The Burmese military has conducted a campaign of arson, killings, and rape against ethnic Rohingya that has threatened the lives of thousands more, Human Rights Watch said today. Refugees who fled the recent violence told Human Rights Watch that since the October 9, 2016 attacks by Rohingya militants on government border guard posts in northern Rakhine State, Burmese security forces have retaliated by inflicting horrific abuses on the Rohingya population.
Burma’s government should immediately allow unfettered humanitarian access to all parts of northern Rakhine State as the United Nations and others have urged, in order to reach people without adequate access to food, shelter, health care, and other necessities. Governments with influence in Burma should press the military and civilian authorities to urgently end abuses and grant access.
“Refugee accounts paint a horrific picture of an army that is out of control and rampaging through Rohingya villages,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Burmese government says its crackdown is in response to a security threat, but what security advantage could possibly be gained by raping and killing women and children?”
Human Rights Watch interviewed a dozen Rohingya refugees who had recently arrived in Bangladesh after fleeing Rakhine State’s Maungdaw Township. In video testimony, Rohingya residents described Burmese soldiers using automatic weapons, looting and burning homes, killing villagers, including entire families, and raping women and girls.
“Kasim,” 26, described the military’s destruction of homes in the village of Kyet Yoe Pyin, also known as Kari Paraung, and other abuses. “The military came into the village and shot indiscriminately whomever they found. Elderly and children were shot dead…. Many people were killed,” he said. “[The soldiers] dragged the women from the houses by their hair. They took off the women’s clothes and longyi [sarongs]. They trampled their necks. They pulled up their blouses and removed their bras. They raped them right there in the yard.”
Another resident of the same village, “Jamal,” 24, watched soldiers arrest Shukur, a 55-year-old man: “I saw that he was arrested by four soldiers. Then I saw him lying on the ground. After that, I saw them slaughter him with a knife that was about one-and-half feet long.”
“Jawad,” 23, a resident of Dar Gyi Zar village, said that soldiers were shooting indiscriminately when they entered his village. “They didn’t spare the young ones,” he said. He watched from an embankment as soldiers killed his older brother and his two children, and then tossed their bodies into a fire. The soldiers also burned crops and dispersed cultivated rice so that it could not be harvested. No crops were spared and cows were shot, he said.
Several refugees said that government security forces were sometimes accompanied on raids by ethnic Rakhine Buddhist civilians, and Mro or other non-Rohingya villagers. They were often involved in looting Rohingya homes but also took part in other abuses. Kasim said that during a raid he and his neighbors recognized some non-Rohingya people from nearby villages wearing ordinary clothes.
The Burmese government has failed to keep its public commitment to allow the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to open an office with a full protection mandate despite the UN General Assembly urging it to do so in a December 2015 resolution that was adopted without a vote. The UN special rapporteur on Burma, Yanghee Lee, reported in August 2016 that the prompt creation of such an office “could give vital assistance to the Government in addressing the complex and wide-ranging human rights challenges” facing the country. Burmese authorities should immediately invite the UN human rights office to send staff to northern Rakhine State to investigate and publicly report back on abuses by all sides, Human Rights Watch said.
On December 1, the government announced the creation of a committee to investigate the situation in Rakhine State and report by January 31, 2017. On December 16, the Myanmar Times reported that the committee, after a three-day visit to Maungdaw Township, concluded that military clearance operations had been conducted “lawfully.” This summary rejection of allegations, as well as concerns about the committee’s composition and mandate, raise serious doubts that its investigation will be thorough and impartial, Human Rights Watch said. A similar commission created by the Rakhine State parliament in October has also thus far failed to seriously investigate alleged military abuses.
On December 16, the UN high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, said: “The repeated dismissal of the claims of serious human rights violations as fabrications, coupled with the failure to allow our independent monitors access to the worst affected areas in northern Rakhine, is highly insulting to the victims and an abdication of the Government’s obligations under international human rights law.” He further characterized the Burmese government’s response as “short-sighted, counterproductive, even callous.”
The ongoing military operations have had a major impact on the local population. Since October 9, authorities have kept Maungdaw Township in a state of virtual lockdown, curtailed freedom of movement, blocked humanitarian aid, and denied entry to journalists and human rights monitors. Tens of thousands of people have been displaced internally, but government and military restrictions on aid agencies have prevented them from conducting adequate needs assessments. The UN has reported that an estimated 27,000 Rohingya have become refugees in Bangladesh. Humanitarian organizations told Human Rights Watch that while some aid is reaching Maungdaw Township, the worst affected areas are still receiving no assistance. Since early October, the UN and other international NGOs have been unable to reach 130,000 highly vulnerable people in northern Maungdaw Township who previously received food, cash, and nutrition assistance. Limited government access has allowed some assistance to resume for only 20,000 of the 150,000 people that normally receive aid.
Burma’s failure to end military abuses against Rohingya and hold those responsible to account demands an independent inquiry with UN participation, Human Rights Watch said. National and state governments have appointed commissions that are neither credible nor independent to look into allegations of abuses.
“The government’s failure to appoint credible commissions to thoroughly and impartially investigate the allegations undermines claims that it is building a country based on the rule of law,” Adams said. “However, it is not too late to reverse course and allow aid agencies and impartial observers into affected areas to document what has happened and ensure the delivery of food, medicine, and other life-saving services.”