Human Rights Watch asks for international probe into sexual violence against Rohingyas

A Rohingya Muslim woman and her son cry after being caught by Border Guard Bangladesh while illegally crossing at a border check point in Cox’s Bazar.
PHOTO: Reuters

Myanmar government forces committed rape and other sexual violence against Rohingya women and girls during security operations in northern Rakhine State in late 2016, Human Rights Watch said yesterday.

Read also: Myanmar's Rohingya may be victims of 'crimes against humanity': UN

The international rights watchdog said the Myanmar government should urgently endorse an independent, international investigation into alleged abuses in Rakhine State, including into possible systematic rape against Rohingya women and girls.

Myanmar army and Border Guard Police personnel took part in rape, gang rape, invasive body searches, and sexual assaults in at least nine villages in Maungdaw district between October 9 and mid-December last year, it said.

Read also: Myanmar to investigate police abuse of Rohingya

Survivors and witnesses, who identified army and border police units by their uniforms, kerchiefs, armbands and patches, described security forces carrying out attacks in groups, some holding women down or threatening them at gunpoint while others raped them.

Many survivors reported being insulted and threatened on an ethnic or religious basis during the assaults.

"These horrific attacks on Rohingya women and girls by security forces add a new and brutal chapter to the Myanmar military's long and sickening history of sexual violence against women," said Priyanka Motaparthy, senior emergencies researcher of HRW.

"Military and police commanders should be held responsible for these crimes if they did not do everything in their power to stop them or punish those involved."

Pressure on Myanmar over abuses of Rohingya minority in Rakhine

  • n this photograph taken on September 7, 2016, a minority Muslim Rohingya woman wearing traditional facial paste is seen at the Thet Kal Pyin displacement camp in Sittwe after the Rakhine State has been effectively split on religious grounds between Buddhists and Muslims since bouts of communal violence tore through the state in 2012, killing scores and forcing tens of thousands to flee.
  • Armed Myanmar border police scan the area during a patrol along the river dividing Myanmar and Bangladesh border located in Maungdaw, Rakhine State on October 15, 2016.
  • Rohingya Muslim men stand at U Shey Kya village outside Maugndaw in Rakhine state, Myanmar October 27, 2016.
  • Protesters shout slogans during a rally against former U.N. chief Kofi Annan in Sittwe, Myanmar, September 6, 2016. Annan arrived for a meeting with local officials and Muslim representatives to find a lasting solution to Myanmar's stateless Rohingya Muslims.
  • A group of Myanmar Buddhist monks wait for the arrival of former UN secretary general Kofi Annan during a visit in Sittwe on September 6, 2016, to preside over a meeting of the multisector advisory commission on Rakhine State to find lasting solution to Myanmar's stateless Rohingya Muslims.
  • Former UN secretary general Kofi Annan (background 3rd R), accompanied by multi-sector advisory commission on Rakhine State officials, holds a dialogue with Buddhist monks in Sittwe on September 6, 2016. Annan arrived for a meeting with local officials and Muslim representatives to find a lasting solution to Myanmar's stateless Rohingya Muslims.
  • A Rohingya Muslim elder (centre L, in white) speaks while others listen during a meeting with former UN secretary general Kofi Annan (not pictured) while a policeman (R) takes notes at Thet Kay Pyin camp for displaced Rohingya families in Sittwe on September 7, 2016.
  • Rohingya Muslims gather at Thet Kay Pyin camp during a visit by former UN secretary general Kofi Annan (not pictured) at the camp for displaced Rohingya families in Sittwe on September 7, 2016. Annan is leading the multi-sector advisory commission on Rakhine State to find a lasting solution to Myanmar's stateless Rohingya Muslims.
  • In this photograph taken on September 7, 2016, a minority Muslim Rohingya child wearing traditional facial paste is seen in a shelter at the Thet Kal Pyin displacement camp in Sittwe after the Rakhine State has been effectively split on religious grounds between Buddhists and Muslims since bouts of communal violence tore through the state in 2012, killing scores and forcing tens of thousands to flee.
  • Allegations that Myanmar soldiers are killing, raping and torturing villagers in Rakhine, a restive region that is home to the persecuted Muslim Rohingya, must be independently investigated, rights groups said.
  • Northern Rakhine has been under a military lockdown since an attack on border guards three weeks ago left nine policeman dead.
  • The government has blamed the raids on Rohingya militants and a search for the culprits has seen more than 30 people killed and dozens arrested, according to official reports.
  • Stories of grave abuse by security officers - including sexual violence, summary executions and the torching of villages - have spiralled on social media but are difficult to verify with the army barring rights groups and journalists from the remote region bordering Bangladesh.
  • On Friday Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch joined calls for an impartial investigation into the allegations, which the UN has called "alarming and unacceptable".
  • "If Myanmar's security forces are not involved in any human rights violations as the authorities claim, then they should have no trouble granting independent observers access," said Rafendi Djamin, Amnesty's Southeast Asia and Pacific director.
  • Writing on Facebook Friday, government spokesman Zaw Htay dismissed an article in the Myanmar Times that described reports of a "mass rape" in a Rohingya village on October 19.
  • "There was information that some attackers were kept in that village. So security was taken very seriously and (the search team) was very careful about being safe and would not think to rape up to 5 women," he wrote.
  • The government says the October 9 border raids were carried out by hundreds of Rohingya fighters linked to Taliban-trained Islamists.
  • If true, it would mark a troubling development in a religiously-split region where the stateless Rohingya have languished under years of repression but so far shown little interest in jihadist ideology.
  • Rakhine has sizzled with tension ever since waves of communal violence in 2012 killed more than 100 and pushed tens of thousands of people, mostly Rohingya, into destitute displacement camps.
  • Many in Buddhist-majority Myanmar insist the Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and viscerally oppose any moves to grant them citizenship.
  • The recent upsurge in violence deepens and complicates a conflict that already posed a top challenge to a new civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi, who has disappointed rights groups by not coming out in stronger support of the Rohingya.
  • In this handout photograph released by the Myanmar Armed Forces on October 14, 2016, Myanmar Air Force air force personel evacuate teachers and civil servants with a military helicopter from Maungdaw in Rakhine State on October 13, 2016.
  • Rohingya Muslim boys stand at U Shey Kya village outside Maugndaw in Rakhine state
  • Men walk at a Rohingya village outside Maugndaw in Rakhine state
  • Rakhine Buddhists who fled from recent violence in Maungdaw pass their time in a temporary shelter at a stadium in Sittwe, Myanmar, October 25, 2016.
  • In this photo taken on October 15, 2016, armed Myanmar border guard patrol the border area along the river dividing Myanmar and Bangladesh located in Maungdaw, Rakhine State following attacks that killed nine border police. The government says the October 9 border raids were carried out by hundreds of Rohingya fighters linked to Taliban-trained Islamists. Rights groups are piling pressure on Myanmar to allow an impartial probe into allegations that soldiers are killing, raping and torturing villagers in a security crackdown in Rakhine, a restive region home to the persecuted Muslim Rohingya.

