Author: Puttanee Kangkun
Published by: The Wall Street Journal
My colleagues and I recently spent nearly two weeks on the Burma-Bangladesh border interviewing dozens of Rohingya men and women who fled Maungdaw Township in Burma’s Rakhine State. The abuses they suffered at the hands of the Burmese military rise to the level of atrocity crimes. They require an urgent international response.
On Oct. 9, Rohingya militants allegedly attacked three police posts in Maungdaw. The military responded with a brutal “clearance operation,” burning down entire villages and committing abuses against any Rohingya they found.
Survivors described every detail of what they experienced in interviews that lasted hours, even days. We painstakingly confirmed these allegations by separately interviewing eyewitnesses. A picture of systematic atrocities emerged.
Dozens of survivors from several villages reported losing family members. Many witnessed Burmese soldiers killing loved ones, including children. Some had their throats cut, while others were burned alive. Wives, mothers and daughters witnessed soldiers kill husbands, sons and fathers.
Upon the first sight of approaching Burmese soldiers, Rohingya men and boys often fled their homes fearing arrest. Women and children were left behind.
The women I spoke with believed they would be safe if they remained in their homes. They were not.
Burmese soldiers raped Rohingya women, threatened them and their families, and molested them during ostensible body-searches for jewelry and cash. Because of the stigma rape carries in Rohingya society, we believe that the cases reported to us represent only a fraction of the rapes that occurred.
Since Oct. 9, more than 65,000 Rohingya have arrived in Bangladesh, according to the United Nations. Many new arrivals are staying with hosts in two official refugee camps, Kutupalong and Nayapura. That puts pressure on families already struggling to survive. Others are hiding in remote locations
Food, shelter and health care for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh are scarce. There is a particular need for medical and psychosocial support for women and girls who survived rape and sexual violence, especially among new arrivals in remote enclave communities who can’t access health options in the two official refugee camps.
The Bangladesh government’s official policy is to deny Rohingya entry. Bangladeshi border guards force Rohingya they catch back to Burma; many refugees managed to enter only after repeated attempts.
None of the survivors we met wanted to leave their homes in Burma—it’s harvesting time. They don’t want to live in Bangladesh, Thailand or Malaysia. Now in Bangladesh, they have nothing but the clothes on their backs.
The Burmese government has repeatedly denied any abuses have taken place. Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto head of state, appears committed to defending the military at all costs
Previous military governments persecuted the Rohingya for decades. They have been stateless since 1982, when the country’s citizenship law made them foreigners overnight, despite having lived there for generations. They are denied even the most basic rights, including to marry and to move freely. Following targeted violence in Rakhine State in 2012, the authorities herded more than 120,000 Rohingya into more than 40 internment camps along Burma’s coast, where the government continues to confine them today.
The Rohingya community is resilient. Many survivors want to share their in-depth testimonies and participate in the truth-telling process. But they can’t do it alone. Now is the time for the international community to act.
Malaysia, Indonesia and the Organization for Islamic Cooperation have been outspoken and active recently on the issue of Rohingya in Burma. This is important and positive, but the Rohingya need more than sympathy and solidarity from only Muslim countries.
Last month, a group of prominent world leaders and Nobel laureates called for the U.N. Security Council to initiate an independent investigation into the worsening situation in Rakhine State. The Association for Southeast Asian Nations should pick up the call at the U.N. and help pressure the Burmese government and military to let investigators and aid reach the Rohingya. If this opportunity is missed, the Rohingya will suffer more atrocities.
This article originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal here.