Myanmar’s government forces are employing a mixture of murder, weaponized sexual violence, and torture against minority Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar’s northwestern Rakhine State, according to two new reports.
The first, a long-awaited report from the U.N., released Friday, was conducted despite the Burmese government’s refusal to provide U.N. monitors with complete “access to the worst-affected areas.” The U.N. documents in detail the army’s murder and torture of children as young as eight months old and adults as old as 80.
The findings of “widespread violations against the Rohingya population,” said U.N. high commissioner for human rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, point to a “very likely commission of crimes against humanity.” Zeid called on the international community to urge Myanmar to bring its “military operations to an end.”
“The devastating cruelty to which these Rohingya children have been subjected is unbearable,” Zeid wrote. “What national security goals could possibly be served by this?”
The second report, released Monday by Human Rights Watch, was equally disturbing, detailing how the Burmese army and border guard police used “rape, gang rape, invasive body searches, and sexual assaults” in villages throughout the Rakhine’s northern Maungdaw district. HRW previously released satellite imagery indicating that at least 1,500 Rohingya homes have been destroyed in recent months; other activists put the number closer to 2,000.
Both reports are the latest in a series of damning allegations levied against Myanmar’s army and border guard personnel in Rakhine state, where accounts of police brutality, forced displacement, and systematic killing have surged following the Oct. 9 murders of nine policemen in Maungdaw.
The military initially claimed it was responding to growing threats from a jihadi Rohingya sect that calls itself Harakah al-Yakin, but its “clearance operations” soon escalated to widespread human rights violations that continually raise the specter of crimes against humanity, according to U.N. and Amnesty International analyses.
Myanmar government spokesperson Aye Aye Soe said the government was “very concerned about the allegations” and would “look into it.” But in the three days after the U.N. report was released, it hadn’t been mentioned in the country’s state-run national paper. In the past, government officials have vehemently denied abuse, instead waging a counter-messaging campaign that included a report in late December addressing “rumors” of sexual violence in Rakhine and claims of “Fake Rape.”
The latest reports follow a long and ugly history in the Muslim minority group’s plight, stretching back centuries.
Who are the Rohingya?
The Rohingya plight is rooted in a centuries-long dispute over the group’s geographic origins. The Rohingya insist they’ve lived in Rakhine since the 18th century, a claim supported by historical documents, but the military junta that ruled the country from 1962 to 2010 branded Rohingya illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, and all but scrubbed them from the history books. The country’s generals rewrote citizenship laws during the 1980s to deny Rohingya official recognition, effectively creating one of the largest groups of stateless people on the planet, and severely limiting their opportunities and freedom of movement.
“This is more an ethnic issue than a religious issue,” said Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Today, nearly one million Rohingya in Rakhine live under apartheid-like conditions, in villages under constant military watch. About 120,000 Rohingya have been rounded up and put in internment camps since violence erupted in the state in 2012 after three Rohingya men were accused of raping a Buddhist woman.
Those 2012 clashes resulted in more than 200 deaths and displaced more than 200,000 people. The Rohingyas’ desperation emboldened human traffickers, leading to a large-scale regional refugee crisis — tens of thousands of Rohingya fled on rickety boats into the Bay of Bengal between 2012 and 2015, hoping to reach Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, or the Philippines.
Since the Oct. 9 murder of nine Burmese policemen and the subsequent retaliation by the military, 69,000 Rohingya have sought asylum in Bangladesh, according to the most recent U.N. estimate, where they joined as many as 500,000 registered and unregistered Rohingya refugees already living there. An additional 23,000 Rohingya remain displaced inside Rakhine.
During the same period, the army cordoned off the Maungdaw district, depriving at least 160,000 civilians of humanitarian aid. Three months later, humanitarian access began to resume amid mounting reports of severe malnutrition.
“A human tragedy amounting to ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity is unfolding in Myanmar,” wrote Malala Yousafzai, Muhammad Yunus, and nine other Nobel laureates in an open letter to the U.N. Security Council in late December. The letter criticized Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi for failing to take an “initiative to ensure full and equal citizenship rights of the Rohingyas,” and urged immediate action.
But Suu Kyi, who received worldwide acclaim and a Nobel Peace Prize during her 15 years as a political prisoner of Myanmar’s military junta, faces entrenched military influence and has shown little willingness to engage in the controversial issue.
“The military ruled for five decades and still has an enormous amount of power,” Kurlantzick said. “The NLD [Suu Kyi’s party] is struggling to move forward.”
The Nobel laureate’s personal politics relative to the Rohingya have also been questioned. Last year, she was caught on a hot mic railing against her staff for allowing her to be interviewed by a Muslim.
Daniel Russel, assistant U.S. secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, recently warned that the continued mistreatment of the Rohingya could embolden Islamist extremism in Myanmar and nearby countries.
The scale and reach of militarization among the Rohingya is difficult to verify, but experts worry extremism has already taken root. While advocates on the ground maintain that the militarized pocket is relatively small and unorganized, a report by the International Crisis Group asserts that the Harakah al-Yakin receives funding from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and is led by a Pakistan-born son of a Rohingya migrant who grew up in Mecca.
That man, known as Ata Ullah, featured prominently in a series of videos released online in October and November detailing the group’s stated mission, which is simply to restore basic rights to Rohingya.
“It is possible, however, that its objectives could evolve, given its appeals to religious legitimacy and links to international jihadist groups,” the International Crisis Group report said.
What happens next?
International pressure, near and far, continues to mount. Throughout the fall, as the recent violence peaked, solidarity protests sprung up in neighboring countries with large Muslim populations like Bangladesh and Malaysia. Protests in Indonesia, including a thwarted bombing attempt on the Burmese embassy in Jakarta, led Suu Kyi to cancel a diplomatic visit in late November.
The resurgence of state-sanctioned aggression against the Rohingya has caused a rift between Myanmar and its neighboring countries. The most severe criticism has come from Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, who has accused Myanmar of genocide and has called for urgent international action.
Until recently, Suu Kyi “had to punt on this issue of rising anti-Muslim, anti-Rohingya sentiment to achieve political goals,” said Greg Poling, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “But now it has festered and burst forth in a way she can’t ignore. By having refused to engage with it, it’s only become worse…. This dilemma will last for a generation.”
The U.N.’s latest report is already being hailed as a “game changer“ and will likely force Suu Kyi and her country’s leadership into territory it has thus far avoided.
“This is a script we have seen many times in many places,” Poling said. “A government who is interested in having rationale for oppression cite international terrorism, and end up creating a breeding ground for the terrorism that they claim to be fighting.”