Shamsun Nahar (L), 60, a Rohingya widow who fled from Kha Maung Seik village of Myanmar to Bangladesh alone, whose 30-year-old son is missing, tells her story at Kutupalang Makeshift Camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, September 4, 2017. © 2017 Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters
Ethnic Rohingya Muslims fleeing Burmese security forces in Burma’s Rakhine State have described killings, shelling, and arson in their villages that have all the hallmarks of a campaign of “ethnic cleansing,” Human Rights Watch said today.
Burmese army, police, and ethnic Rakhine armed groups have carried out operations against predominantly Rohingya villages since the August 25, 2017 attacks by Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) militants against about 30 police posts and an army base. Burmese army commander Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing told the media that the government-approved military clearance operations in Rakhine State was “unfinished business” dating back to the Second World War.
Ethnic Rohingya Muslims fleeing Burmese security forces in Burma’s Rakhine State have described killings, shelling, and arson in their villages that have all the hallmarks of a campaign of “ethnic cleansing."
The United Nations Security Council should hold a public emergency meeting and warn the Burmese authorities that they will face severe sanctions unless they put an end to the brutal campaign against the Rohingya population.
“Rohingya refugees have harrowing accounts of fleeing Burmese army attacks and watching their villages be destroyed,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director. “Lawful operations against armed groups do not involve burning the local population out of their homes.”
In early September, Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 50 Rohingya refugees who had fled across the border to Bangladesh and obtained detailed accounts from about a dozen people. The Rohingya told Human Rights Watch that Burmese government security forces had carried out armed attacks on villagers, inflicting bullet and shrapnel injuries, and burned down their homes. They described the military’s use of small arms, mortars, and armed helicopters in the attacks.
Human Rights Watch obtained satellite data and images that are consistent with widespread burnings in northern Rakhine State, encompassing the townships of Rathedaung, Buthidaung, and Maungdaw. To date, Human Rights Watch has found 21 unique locations where heat sensing technology on satellites identified significant, large fires. Knowledgeable sources in Bangladesh told Human Rights Watch that they heard the distinctive sounds of heavy and light machine gun fire and mortar shelling in villages just across the border in Burma, and spotted smoke arising from these villages shortly afterward.
The Burmese government has denied security force abuses, claiming that it is engaged in a counterterrorism operation in which nearly 400people have been killed, most of them suspected militants. The Burmese authorities assert, without substantiating their claims, that militants and Rohingya villagers have burned 6,845 houses across 60 villages in northern Rakhine State. Refugee accounts contradict the claims of Burmese officials.
For example, Momena, a 32-year-old Rohingya woman from Maungdaw Township, said that she fled to Bangladesh on August 26, a day after security forces attacked her village. She first hid with her children when the soldiers arrived, but returning to the village she said she saw 40 to 50 villagers dead, including some children and elderly people: “All had knife wounds or bullet wounds, some had both. My father was among the dead; his neck had been cut open. I was unable to do last rites for my father – I just fled.”
At the Cox’s Bazar hospital, Human Right Watch interviewed several Rohingya with bullet wounds. Some said they were hit while at home, others said they were shot when running for safety from their villages, or while hiding in the fields or hills from Burmese soldiers.
Rohingya refugees wait for a boat to cross a canal after crossing the border through the Naf River in Teknaf, Bangladesh, September 7, 2017. © 2017 Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters
Usman Goni, 20, said that he and five friends were in the hills outside their village, tending cattle, when they were attacked. He saw a helicopter flying overhead and then something fall out of it. He later realized he had been hit by whatever the helicopter dropped. Four of his friends died from fragment injuries while villagers transported Goni to Bangladesh for treatment. The fragments in his torso had not yet been removed when Human Rights Watch met him in the hospital.
Human Rights Watch’s initial investigations of the current situation in Rakhine State are indicative of an ethnic cleansing campaign. Although “ethnic cleansing” is not formally defined under international law, a UN commission of experts has defined the term as a “purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas…. This purpose appears to be the occupation of territory to the exclusion of the purged group or groups.”
“There is no indication that the horrors we and others are uncovering in Rakhine State are letting up,” Ganguly said. “The United Nations and concerned governments need to press Burma right now to end these horrific abuses against the Rohingya as a first step toward restoring Rohingya to their homes.”
Attacks on villages in Maungdaw Township, Rakhine State, based on interviews with Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, August 30, 2017 to September 5, 2017
Yasin Ali, 25, said that Burmese security forces attacked his village of Reka Para on August 27. Prior to the attack, tensions had been building in Reka Para and neighboring Rohingya villages as local Rakhine harassed and abused them for months. Ali said: “They would come around to us and say, ‘This is not your land. Don’t cultivate this land, and don’t dare take the food growing on it.’ If we went near their lands, they would beat us with sticks.”
During the August 27 attack, all the villagers went into hiding. Ali said the women and children were sent further away to seek shelter, while the men stayed close by to wait out the attack in the hopes that they could quickly return to the village after the soldiers left. He said he hid by the roadside, about half a kilometer from where the soldiers made their approach. He heard what sounded like mortar shells hitting the village: “I heard boom boom boom, and then I saw the houses just collapse.” After a while, he saw the soldiers advance toward the village, and from his vantage point, he saw that they were carrying small arms and what looked like light machine guns. He also said he saw a mortar system on the shoulder of a soldier, and some apparent mortar rounds the size of a grapefruit.
Ali said that when the soldiers entered the village, they started shooting indiscriminately. He and the other men from the village then decided to run away into the hills for shelter. From the hills, he saw a helicopter painted olive green circle his village four times, and saw something being dropped from the helicopter after which the houses in the village caught fire.
Ali and his family walked to Bangladesh and were allowed to enter by the border guards. They arrived on August 31, and at the time Ali spoke with Human Rights Watch, they were waiting outside trying to sort out where they could get shelter.
Momena, 32, fled her village of Kirgari Para on August 26 with two of her three children. She said that soldiers had previously attacked the village during the military operations in late 2016, but the situation in her village had settled down since then. She described the events that prompted her to flee:
I heard the sounds of fighting around 4 p.m. on Friday [August 25]. There was a lot of noise, worse than before. I saw them [the soldiers] myself as they entered my village. I don’t know how many there were but it looked like a lot to me. I fled with the other villagers and we sheltered in the jungle overnight. When I returned to the village the next morning, after the soldiers had left, I saw about 40 to 50 villagers dead, including some children and some elderly. All had knife wounds or bullet wounds – some had both. My father was among the dead; his neck had been cut open. I was unable to do last rites for my father, I just fled.
Momena said she had to leave her husband and 10-year-old son behind. She has had no news of them since then. Her husband has no mobile phone and other villagers she is in contact with have heard no news of either of them. She heard that her mother is alive but has no idea where she is or how she is.
From her vantage point while hiding in the jungle, Momena said she could see some of the houses in her village burning at night. She believes soldiers set fire to the houses as a warning to the villagers.
Momena said she did not know of any armed Rohingya militants in the village. She had heard some youth in the village talking about resisting, but she never saw anyone take any action on this, there was just talk. She said many young Rohingya men fled into the jungle after the attack.
In addition to bodies