John Sifton, Asia Advocacy Director
Human Rights Watch
Since August 25, 2017, Burmese security forces have carried out a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims in northern Rakhine State. Over half a million Rohingya have fled Burma to neighboring Bangladesh to escape killings, arson, and other mass atrocities. The Rohingya, effectively denied citizenship under Burmese law, have faced decades of repression and discrimination. Earlier waves of violence in 2012 internally displaced about 120,000 in central Rakhine State, and small pockets of Rohingya remain in several townships there. Violence in late 2016 led to the internal displacement of tens of thousands more and some 87,000 fled to Bangladesh prior to August 2017. Nearly all the Rohingya remaining in Rakhine State now face dire humanitarian conditions, especially in the north. Human Rights Watch staff in Bangladesh and Burma have been interviewing victims and witnesses to the abuses, gathering information from local officials and aid groups, and reviewing satellite data and images, and video, revealing the scope of destruction.
Outline of the crisis
Human Rights Watch has concluded that serious abuses amounting to crimes against humanity have been committed by Burmese security forces in Rakhine State. Crimes against humanity are defined under international law as acts “committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack.” Types of attacks can include deportation and forced population transfers, murder and attempted murder, rape and other sexual assault, and persecution.
Human Rights Watch has documented that since August 25 such crimes have occurred in Rakhine State. The perpetrators were the Burmese military, on occasion accompanied by local security forces or ethnic Rakhine villagers. The victims were ethnic Rohingya Muslims, primarily in the three northern townships of Rakhine State that border Bangladesh. Specific criminal acts included large-scale and widespread assault, murder and attempted murder, rape and other sexual violence, looting, and arson.
The attacks occurred in the wake of a set of coordinated attacks on August 25 on 30 government outposts by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a small group of poorly armed Rohingya. Since then, nearly all of the attacks Human Rights Watch has documented have involved Burmese government military operations using mortars, artillery, anti-personnel landmines and small arms against Rohinyga villagers. These troops have then assaulted men, women, children, and even babies, who were shot, struck, raped, beaten to death, or burned inside their homes.
In almost all cases, victims and witnesses told Human Rights Watch that there were no ARSA members in their midst, and no armed resistance. Witnesses frequently described whole populations of villages fleeing for their lives.
The consequences of the Burmese military’s crimes against humanity have been devastating: hundreds and perhaps thousands of Rohingya killed and injured; countless women and girls suffering severe injuries from sexual violence; massive destruction of civilian property; the displacement of well over half a million people into Bangladesh; an unknown number internally displaced within Burma; and the untold human misery of hundreds of thousands of people who have lost family and friends and witnessed atrocities, and now live, displaced, in extreme vulnerability, in open camps, with few possessions and little shelter.
Specific accounts of the atrocities
It would be impossible to summarize fairly all the atrocities described to our staff in Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh in September and October, and the destruction observed from satellite images. A few accounts provided here, however, may provide a glimpse into the severity and scope of the violence.
Witnesses and victims in Bangladesh—many of whom show injuries from bullets, shrapnel, knives, or fire—described Burmese military assaults on their villages. For instance, 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.
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 found in her village, Momena said she saw several bodies of children in the Naf River at one of the crossing points into Bangladesh.
One of the worst atrocities Human Rights Watch has documented occurred in Maung Nu, in Buthidaung Township, after ARSA militants attacked a checkpoint manned by the Border Guard Police (BGP) on August 25 in Hpaung Taw Pyin, just north of Maung Nu. Human Rights Watch spoke with 14 survivors and witnesses from Maung Nu and surrounding villages. The witnesses, now refugees in Bangladesh, said that after the ARSA attack, they fled their villages fearing retaliation. Several hundred gathered in a large residential compound in Maung Nu.
The witnesses described how several Burmese soldiers entered the compound and took several dozen Rohingya men and boys hiding in buildings into the courtyard, bound their hands behind their backs, and beat them, stabbed and slashed them with long knives, and shot at them with rifles. Others were killed as they tried to flee. The soldiers then loaded the bodies – some witnesses said a hundred or more – into military trucks and took them away.
Abdul Jabar, 60, said the soldiers made some of the men kneel down as they struck them with the butts of their rifles and kicked them repeatedly before killing them: “[T]hey killed people from the back with machetes and they also fired on them with their guns.”
Mohammad Ayas, 29, said that he managed to hide in the rafters of the house and saw soldiers kill numerous people: “They are slaughtering them just like they are clearing the jungle with their thin, sharp, and long knives.”
Muhamedul Hassan, 18, described how a dozen soldiers took him and two male relatives, Mohammad Zobair and Foyas, from a house to a nearby courtyard. Hassan said that when they got there, there were hundreds of men and boys tied up. He said:
Four soldiers took [me and my relatives] to the corner of the courtyard and shot us each twice in the back. I lost consciousness. When I woke up, I saw many men still tied and [the soldiers] were still killing people. Many were stabbed to death. When I tried to flee I was shot in the chest but was able to escape.
Muhamedul showed Human Rights Watch his bullet wounds. He said that in addition to the two executed beside him, nearly 30 more male relatives were killed.
