ucanews.com reporter, BangkokUpdated: October 13, 2017 11:28 AM GMT
Rohingya women with their children wade through river to cross in Bangladesh at Shah Porir Dwip island at Teknaf, Cox's Bazar district. (ucanews.com photo)
UN investigators have released a report discrediting the Myanmar government's claim that violence in Rakhine State was a response to terrorist attacks, instead labelling it "well-organized, coordinated and systematic."
The report was released Oct. 11 after the OHCHR team travelled to Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh from Sept. 13-24 and conducted 65 interviews with refugees who fled the Myanmar military offensive which started in August.
The Myanmar military and government claimed the offensive was launched in the aftermath of attacks by the separatist Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on police posts and regimental headquarters on Aug. 25.
But the report said "the manner in which the villages, home and property of the Rohingya across northern Rakhine State has been destroyed points to it being well-organized and coordinated, thereby challenging the assertion that it was merely collateral damage of the military security operations following the alleged attack."
Prior to the Aug. 25 crackdown, a strategy was pursued to arrest and arbitrarily detain male Rohingya aged 15-40, educators and cultural and religious leaders. Rohingya villagers were also deprived of access to food, their livelihoods and subjected to repeated acts of humiliation and violence to drive them from their homes en masse.
The Myanmar military, known as the Tatmadaw, wanted to inflict widespread fear and trauma through acts of brutality, "namely killings, disappearances, torture, and rape and other forms of sexual violence," the report said.
Myanmar security forces purposely destroyed and burned Rohingya homes, livestock and crops in Rakhine not only to drive them out but also to prevent them returning home.
The report notes Myanmar's Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement Minister saying after the Aug. 25 attacks that under the Natural Disaster Management Law "burnt land becomes government-managed land."
"This law has been relied upon in the past by the government of Myanmar to prevent the return of internally displaced people who were dislocated following the 2012 violence," the report said.
It also threw major doubt over Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi's claim on Sept. 19 that the Myanmar military ended its "clearance operations" on Sept. 5.
The UN team said it observed columns of smoke rising from the Naf River in northern Rakhine on Sept. 17, while satellite images showed the burning of villages continued weeks after Sept. 5. The Bangladeshi Border Guards said that explosions, shootings and burnings were heard and seen after Sept. 5.
The report also contains harrowing firsthand accounts from the Rohingya refugees of alleged human rights violations by Myanmar security forces.
A 60-year old woman from Buthidaung township said on the day of the "big attack" her family fled from Myanmar soldiers firing on her villages.
"We saw many dead bodies on the road — it was terrible. Women were raped in front of our eyes — some were even young female children — and sometimes they were hurt by several men in uniform."
A 12-year-old girl from Rathedaung township said her 7-year-old sister was shot in front of her after armed soldiers and Rakhine Buddhist individuals surrounded her home.
"We had no medical assistance on the hillside and she was bleeding so much that after one day she died. I buried her myself. There were helicopters in the air — and they used launchers to try to attack us when we were in the hills."
She said her father was jailed a month before the attacks for unknown reasons and they did not know whether he was dead or alive.
A 35-year-old Rohingya woman from Maungdaw township said the Myanmar security forces came in the middle of the night and ordered them out of their homes. Her husband was collecting wood in the hills. They started to shoot and a bomb blast was heard. Many people were killed or badly hurt.
"The people who accompanied the Myanmar security forces were Buddhist people from neighboring villages. I have seen them several times in the market," she said.
A few witnesses said some Rohingya were rounded up before Aug. 25 and interrogated and threatened about providing shelter to ARSA fighters.
"They wanted to get information but we did not know anything," a 60-year-old father of four from Buthidaung township said.
Several witnesses recalled Myanmar security forces being accompanied by mobs of Rakhine Buddhists sometimes in groups of up to 150. They said that some victims were shot at point-blank range after being accused of supporting terrorists.
The report also documented abductions and rapes of girls and women, some as young as five and some pregnant, by Myanmar security forces.
It said one statement "referred to a woman whose stomach was slit open after she was raped. Witnesses stated that her unborn baby was killed by the alleged perpetrator with a knife and her nipples were cut off."
Clinic staff in camps and makeshift refugee settlements and personnel at the Bazar Sadaar District Hospital in Cox's Bazar confirmed they had treated Rohingya women for "sexual and gender-based violence."
The investigators said they had credible information 11 Rohingya victims had suffered severe injuries, including missing limbs, from anti-personnel mines.
The team believes the mines were deliberately planted by the Myanmar military after Aug. 23, as prior to that the Tatmadaw and Bangladesh security forces were conducting joint border patrols.
The report concludes that some Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh might be willing to return to their villages if the Myanmar government provides citizenship, compensation for loss of livelihood, accountability for human rights violations and respect for their rights.
Some also wanted the deployment of UN peacekeepers to ensure the safety of the Rohingya in Myanmar, the report said.