Two personnel in Myanmar’s military have confessed to “exterminating” Rohingya Muslims. Human rights defenders believe that this public acknowledgement could substantiate the ongoing international genocide investigation at the International Court of Justice against Myanmar’s military establishment.
Myo Win Tun, 33, and Zaw Naoing Tun, 30, who belong to separate light infantry battalions, claimed they were given orders to “shoot and rape villagers” while raiding “kalar” villages – “kalar” is a derogatory term for Muslim Rohingyas.
One of the soldiers in the video, possibly filmed by the Arakan Army (a rebel group fighting the Myanmar military) in July, admitted to having killed and buried at least 30 Rohingyas, including seven children and eight women. Myo Win Tun also confessed that the “15th Military Operations Centre’s commander” gave the battalion that “wiped [out] about 20 villages” strict orders to “shoot all you see and all you hear”.
Fellow soldier Zaw Naing Tun explained how he guarded his seniors who were raping Rohingya women. The repeated incidents of mass rapes, killings and arson are responsible for compelling hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas to flee Myanmar. Many leave in a state of hunger and shock, carrying little but the memories of rapes, bullets, deaths and burn injuries as they enter neighbouring states as refugees.
On 8 September 2020, the US-based rights group Fortify Rights confirmed the authenticity of the video footage, claiming they learned the two soldiers were taken into custody at the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands.
The group believes the soldiers massacred at least 180 Rohingyas. Both disgruntled personnel have given “the names and ranks of 19 direct perpetrators from the Myanmar Army, including themselves, as well as six senior commanders”.
“I am expecting more soldiers will come forward confessing their crimes. Two soldiers have made the same admission,” cofounder of the Free Rohingya Coalition Ro Nay San Lwin said.
“As Myanmar is not a state party to the International Criminal Court and is not cooperating, the testimonies of these two soldiers will be beneficial,” Lwin said.
Myanmar’s response to insurgent attacks by the Arakan Army has been described as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” by the United Nations. At least 730 000 Rohingyas have been forced to flee from the country for fear of prosecution. Amnesty International notes some 600 000 Rohingyas live in Rakhine State in “dire conditions, including around 126 000 whom the authorities are holding indefinitely in camps”. The rights group asked the Myanmar government to prevent acts of genocide and stop destroying evidence.
On 5 April, Myanmar’s military carried out an aerial strike in south Buthidaung Township in Rakhine State. The strike killed at least 30 civilians and injured several others. Eye witnesses said the civilians were collecting bamboo in a nearby area when army helicopters fired indiscriminately at them. The United Nations condemned the casualties and accused the Myanmar Army of committing “war crimes” in Myanmar.
Even in neighbouring states in India and elsewhere, there is no respite. The refugees have repeatedly complained of facing discrimination.
Allegations of sexual abuse
This September, several Rohingyas living in a refugee camp in Bangladesh’s Bashan Char accused the Bangladeshi security forces of mistreatment and torture. A handful of Rohingya women refugees also accused government forces of “sexual abuse”.
One of the refugees at Bashan Char said, “The Rohingya men caught two personnel of Bangladesh forces after they raped a young, unmarried girl. The girl cried out badly and alerted the Rohingya men who lived in the same area. However, we have no way to know if any police case was registered.”
According to 22-year-old Usman Ganni, who lives in Bangladesh’s Kutupalong refugee camp and works at a non-profit organisation, the plight of refugees has worsened after the outbreak of Covid-19: “We aren’t allowed from even entering any local area that is nearby the refugee camps. The Bangladeshi population itself further advances such a discriminatory treatment,” Ganni said.
Earlier in April, at least 300 refugees were intercepted by the Bangladeshi authorities when they tried to sneak outside Bangladesh to neighbouring Malaysia. They have since been held in Bhasan Char. The refugees have repeatedly complained about their safety on the island. “We are forced to stay inside our dilapidated refugee camps like criminals. We are facing physical and mental abuse daily,” Ganni added.