Witnesses also described seeing children executed. Khotiaz, 28, recounted the killing of her nephew: “When Baju entered the room, there was my nephew, Mohammod Tofail. He was 10 years old. He was a student of class two. First Baju shot him in the head, his skull shattered into four pieces. Then he fell down. I saw there were brain and blood on the floor.”
Mustafa, 22, said: “There was a pit with [the bodies of] 10 to 15 children, all under 12 years old. They were all young children hacked to death. I recognized four of the bodies: Hakim Ali, 9; Naim, 8; one child from Pondu Para, who was about 10; and Chau Mong, who was 7.”
Witnesses said that after the killings, the soldiers gathered the bodies on green tarps and loaded them onto pushcarts, then brought the bodies to military vehicles. The removal of bodies took hours, several witnesses said.
“I saw outside that there were piles of dead bodies.” Mustafa said. “I could see the soldiers using carts [to move the bodies] and I recognized one of the carts was mine.” Mustafa said he heard the sounds of the trucks and vehicles for four hours.
Human Rights Watch has also documented accounts of another massacre in the township of Tulatoli, in which possibly hundreds of Rohingya were killed.
Sexual violence and rape
In many of the attacks and massacres Human Rights Watch documented in Rakhine State occurring in August-September 2017, we found numerous cases of rape and other forms of sexual violence against Rohingya women and girls. Reported abuses were brutal, humiliating, and traumatic.
Human Rights Watch interviewed 52 Rohingya women and girls who had survived horrific abuses by Burmese military and other security personnel since August 25. Thirty of these women and girls were rape victims. Most of the other interviewees had been forced to flee in late stages of pregnancy, had given birth on their journey, or had witnessed their young children being killed by security forces. Human Rights Watch interviewed rape survivors from 19 different villages, mostly in Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships.
Human Rights Watch found that women and girls were raped and sexually assaulted both during major arson attacks on villages and in the weeks running up to these major attacks after repeated harassment. In every case described to us, the perpetrators were uniformed members of security forces, almost all military personnel. They wore either camouflage uniforms or plain green uniforms, or a mix of both. All the rapes reported to Human Rights Watch were gang rapes, involving two or more perpetrators, and in every case except for one the victim was penetrated by more than one attacker. In many of the cases women and girls reported being raped by six or more perpetrators.
A 15-year-old from Hathi Para village in Maungdaw Township said she was dragged across the ground from her home, tied to a tree and then raped from behind by 10 soldiers. "They then left me where I was. When my brother and sister came to get me I was lying there on the ground, they thought I was dead," she said.
Six rape survivors said that they were among a group of women and girls who were gathered together and then raped by soldiers. “Maybe we were some 30 women. If a woman said anything she was beaten. They [military] would pull women to the side and just rape her there so everyone could see,” a 20-year-old woman from a Buthidaung township village said.
The gang rapes often resulted in serious genital injuries and bleeding which worsened as fleeing women were forced to walk for days, including up and down steep hills. Several of the victims reported ongoing physical and mental health problems at the time of the interview, including urinary tract infections, vaginal bleeding, pain, poor sleep, poor appetite, and intrusive thoughts.
Victims and witnesses said that security forces often raped women and girls in their homes, and often in sight of their children. Other women and girls were raped as they fled villages. Human Rights Watch documented the particularly cruel nature of these attacks: women reporting rapists laughing, kicking or hitting them or their children, and biting or pressing the barrel of guns hard against their breasts.
Although our research focused on identifying and interviewing rape survivors, a high proportion of those we spoke to had also witnessed killings of family members. The killings of their children were especially brutal and traumatic. A 30-year-old woman from Ta Mi village in Buthidaung township said: "I have three kids now. I had another one Khadija, she was 5-years-old. When we were running from the village she was killed in the attack. She was running last, less fast, trying to catch up with us. A soldier swung at her with his gun and bashed her head in, after that she fell down. We kept running."
Other women were forced to leave behind children. “I grabbed one, I left one,” one woman said, describing the moment her house caught on fire and began collapsing around her.
Human Rights Watch interviewed other women who had lost their husbands, either to killings or what appear to be arbitrary arrest by security forces. Their fears included not only the intrusive memories of the terror they lived through but also anxiety over how to cope as a single parent with sometimes five or more children while in a refugee camp in Bangladesh.
Ethnic Rakhine villagers backed by the security forces often robbed women and girls, including in ways that were sexually abusive, for example grabbing at or fondling their breasts while searching for money kept in their blouses. Women described weeks of harassment leading up to major attacks as extremely stressful, they never knew whether the Rakhine villagers or security forces would come and what they would do.
The Burmese government has repeatedly refused to acknowledge these abuses despite a strong and growing evidence base. In early September, Rakhine State minister for border security, Col. Phone Tint, denied reports of military abuses involving sexual violence. “Where is the proof?” he asked. “Look at those women who are making these claims – would anyone want to rape them?”
These types of denial are not new. In December 2016, the Burmese government contested reports of the military’s use of sexual violence in a press release published under the headline, “Fake Rape.” Human Rights Watch and other groups documented widespread rape and other sexual violence by security forces during the military operations starting in October 2016.
