 101 women who spoke with the OHCHR team reported having suffered rape or another form of sexual violence. The testimonies include those of seven girls under 18.

Of the 204 people, 64 percent also reportedly witnessed the burning or destruction of property. Fifty-six percent reported disappearances, while 65 percent claimed to have witnessed a killing. Another 13 percent reported being personally stabbed or shot, of which the OHCHR team collected photographic evidence.

The report said these figures are likely an underestimation due to the tendency by victims and witnesses to gloss over certain violations, like destruction of property, when discussing more severe ones, such as killing, rape and disappearances. Cultural stigma surrounding sexual violence may have also prevented some women from disclosing the extent of their assault.

“The gravity of the findings was indeed a factor in finalizing the report exceptionally quickly,” the U.N. High Commissioner’s spokesperson, Rupert Colville, wrote in an email to Humanosphere. “If the impact of the report succeeds in helping halt ongoing violations, it could potentially save lives.”

In January, a state-ordered investigative commission led by First Vice-President U Myint Swe found “insufficient evidence to take legal action up to this date.” It further concluded that “per the nature of these conflicts, illegal activities and fabricated rumors and news can appear occasionally.”

Immediately following the release of the commission’s interim report, the government made its first arrests of four police officers after a video that appeared to show brutality went viral.

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In response to Friday’s OHCHR report, Suu Kyi’s spokesman told BBC‘s Jonah Fisher, “Our position is not a blanket denial… we will cooperate with international community.”

But in a follow-up statement, the spokesman deferred once again to the vice-president’s commission. “Where there is clear evidence of abuse and violations we will take all necessary action,” he told Fisher.

“I am concerned that the government commission, which had unhindered access to the location of the incidents, found nothing to substantiate the claims, while OHCHR, which was not given access to the area, found an overwhelming number of testimonies and other forms of evidence through interviews with refugees who had fled to a neighboring country,” Adama Dieng, U.N. special adviser on the prevention of genocide, said in a statement Monday. “The existing commission is not a credible option to undertake the new investigation.”

Dieng, OHCHR, Human Rights Watch and other leaders are calling once again for an independent investigation with international observers.

“I and many others have been urging the authorities to conduct an independent and impartial investigation into these allegations,” Dieng said. “The investigation conducted by OHCHR gives further credibility to those accounts and describes a level of dehumanization and cruelty that is revolting, and unacceptable.”

“This must stop right now!” he declared.

“What happens next remains to be seen,” Colville said, whether through the U.N. Security Council or the Human Rights Council. “The likely commission of crimes against humanity makes it imperative there is a strong reaction – both to halt the violations immediately and to ensure accountability for those committing such terrible crimes.”

But until that happens, Human Rights Watch is urging concerned governments and organizations to continue medical and psychosocial care for the victims in Myanmar and Bangladesh.

“Now is the worst it has ever been,” one interviewee said, according to the OHCHR report. “We have heard from our grandparents that there were bad things happening in the past too, but never like this.”

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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.