THEY have been called one of the world’s most persecuted minorities. Almost daily now, far from the world’s headlines, the evidence of this persecution is mounting as their stories surface to the wider world.
The stories themselves are horrific, many of them among the worst accounts that veteran human rights investigators say they have ever encountered.
“Frankly, it was absolutely unbearable to do the interviews,” says Linnea Arvidsson, mission leader of a four-member team of investigators with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)
The testimonies Arvidsson and her team have gathered are from some 204 women and men, who are among the 70,000 Rohingya to have fled to Bangladesh from Myanmar’s northern Rakhine State since October last year. The majority of those interviewed said they knew of people who had been killed, raped or had disappeared.
“I have not ever encountered a situation in which you have interviewed so many people in such a short period of time, who have undergone such serious violations,” says Arvidsson.
The UN human rights investigator admits to having been on the verge of breaking down while listening to the stream of accounts that tell of killings, gang rapes, beatings and disappearances the Rohingya were reportedly subjected to at the hands of Myanmar’s police and security forces.
“Mothers who would say, ‘I was raped and my baby was crying and they slit the throat of my baby while I was being raped.’ I mean, it was horrendous,” Arvidsson recounted to reporters.
“I cannot imagine what they have gone through when they lived through that,” she added.
The plight of the Rohingya has only occasionally made headlines.
Back in 2015 thousands of Rohingyas boarded boats to cross the Bay of Bengal. The sight of hundreds of emaciated men, women and children packed into the people traffickers’ rusty old boats momentarily caught the world’s attention, even though Rohingyas have been fleeing persecution for years.
So just who are the Rohingya and why for so long have they been attacked with impunity, stripped of the vote and driven from their homes?
About 1.1 million ethnic Rohingya Muslims live in apartheid-like conditions mainly in the north-western coastal Rakhine state of Myanmar, also known as Burma. It was the ruling military junta that changed the country’s name to Myanmar in 1989.
Many in Buddhist-majority Myanmar regard the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh despite the fact many Rohingya were born in Myanmar and have lived there for generations.
Other smaller communities of Rohingya can be found in Bangladesh, Thailand and Malaysia.
“The Rohingya are even more marginalised than other Muslims due to their ethnicity, since they are not recognised as citizens of Myanmar under the citizenship law, and they are considered Bengalis or illegal immigrants despite having lived in Myanmar for generations,” explains Elaine Pearson, director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) Australia.
Attacks on Rohingya intensified last October when nine Myanmar police officers were killed in armed strikes on posts along the border with Bangladesh.
In response the security services launched an intense crackdown and a series of so-called “clearance operations” against the Rohingya population to track down the insurgents behind the incident.
The violence meted out by the security services though was nothing new and simply follows a long-standing pattern of violations and abuses, systematic discrimination and policies of exclusion and marginalisation against the Rohingya that have been in place for decades in northern Rakhine.
Since the October escalation however, nearly 70,000 Rohingya have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh hoping to escape the violence. It’s from there that UN human rights investigators have been interviewing survivors and listening to accounts they say could amount to ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.
“The talk until now has been of hundreds of deaths. This is probably an underestimation, we could be looking at thousands,” said one of two senior UN officials dealing with refugees fleeing the violence.
Both officials from two separate UN agencies working in Bangladesh, said they were concerned the outside world had not fully grasped the severity of the crisis unfolding in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.
They cited the weight of testimony gathered by their agencies from refugees over the past four months in concluding the death toll was likely to have exceeded 1,000.
Contradicting the UN estimates, Myanmar’s presidential spokesman, Zaw Htay, said the latest reports from the country’s military commanders indicated that fewer than 100 people had been killed in the Rakhine operation.
Responding to the UN’s figures, Zaw Htay said: “Their number is much greater than our figure. We have to check on the ground.”
During the crackdown in Rakhine, armed members of Myanmar’s security services are said to have rounded up Rohingya men and taken them away in vehicles.
Myanmar authorities have given little information about how many might have been detained, although prison officials told a UN human rights envoy last month they were only holding about 450 people.
Boys and men between the age of 17 and 45 were particularly targeted, as they are considered to be strong and seen as a potential threat to the army and authorities, the OHCHR report concluded.
UN officials in camps in Bangladesh also point to the fact that Rohingya refugees arriving there have few men among them.
“If you look at the new arrivals, the majority are women, so many of them talk about a killed husband, a slaughtered uncle or a missing brother. Where are all the men?” said one official.