What to do now
In a world already beset with large-scale human tragedies, the Rohingya crisis—both the crimes against humanity committed in Burma and the massive new displacement into Bangladesh—comprises one of the world’s worst human catastrophes.
While the origins and root causes of the Rohingya crisis deserve attention, the immediate task is to prevent further abuses and protect those still at risk, and feed, shelter, and care for the displaced. There is also a need to negotiate a process that would allow the Rohingya to safely and voluntarily return to their homes in Burma, and for those who cannot or will not return, determine how they can be settled in Bangladesh or resettled to third countries.
In dealing with the Burmese government, two things are clear.
First, it would be a mistake to focus criticism primarily on Burma’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, disappointing as she has been in responding to the crisis. She and other government officials have largely denied — and are still denying — allegations of atrocities, calling them fabrications. In early September, Aung San Suu Kyi spoke of an “iceberg of misinformation” about abuses, and in a speech on September 19 appeared alarmingly ignorant of the overall situation, noting at one point: “We want to find out why this exodus is happening.” In subsequent statements, she has noticeably failed to acknowledge any wrongdoing by government forces.
Yet it is Burma’s military leaders who are in charge of the forces committing the abuses, and are in the best position to end them. In debating next steps on the Rohingya crisis, concerned governments need to focus primarily on the military, and consider what measures might best impact its actions.
Second, it is clear that in dealing with the Burmese military—and the government at large—condemnations and pleas are not enough.
Burma’s military leaders are in a state of denial — or worse. The commander-in-chief of the military, Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, recently made statements suggesting that the Rohingya do not even exist, that Burma’s Rohingya population are in fact “Bengali,” and that ongoing military operations are aimed at “unfinished business” from the Second World War. These are divisive, unsupported allegations that the Rohingya, despite living in the country for generations, are foreigners. They are clear allusions to mass killings of Rohingya that occurred in 1942 and are reflected in the killings and arson that have occurred in recent years.
In another speech on September 21, Min Aung Hlaing essentially embraced that the campaign had comprised ethnic cleansing, referring to “national races,” a term from Burmese law referring to a list of officially recognized indigenous ethnic groups — a list that does not include Rohingya. “Regarding the rehabilitation of villages of our national races, for the national races who fled their homes [mostly ethnic Rakhine Buddhists], first of all they must go back to their places,” he said. “The important thing is to have our people in the region. It’s necessary to have control of our region with our national races. We can’t do anything if there are no people from our national races . . . that is their rightful place.”
These comments reveal that Burma’s military leaders are not communicating on the same wavelength as the rest of the international community. They are not prepared to appreciate or even hear its verbal denunciations and demands. So the time has come to impose targeted sanctions and other measures that carry a real practical or financial cost on Burma’s senior military command. It may be impossible to convince the military leadership to care about the Rohingya, but it might be possible to stop them from killing or displacing any more Rohingya — if the consequences of continuing such abuses create a burden that military leaders don’t want to bear.
The United Nations Security Council, and concerned member states bilaterally, need to impose targeted sanctions on Burmese military leaders and key military-owned enterprises, including travel bans and restrictions on access to financial institutions, and impose a comprehensive military embargo on Burma. In many countries, a sanctions framework is already in place, and it was not that long ago that targeted sanctions were lifted in recognition of the country’s efforts to transition to democracy.
The Security Council should also insist that persons responsible for grave abuses be held accountable for their crimes, and press Burmese authorities to cooperate with the UN Fact-Finding Mission established by the UN Human Rights Council and grant unfettered access to its staff to Burma, including Rakhine State. The council should send a clear message that it stands ready to take additional steps to ensure justice including through the International Criminal Court, and urge member states to pursue other mechanisms that might provide justice for recent abuses.
These measures are not merely meant to deter more atrocities. Sanctions should be glued to demands that multinational organizations and governments have made, setting them as benchmarks the Burmese military needs to meet for sanctions to be relaxed: stopping abuses, allowing humanitarian access to people in need, allowing access by the UN Fact-Finding Mission and journalists and other independent monitors, allowing refugees to safely and voluntarily return, and prosecuting those responsible for abuses, including as a matter of command responsibility. Prior to the recent crisis, the Burmese government pledged to take other steps laid out in the recommendations of the recent Advisory Commission on Rakhine State led by Kofi Annan; the military’s cooperation on that should be another benchmark.
Concerned governments shouldn’t wait for the United Nations to act, however. European Union member states, including the United Kingdom, as well as the United States, Australia, Canada, and ASEAN member states, should impose or re-impose bilateral sanctions on military commanders and military-owned enterprises, and expand existing arms embargoes to include all maintenance, assistance, training and cooperation with the Burmese army. The US should place senior military leaders and key military-owned enterprises on the “Specially Designated Nationals” list that restricts travel to the US and access to US companies and financial institutions. The EU and its member states should renew their versions of the same restrictions.
For those who worry that tough responses may worsen the situation or weaken the international community’s influence, one could ask: What influence? And how much worse can things get? What is the alternative plan for compelling the Burmese military to stop its abuses?