“Rape has been a prominent and devastating feature of the Burmese military’s campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya,” said Skye Wheeler, women’s rights emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “The Burmese military’s barbaric acts of violence have left countless women and girls brutally harmed and traumatized.”
Since August 25, 2017, the Burmese military has committed killings, rapes, arbitrary arrests, and mass arson of homes in hundreds of predominantly Rohingya villages in northern Rakhine State, forcing more than 600,000 Rohingya to flee to neighboring Bangladesh. Human Rights Watch has found that these abuses amount to crimes against humanity under international law. The military operations were sparked by attacks by the armed group the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on 30 security force outposts and an army base that killed 11 Burmese security personnel.
Human Rights Watch interviewed 52 Rohingya women and girls who had fled to Bangladesh, including 29 rape survivors, 3 of them girls under 18, as well as 19 representatives of humanitarian organizations, United Nations agencies, and the Bangladeshi government. The rape survivors came from 19 villages in Rakhine State.
Burmese soldiers raped women and girls both during major attacks on villages and in the weeks prior to these attacks after repeated harassment, Human Rights Watch found. In every case described to Human Rights Watch, the rapists were uniformed members of Burmese security forces, almost all military personnel. Ethnic Rakhine villagers, acting in apparent coordination with Burmese military, sexually harassed Rohingya women and girls, often in connection with looting.
Fifteen-year-old Hala Sadak, from Hathi Para village in Maungdaw Township, said soldiers had stripped her naked and then dragged her from her home to a nearby tree where, she estimates, about 10 men raped her from behind. She said, “They 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.”
All but one of the rapes reported to Human Rights Watch were gang rapes. In six reported cases of “mass rape,” survivors said that soldiers gathered Rohingya women and girls into groups and then gang raped or raped them. Many of those interviewed also said that witnessing soldiers killing their family members was the most traumatic part of the attacks. They described soldiers bashing the heads of their young children against trees, throwing children and elderly parents into burning houses, and shooting their husbands.
Humanitarian organizations working with refugees in Bangladesh have reported hundreds of rape cases. These most likely only represent a small proportion of the actual number because of the significant number of reported cases of rape victims being killed and the deep stigma that makes victims reluctant to report sexual violence, especially in crowded emergency health clinics with little privacy. Two-thirds of rape survivors interviewed had not reported their rape to authorities or humanitarian organizations.
Many reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or depression, and untreated injuries, including vaginal tears and bleeding, and infections.
“One tragic dimension of this horrific crisis is that Rohingya women and girls are suffering profound physical and mental trauma without getting needed health care,” Wheeler said. “Bangladeshi authorities and aid agencies need to do more community outreach among the Rohingya to provide confidential spaces to report abuse and reduce stigma around sexual violence.”
Burmese authorities have rejected the growing documentation of sexual violence by the military. In September, the Rakhine state border security minister denied the reports. “Where is the proof?” he said. “Look at those women who are making these claims – would anyone want to rape them?”
Human Rights Watch previously documented widespread rape of women and girls during military “clearance operations” in late 2016 in northern Rakhine State, allegations the Burmese government crudely rejected as “fake rape.” In general, the government and military have failed to hold military personnel accountable for grave abuses against ethnic minority populations. Multiple biased and poorly conducted investigations in Rakhine State largely dismissed the allegations of these abuses.
Burma’s government should end the violations against the Rohingya immediately, cooperate fully with international investigators, including the Fact-Finding Mission established by the UN Human Rights Council, and allow humanitarian aid organizations unimpeded access to Rakhine State.
Bangladesh and international donors have acted quickly to provide relief for the refugees, and are expanding assistance for rape survivors. Concerned governments should also impose travel bans and asset freezes on Burmese military officials implicated in human rights abuses; expand existing arms embargoes to include all military sales, assistance, and cooperation; and ban financial transactions with key Burmese military-owned enterprises.
The UN Security Council should impose a full arms embargo on Burma and individual sanctions against military leaders responsible for grave violations of human rights, including sexual violence. The council should also refer the situation in Rakhine State to the International Criminal Court. It should request a public briefing from the UN special representative of the secretary-general for sexual violence in conflict, who just returned from the Rohingya camps in Bangladesh.
“UN bodies and member countries need to work together to press Burma to end the atrocities, ensure that those responsible are held to account, and address the massive problems facing the Rohingya, including victims of sexual violence,” Wheeler said. “The time for consequences is now, otherwise future Burmese military attacks on the Rohingya community appear inevitable.”
Selected accounts from Human Rights Watch interviews
- Fatima Begum, 33, was raped one day before she fled a major attack on her village of Chut Pyin in Rathedaung Township during which dozens of people were massacred. She said: “I was held down by six men and raped by five of them. First, they [shot and] killed my brother … then they threw me to the side and one man tore my lungi [sarong], grabbed me by the mouth and held me still. He stuck a knife into my side and kept it there while the men were raping me. That was how they kept me in place. … I was trying to move and [the wound] was bleeding more. They were threatening to shoot me.”
- Shaju Hosin, 30, saw one of her children killed when she fled their home village of Tin May, Buthiduang Township. She 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.”
- After her village was attacked, Mamtaz, Yunis, 33, and other women and men fled to the hills. Burmese soldiers trapped her and about 20 other women for a night and two days without food or shelter on the side of a hill. She said the soldiers raped women in front of the gathered women, or took individual women away, and then returned the women, silent and ashamed, to the group. She said, “The men in uniform, they were grabbing the women, pulling a lot of women, they pulled my clothes off and tore them off…. There were so many women … we were weeping but there was nothing we could do.”
- Isharhat Islam, 40, was raped by soldiers during military operations in her village Hathi Para (Sin Thay Pyin) in October 2016 and then again during the recent military operations. She described the stigma she faces, saying, “I have had to deal with disgust, others looking away from me.”
- Three of Toyuba Yahya’s six children were killed just outside her house in Hathi Para (Sin Thay Pyin) village in Maungdaw Township. Then seven men in military uniform raped her. She said that soldiers killed two of her sons, ages 2 and 3. by beating their heads against the trunk of a tree outside her home. The soldiers then killed her 5-year-old daughter. She said: “My baby … I wanted him to be alive but he slowly died afterward … My daughter, they picked her high up and then smashed her against the ground. She was killed. I do not know why they did that. [Now] I can’t eat, I can’t sleep. Instead: thoughts, thoughts, thoughts, thoughts. I can’t rest. My child wants to go home. He doesn't understand that everything has been lost.”