On 15 September, Amnesty International revealed that they “heard accounts of sexual harassment or abuse at the hands of police and navy officials on the island”.
The United Nations, in their investigations and several other independent fact-finding reports, found Myanmar security forces were responsible for “widespread theft, extortion, arbitrary arrests, forced labour and sexual violence”. Commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing of Myanmar’s military, along with five top officials, reportedly have played a key role in carrying out gross human rights violations in the Rakhine, Kachin and Shan States.
Rohingyas have complained they are also subjected to harassment by the politicians and newspapers of Myanmar who accuse them of spreading the coronavirus in the country.
The repeated use of racist slurs to demean and dehumanise Rohingyas has been mainstream practice for some time. The Voice ran a racist caricature in June, depicting an elderly Rohingya man crossing the border while carrying the coronavirus with him. The cartoon also carried the denigrating label “illegal interloper”, which is a derogatory term used to depict the Rohingyas.
Justice and repatriation
Last December, close to 175 Rohingyas, including 69 women and 22 minors, were detained in the Tanintharyi Region of Myanmar. They were attempting to flee Myanmar by sea. Rights organisations, including the United Nations, condemned the mass arrests, stressing that charging the already-persecuted Muslim Rohingyas under immigration laws and punishing them with long prison terms amounted to a violation of their right to free movement.
“A lot of Rohingya fleeing through central Myanmar have been arrested and deported back to Rakhine State. In May 2020, about 100 were returned after they were imprisoned for six months with hard labour without any legal aid,” Lwin said.
Activists argue that there is no future or livelihood for the minority community in Myanmar, which is why “they are forced to flee”.
“If the people are in a good situation no one will take this risky journey,” they say.
First in November 2018 and then in August 2019 repatriation attempts were made to bring the Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar. On both occasions the attempts failed.
Sajahuddin Karim, an activist based in Australia, fears the living conditions of Rohingyas in Bangladesh and Myanmar continues to remain dire: “World bodies including the international community have failed the Rohingyas while their governments are using Rohingyas miseries in their political games,” Karim noted.
Recently, human traffickers approached the Rohingyas and convinced the desperate people that they would take them to neighbouring Malaysia. Days later, when scores of Rohingyas tried to escape, they were pushed back. The traffickers were later sent to Indonesia, where they were allowed by the authorities to enter and seek political asylum.
On 7 September, nearly 300 Rohingyas, including women and children, reached Indonesia’s Sumatra island, after allegedly spending months at sea. More than 30 refugees are believed to have died in the escape bid, as traffickers repeatedly demanded payment, before leaving them to go ashore in Aceh Province.
This situation underlines the vulnerability and precariousness of the Rohingyas’ lives in Bangladesh camps and inside Myanmar’s Rakhine State.
“More than 79% of Rohingyas” have shown interest in returning to Myanmar, one study estimates. While “over 94% of victims agreed” that “granting citizenship and recognition of Rohingya as an ethnic group by the Myanmar government and giving them compensation would motivate them to return to their homeland”.
Hundreds of unidentified Rohingya refugees have been retrieved from mass graves in Thailand and Malaysia. These refugees, according to reports, had attempted to flee from the Bangladeshi camps.
Similarly, in February, another 16 Rohingya refugees died after they drowned in the Bay of Bengal, when the boat carrying nearly 150 Rohingyas capsized near St Martin’s Island in Bangladesh.
While Bangladesh’s Ministry of Home Affairs claims 250 Rohingya were rescued from traffickers within six months in 2018, in another statement the ministry admitted to have “rescued” close to “70 000 Rohingya outside their camps”. They were reportedly sent back.
“As we are helpless, the international community must take measures to improve our living situation. Many refugees were killed and raped on the boats,” said Lwin.
“To stop fleeing from one country to another, the only option is to restore all Rohingya rights including citizenship, ethnic rights and protection in Myanmar,” he concluded.