The Myanmar security forces’ devastating campaign against the Rohingya population in northern Rakhine State is far from over, Amnesty International said today, as it published new evidence of ongoing violations that have forced hundreds more people to flee in recent weeks (link to briefing below).
The findings come as the U.S. Senate marks up the Burma Human Rights and Freedom Act (S. 2060) today that would provide robust humanitarian aid for the Rohingya, prohibit U.S.-Myanmar military-to-military training, and implement actions aimed at holding the Myanmar military accountable for crimes against humanity.
“The reports of continued atrocities by Myanmar forces show how dire the situation is for the Rohingya. It is urgent that the U.S. Congress act immediately to address the recent and continuing acts of ethnic cleansing,” said Joanne Lin, national director of advocacy and government relations for Amnesty International USA. “For the past two decades Congress has taken the lead in crafting U.S. policy toward Myanmar. The U.S. must continue to be a leader in providing humanitarian assistance to aid the Rohingya.”
In late January 2018, Amnesty International interviewed 19 newly arrived Rohingya men and women in Bangladesh, who described how forced starvation, abductions and looting of property drove them to flee. Humanitarian agencies have documented thousands of new arrivals over the course of December and January, and many days still see scores of people streaming across the border.
“Shielded by official denials and lies, and a concerted effort to deny access to independent investigators, Myanmar’s military continues to get away with crimes against humanity,” said Matthew Wells, Senior Crisis Advisor at Amnesty International, who has just returned from the organization’s latest research trip to Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. “Without more effective international action, this ethnic cleansing campaign will continue its disastrous march.”
The ongoing oppression appears to be designed to make northern Rakhine State unlivable for the tens of thousands of Rohingya still there, and follows the Myanmar military’s relentless campaign of violence, which has driven more than 688,000 Rohingya across the border to Bangladesh since August last year.
In August, Myanmar’s army launched a military operation against the Rohingya civilian population across northern Rakhine State, after the armed group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), attacked around 30 security force outposts. Crimes against humanity committed by the military include the widespread killing of women, men, and children; rape and other forms of sexual violence against women and girls; mass deportation; and the systematic burning of villages.
The new arrivals in Bangladesh told Amnesty International that the military’s persistent persecution finally broke their resolve, forcing them to join the exodus. Almost all of them blamed the Myanmar authorities’ forced starvation of remaining Rohingya communities for creating acute food insecurity, and eventually driving them to flee.
The military denied access to rice fields at harvest time at the end of last year and have stolen livestock and burned markets and denied access to others. The Myanmar authorities have further worsened the food insecurity by severely restricting humanitarian assistance.
Dildar Begum, 30, arrived in Bangladesh in early January. She told Amnesty International that authorities came to their house and extorted considerable money, threatening to arrest her husband if they did not pay. Then, the military stopped them from harvesting. “We weren’t able to get food, that’s why we fled,” she said.
Abductions of girls and women
Amnesty International also documented three recent incidents of the Myanmar military abducting girls or young women.
In early January, soldiers forced their way into a house in Hpoe Khaung Chaung village, Buthidaung Township. Hasina, 25, said they demanded at gunpoint that her uncle hand over her 15-year-old cousin, Samida. The family has not seen the girl again. The same is true of the other abducted girls and young women, making them victims of enforced disappearance.
Given the pervasive sexual violence that has marked this and previous military campaigns against the Rohingya in northern Rakhine State, the abduction of women and young girls raises serious concerns of rape and sexual slavery.
Systematic theft from fleeing Rohingya
Rohingya typically have to walk for days before reaching the coast to cross to Bangladesh by boat. Myanmar security forces have set up checkpoints along these paths where they steal money and other valuables from those who pass through. More than a dozen new arrivals described the worst such checkpoint as being near Sein Hnyin Pyar village tract, where they say a barbed-wire fence has been erected across a creek path there. There, soldiers and Border Guard Police surround families, separating men from women, and rob them.
Many Rohingya said that, after robbing them, the security forces took down their names and the villages they were from. At later checkpoints, some new arrivals reported being photographed and, in a few cases, recorded on a video camera saying the military had not mistreated them.
Rohingya women, particularly young women, also told Amnesty International that Myanmar soldiers subjected them to sexual violence during searches at checkpoints.
Khateza, 22, arrived at the checkpoint near Sein Hnyin Pyar and said that after searching the men from head to toe and robbing them, the security forces searched the women.
“They searched our bodies. They took off our [outer] clothes. All the young women, including me, they searched us like this – they put their hand inside [on our breasts]… I was really uncomfortable. It was so embarrassing. I was crying.”
International response ‘weak and ineffective’
“The extent and range of these ongoing attacks in northern Rakhine State show how Myanmar’s military continues to assault and undermine not just individuals, but the dignity of the Rohingya population as a whole. This lays bare why plans for organized repatriation are woefully premature,” said Wells.
“Since the beginning of the crisis, the international community’s response to the atrocities against the Rohingya population has been weak and ineffective, failing to grasp the severity of the situation in northern Rakhine State or put sufficient pressure on Myanmar’s military to stop the ethnic cleansing,” said Matthew Wells.
“An arms embargo and targeted sanctions are urgently needed to send a message that these violations will not be tolerated. There is also an urgent need for unfettered and sustained humanitarian access throughout northern Rakhine State.”