Between December 2016 and January 2017, HRW researchers in Bangladesh interviewed 18 women, of whom 11 had survived sexual assault, as well as 10 men.

Seventeen men and women, including some women who survived assaults, witnessed sexual violence, including against their wives, sisters or daughters. The HRW documented 28 incidents of rape and other sexual assault.

A report released by the United Nations Office of the High Commission for Human Rights (OHCHR) on February 3 found that more than half of the 101 women UN investigators interviewed said they were raped or suffered other forms of sexual violence.

The report, based on a total of 204 interviews, concluded that attacks including rape and other sexual violence "seem[ed] to have been widespread as well as systematic, indicating the very likely commission of crimes against humanity."

After attacks by Rohingya militants on border police posts on October 9, 2016, the Myanmar military undertook a series of "clearance operations" in Rakhine State. Security forces summarily executed men, women, and children; looted property; and burned down at least 1,500 homes and other buildings, HRW said.

More than 69,000 Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh, while another 23,000 have become internally displaced in Maungdaw district, it added.

Several women described how soldiers surrounded their villages or homes, then gathered the villagers in an outdoor area, separating men from women, and detained them for up to several hours. Soldiers often shot villagers, and raped and gang raped women and girls.

"Ayesha," pseudonym of a Rohingya woman in her 20s, told HRW: "They gathered all the women and started beating us with bamboo sticks and kicking us with their boots. After beating us, the military took [me and] 15 women about my age and separated us… [The soldiers] raped me one by one, tearing my clothes."

The sexual violence did not appear to be random or opportunistic, but part of a coordinated and systematic attack against Rohingya, in part because of their ethnicity and religion, HRW said.

Rohingya victims of sexual assault face limited access to emergency healthcare including to prevent unwanted pregnancy from rape and infection with HIV, and to treat other sexually transmitted infections, it said.

Myanmar authorities have taken no evident steps to seriously investigate allegations of sexual violence or other abuses reported by nongovernmental organisations, including HRW.

"The government's failure to investigate rape and other crimes against the Rohingya should make it clear to Burma's friends and donors that an independent, international inquiry is desperately needed to get to the bottom of these appalling abuses," Motaparthy said.

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