The decades-old plight of the Rohingya Muslims has transformed into one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world today. At least 725,000 people have been forcefully driven by the Myanmar military from their homes in the state of Rakhine to neighboring Bangladesh, where they dwell in cramped refugee camps. Another 128,000 are confined to camps and displacement sites in Myanmar. Hence, the vast majority of the Rohingya have been rendered homeless, with many deprived of their families.
However, the true extent of the crimes perpetrated by the Myanmar military, known as the Tatmadaw, against the Rohingya has only recently been confirmed through a candid report prepared by a UN-mandated international fact-finding mission on Myanmar. The members of the mission traveled to five countries to collect information and conducted 875 in-depth interviews with victims and eyewitnesses. The report reveals shocking crimes against the Rohingya which, the mission says, clearly amount to genocide.
The Rohingya, whom the Myanmar military sees as “Bengali immigrants” despite having lived in Myanmar for centuries, had their citizenship revoked in 1982, and have faced sheer discrimination in all fields of life since then, including an effective denial of access to higher education. The result, as the UN report states, “is a continuing situation of severe, systemic and institutionalized oppression from birth to death.” It further notes, “For decades, security forces have subjected Rohingya to widespread theft and extortion. Arbitrary arrest, forced labor, ill-treatment, and sexual violence have been prevalent.” It is thus not surprising that the Rohingya have been described internationally as the world’s most persecuted minority.
Violence against the Rohingya commenced on a large scale in 2012, and further escalated in 2016. The “clearance operations” of the military have forced the majority of the Rohingya population to flee to neighboring Bangladesh, while there are no accurate estimates of the number of deaths due to restrictions on media coverage of such brutalities by the Myanmar government. As per a report by the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), over 43,000 “Rohingya parents” are presumably dead – this figure excludes all casualties involving children and unmarried adults.
Particularly shocking is the way these Rohingya men, women, and children were killed or rendered homeless over the past few years. The UN report states that many of them were killed while fleeing attacks by the military and some Buddhist extremists who carried large bladed weapons. In many villages, hundreds of people were killed in arson attacks, burned to death in their own homes. “Security patrols, house searches, beatings, theft, and extortion increased” against the Rohingya, according to the report, while “attacks routinely resulted in civilian deaths and injuries. Widespread looting and the destruction and burning of homes were commonplace.”
The report also explains the state-sponsored system of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya: “At least 392 villages were partially or totally destroyed… Most destroyed structures were homes. Schools, marketplaces, and mosques were also burned… The mass displacement and burning of Rohingya villages were followed by the systematic appropriation of emptied land. Bulldozers flattened burned, damaged and even surviving structures and vegetation, erasing every trace of the Rohingya communities – while destroying criminal evidence.”
Particularly appalling are the details of sexual violence by Myanmar’s military (Tatmadaw) against the Rohingya women and young girls which are recounted in section 38 of the UN report, reproduced below.
“Rape and other forms of sexual violence were perpetrated on a massive scale. Large-scale gang rape by Tatmadaw soldiers occurred in at least ten village tracts of northern Rakhine State. Sometimes up to 40 women and girls were raped or gang-raped together. One survivor stated, ‘I was lucky, I was only raped by three men.’ Rapes were often in public spaces and in front of families and the community, maximizing humiliation and trauma. Mothers were gang-raped in front of young children, who were severely injured and in some instances killed. Women and girls 13 to 25 years of age were targeted, including pregnant women. Rapes were accompanied by derogatory language and threats to life like, ‘We are going to kill you this way, by raping you.’ Women and girls were systematically abducted, detained and raped in military and police compounds, often amounting to sexual slavery. Victims were severely injured before and during rape, often marked by deep bites. They suffered serious injuries to reproductive organs, including from rape with knives and sticks. Many victims were killed or died from injuries. Survivors displayed signs of deep trauma and face immense stigma in their community. There are credible reports of men and boys also being subjected to rape, genital mutilation, and sexualized torture.”
As the report reveals, children were not spared either: “Children were subjected to, and witnessed, serious human rights violations including killing, maiming, and sexual violence. Children were killed in front of their parents, and young girls were targeted for sexual violence. Of approximately 500,000 Rohingya children in Bangladesh, many fled alone after their parents were killed or after being separated from their families. The Mission met many children with visible injuries matching accounts of being shot, stabbed or burned.”
Despite international pressure, an accountability of the military for such heinous crimes is not even remotely possible in Myanmar. Successive military regimes have ruled the former British colony since 1962, while a new governance system introduced in 2008 gave the military a very powerful position in the government, including the effective power to veto constitutional amendments. As the report explains, “The Myanmar authorities, in particular, the Tatmadaw, do not tolerate scrutiny or criticism. They use various laws to arrest, detain or harass civil society actors, journalists, lawyers and human rights defenders who express critical views… The Tatmadaw acts with complete impunity and has never been held accountable.” Two Reuters journalists who covered one of the massacres against the Rohingya have been sentenced to seven years in prison for breaching the country’s “Official Secrets Act”.
The UN report declares the military guilty of three core crimes under international law: genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. It goes on to enumerate the following war crimes committed against the Rohingya: murder; torture; cruel treatment; outrages upon personal dignity; attacking civilians; displacing civilians; pillaging; attacking protected objects; taking hostages; sentencing or execution without due process; as well as rape, sexual slavery, and sexual violence.
While Myanmar’s military blames a small number of Rohingya resistance fighters since 2012 as the reason for its “clearance operations”, the UN report makes it clear that the violence had been pre-planned by the military, which had used Facebook as a tool for instigating and promoting hatred and violence against the Rohingya. It quotes the commander-in-chief of the Tatmadaw, Min Aung Hlaing, who stated, “The Bengali problem was a long-standing one which has become an unfinished job despite the efforts of the previous governments to solve it. The government in office is taking great care in solving the problem.” Hence, the widespread killings and persecution of the Rohingya were merely to complete that “unfinished job”.
The report holds the Commander-in-Chief and five of his Generals, among others, responsible for the above-mentioned crimes. It also chides the civilian government, headed by the one-time Nobel Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, for failing to use its “limited powers” to influence the situation in Rakhine; instead, the so-called Head of State contributed to the military’s atrocities by blocking investigations, destroying evidence, and spreading false narratives. Furthermore, the “United Nations as a whole failed to adequately address human rights concerns”, and there were “few signs of any lessons learned” from its past failures.
The report concludes by making a list of recommendations, including sanctions targeted at individuals responsible for the genocide, and an arms embargo on Myanmar. It calls on the UN and the international community to ensure safe repatriation of refugees and internally displaced persons, but that should occur only “when [it is]safe, voluntary and dignified, with explicit human rights protections in place, including citizenship.” In the current scenario, the UN should establish a trust fund for the support of the victims, and the international community should actively pursue justice for the Rohingya victims.
Most importantly, perhaps, the report calls on the UN Security Council to refer Myanmar to the International Criminal Court (ICC). While Myanmar has faced much international condemnation over the genocide, it is supported by a few countries, including China and India, the former being a permanent UN Security Council member. In a significant development following the Mission’s report, the ICC has decided it has jurisdiction to independently probe the forced deportation of Rohingya as a possible crime against humanity – a decision which Myanmar “resolutely rejects”. While accountability of Myanmar’s military leaders seems unlikely any time soon, Amnesty International at least believes the ICC’s ruling is a “significant step in the right direction which opens up a clear avenue of justice for the Rohingya.”