A new report released on Tuesday provides another grim accounting of gross human rights abuses allegedly committed by security forces against the Rohingya in northern Arakan State, according to the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK.
Based on an enquiry conducted across the border in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar, the report comes while the government steadfastly refuses to cooperate with a United Nations fact-finding mission in the restive region, as well as Kachin and Shan states.
It’s the latest in a slew of damning investigations into alleged human rights violations against the stateless Muslim minority since armed insurgents attacked police outposts on 9 October.
Harakah al-Yaqin, a newly founded extremist militia, claimed responsibility for the coordinated assaults in which nine police officers were killed. The group has since changed its name to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army.
Burma’s military launched a heavy-handed response, described as a “clearance operation,” aimed at apprehending the perpetrators. But almost immediately, human rights organisations accused the Tatmadaw of raping and murdering civilians, and razing Muslim homes.
More than 70,000 Rohingya have fled the violence since 9 October, crossing the border into Bangladesh.
BROUK collected the testimony of over two dozen displaced Rohingya in Cox’s Bazar, all of whom recounted harsh treatment at the hands of soldiers or other security personnel. Alongside graphic photographic evidence of scarring, one woman told researchers she rescued her eight-year-old son from their burning home — she alleged that the military set it alight after killing her husband.
“When the military burnt my house, I was barely able to save my daughters from the fire, and to protect them from being raped by the military. Unfortunately I could not prevent my son from being burnt on both thighs. God saved his life,” the unnamed woman told BROUK.
The President’s Office, both through its spokesperson Zaw Htay and on social media, has largely defended the military operation, denying almost all allegations of misconduct. State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s office went so far as to issue a statement denouncing some sexual assault claims as “fake rape” — a move that shocked the international community and further damaged her credibility as a human rights defender.
DVB contacted Zaw Htay for a response to the report, who referred the query to the Ministry of Social Welfare and Resettlement. The ministry was unavailable at the time of publication.
Citing the expertise of an unnamed medical doctor, the London-based organisation says scores of Rohingya bore the physical injuries consistent with claims of rape and assault. One 19-year-old told researchers he was shot in the knee as he tried to flee a military attack near his home north of the town of Maungdaw, where the bulk of the violence since 9 October has occurred.
The report adds further weight to a growing pile of evidence that the Burma Army has enjoyed impunity during its counter-insurgency operation. The government’s vehement defence of the military has in fact harmed the credibility of both the National League for Democracy-led administration and the soldiers involved, according to Fortify Rights’ chief executive officer, Matthew Smith. He told DVB the government’s refusal to cooperate with the UN fact-finding mission is an attempt to “duck independent scrutiny.”
“It would be difficult to interpret a failure to cooperate as anything other than more crude denialism … This report helps establish more facts about ongoing violations. The government’s knee-jerk denials of rape did more to raise suspicion about the military’s behavior than to cast doubt on those making allegations,” Smith said.
In April, National Security Adviser Thaung Tun told media the government was not “oblivious to the plight of the Rohingya,” but he renewed a call that the international community respect the country’s sovereignty. Pointing to an increase in returning IDPs, Thaung Tun said the situation was showing signs of improvement.
Human rights advocates and Rohingya activists favour the UN fact-finding mission over multiple internal commissions formed to investigate the attack of 9 October and its aftermath, saying international involvement provides a crucial opportunity for the administration to redeem itself.
“From crude claims of fake rape to absurd allegations that Rohingya burned down their own homes, the government has zero credibility with regard to what’s been happening in Rakhine [Arakan State]. It can regain credibility overnight by agreeing to cooperate fully with the fact-finding mission,” Smith said.