Poppy McPherson – The Guardian
Myanmar state counsellor refused to engage in substantive talks about alleged violence against the Muslim minority, says envoy
Aung San Suu Kyi avoided discussing reports of Rohingya women and girls being raped by Myanmar troops and police when she met a senior UN official, according to an internal memo seen by the Guardian.
Pramila Patten, the special envoy on sexual violence in conflict, travelled to the country for a four-day visit in mid-December to raise the crisis with government officials.
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But she said Aung San Suu Kyi, a state counsellor in the Myanmar government, refused to engage in “any substantive discussion” of reports that soldiers, border guard police and Rakhine Buddhist militias carried out “widespread and systematic” sexual violence in northern Rakhine state.
“The meeting with the state counsellor was a cordial courtesy call of
approximately 45 minutes that was, unfortunately, not substantive in nature,” she wrote in a letter sent to UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres last week.
More than 655,000 Rohingya, members of a persecuted and stateless Muslim minority, have fled to Bangladeshi refugee camps since violence began in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state in August. Médecins Sans Frontières believes at least 6,700 Rohingya were killed during “clearance operations” ostensibly targeting militants, while many survivors say women and girls were gang-raped.
Instead of discussing the claims directly, Patten said Aung San Suu Kyi informed her she would enjoy “a number of good meetings” with senior Myanmar officials.
During these meetings, she was told by representatives of the military and civilian government that reports of atrocities were “exaggerated and fabricated by the international community”.
“Moreover, a belief was expressed that those who fled did so due to an affiliation with terrorist groups, and did so to evade law enforcement,” she wrote.
Myanmar’s army has cleared itself of any wrongdoing in an internal investigation dubbed a “whitewash” by human rights groups.
While in the country, Patten met the man who headed that investigation, Lt-Gen Aye Win, who explained their methodology.
“The military investigation, which consisted of armed men in uniform ‘interrogating’ civilians in large group settings, often on camera, and then presenting rations to communities following their testimony and cooperation, clearly occurred under coercive circumstances, where the incentive structure was not to lodge complaints,” Patten wrote.
“Accordingly, over 800 interviews yielded zero reports of sexual or other violence against civilians by the armed and security forces,” she said.
Patten also expressed concerns about plans to send Rohingya who have fled back to Myanmar, citing the “prevailing climate of impunity” in the country.
Bangladesh and Myanmar have agreed to the “speedy” repatriation of Rohingya, scheduled to start by the end of January.
But many Rohingya say they will not return voluntarily until they are given citizenship as well as guarantees that they will be safe and not put into internment camps. Tens of thousands have been living in such camps elsewhere in Rakhine state since violence in 2012.
Skye Wheeler, the researcher for Human Rights Watch who investigated the sexual violence allegations, said Myanmar was denying a “terrible truth”.
“The lack of acknowledgement or care the Myanmar authorities including Aung San Suu Kyi have shown for Rohingya women and girls who have been brutally raped by Myanmar soldiers as part of their ethnic cleansing campaign is almost as shocking as the horrific crimes themselves,” she told the Guardian.
“It’s like a second attack, to endure a vicious gang rape and then to be ignored, as if you don’t matter at all, to have that terrible truth denied.”
The Myanmar government was contacted for comment.
6,700 Rohingya Muslims killed in one month in Myanmar, MSF says
At least 730 young children among people shot, burned or beaten to death in Rakhine state between August and September
More than 6,700 Rohingya Muslims, including at least 730 children under the age of five, were killed in the first month of a crackdown that started in August in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state, according to Médecins Sans Frontières.
The figures released on Thursday by the humanitarian agency are believed to be a conservative estimate and far exceed Myanmar’s official death toll of 400.
“The numbers of deaths are likely to be an underestimation, as we have not surveyed all refugee settlements in Bangladesh and because the surveys don’t account for the families who never made it out of Myanmar,” said Dr Sidney Wong, MSF’s medical director.
The majority of the people killed (69%) were shot, while others were burned and beaten to death. “We heard reports of entire families who perished after they were locked inside their homes, while they were set alight,” said Wong.
Who are the Rohingya?
The Rohingya are Muslims who live in majority-Buddhist Myanmar. They are often described as “the world’s most persecuted minority”.
Nearly all of Myanmar’s 1.1 million Rohingya live in the western coastal state of Rakhine. The government does not recognise them as citizens, effectively rendering them stateless.
Extremist nationalist movements insist the group are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, although the Rohingya say they are native to Rakhine state.
Rights groups accuse Burmese authorities of ethnic cleansing, systematically forcing Rohingya from the country through violence and persecution, a charge the government has denied.
More than 640,000 Rohingya people have fled Rakhine since August. Soldiers, police and local militias burned hundreds of Rohingya villages to the ground, and they are also accused of gang-raping women and children, as well as slaughtering civilians indiscriminately.
Western countries have condemned the violence as ethnic cleansing, an allegation Myanmar strongly denies. Officials in the country have laid the blame on “extremist terrorists” belonging to a new Rohingya militant group. A Myanmar government spokesperson could not be immediately reached for comment.
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Some of the worst violence is believed to have occurred in Tula Toli, in a village in Maungdaw township, where survivors say residents were rounded up on riverbanks and shot as they tried to flee. The Guardian has seen videos taken by villagers showing the corpses of children washed up on shores.
Survivors believe thousands may have died in that village alone.
The high death toll tallies with reports from numerous journalists and human rights groups.
“The latest report adds to a long list of harrowing accounts that Human Rights Watch has collected from Rohingya refugees who fled the campaign of ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity in northern Rakhine state,” said Rich Weir, Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch.
“The numbers should shock the conscience of the international community and stir them to action. Those responsible must be held to account and sanctions must be imposed on those who are behind these atrocities,” he said.
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Myanmar and Bangladesh have agreed to send Rohingya people back to Rakhine, in a deal that has been criticised by human rights groups as premature and lacking safeguards for the persecuted minority.
“Currently, people are still fleeing from Myanmar to Bangladesh and those who do manage to cross the border still report being subject to violence in recent weeks,” said MSF’s Wong. “With very few independent aid groups able to access Maungdaw district in Rakhine, we fear for the fate of Rohingya people who are still there.”
Myanmar insists the reports of mass murder and rape are fabrications invented by the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya people now living in squalid refugee camps in Bangladesh.
Two Reuters journalists investigating the events were arrested this week. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were detained while carrying maps and documents relating to the region, after meeting police officers for dinner in Myanmar’s commercial capital of Yangon.
The US embassy called the detentions “highly irregular”. The Myanmar military has filed charges against the journalists under the Official Secrets Act, which carries a maximum prison term of 14 years.