The OHCHR report also detailed how the Myanmar security forces fired from helicopters used grenades and launched targeted killings of imams and teachers.
In one case, recounted by a number of Rohingya refugees in separate interviews, the army locked an entire family, including elderly and disabled people, inside a house and set it on fire, killing them all. The UN human rights office called the accounts “revolting".
Of the 101 women interviewed, over half told the UN team they had been sexually assaulted, raped, or gang-raped. One gang-rape victim was 11 years old. Another was nine months pregnant. The UN also received reports of Myanmar security forces killing children aged six and younger with knives.
One mother told in the report how her five-year-old daughter was trying to protect her from rape when a man “took out a long knife and killed her by slitting her throat,” while in another case an eight-month-old baby was reportedly killed while his mother was gang-raped by five security officers.
In separately documented accounts of atrocities by another organisation, Human Rights Watch (HRW) one woman told how she too was gang raped, suffering awful injuries.
“They slaughtered my husband in front of me with a machete,” she said, “Then three more men raped me. After some time, I had severe bleeding. I had severe pain in my lower abdomen and pain in my whole body.”
Many witnesses and victims described, “being taunted while they were being beaten, raped or rounded up.”
One woman told HRW that soldiers who attempted to rape her said: “You are just raising your kids to kill us, so we will kill your kids.”
One of the biggest problems facing human rights investigators is establishing independent verification of what is happening in Myanmar.
Rights workers and journalists have consistently been denied access as security forces and the military have cut off access to north-western Rakhine.
Supporting evidence gathered in Bangladesh however confirms that many refugees have bullet and knife wounds and satellite imagery has revealed destroyed villages.
Despite its brutality, the military’s campaign against the Rohingya is widely popular in Myanmar. Claiming that it is fighting a rebel insurgency has helped restore the credibility and popularity of the military junta in the public’s eye.
Those who speak out against the military run considerable risks. Just a few weeks ago, one of the country’s top legal advisers and a prominent member of Myanmar’s minority Muslim community, Ko Ni, was shot dead after speaking out about atrocities against the Rohingya.
At the time he was shot, Ko Ni was holding his grandson in his arms and as of yet his assailants have not been identified.
The atrocities have also since thrown the spotlight on Myanmar’s most prominent political figure the Nobel Peace Prize recipient and long champion of democratic rights, Aung San Suu Kyi.
Her role is similar to that of Prime Minister, and she is facing increasing international criticism for staying quiet on the plight of Myanmar’s Muslim population.
Suu Kyi has also refused UN requests to gain full access to Rakhine state, where most of the violence has taken place. This, say some observers, has undermined the goodwill Suu Kyi built up as a democracy champion under years of junta rule and has threatened her international support.
“Unfortunately Suu Kyi is following her political not humanitarian instincts and since the Rohingya are deeply unpopular in Myanmar, she’s been unwilling to call out abuses and violence and discrimination they face,” says Elaine Pearson, director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) Australia.
The mounting evidence of atrocities by the army has put Suu Kyi in a difficult position, some Myanmar-based diplomats say.
They point to the fact that she has no control over the armed forces under a constitution written by the previous military government.
After the release of the UN report last week, Suu Kyi has since vowed to launch an investigation into the crimes and “take all necessary action” against abusers.
Slowly but surely it seems the world is waking up to the plight of the Rohingya and international pressure is beginning to be felt.
The UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, has described the “devastating cruelty” against Rohingya children as “unbearable,” saying the allegations of babies being stabbed “beg” a reaction from the international community.
“I call on the international community, with all its strength, to join me in urging the leadership in Myanmar to bring such military operations to an end. The gravity and scale of these allegations begs the robust reaction of the international community,” al-Hussein pleaded last week.
Taking a more direct form of intervention the Malaysian Prime Minister Rajib Nazak declared that, “Enough is enough,” and last week sent an aid flotilla to assist the Rohingya community, but the vessel was met by protests.
And so the burning question remains as to just what can be done to resolve the abuses against the Rohingya, outlined by the UN human rights report.
Myanmar specialists and analysts say that first and foremost it would take the establishment of genuine law and order on the ground in Rakhine State, where the abuses are taking place.
They point also to the need for the free flow of information, unhampered by security forces and the NLD (National League for Democracy party) government, to enable facts to be established on the ground that would lead to effective policy making.
“Any resolution to the abuses in the Rohingya areas will require a resolution of Myanmar’s longstanding civilian-military divide and a political will to compromise on wide ethnic and religious divisions,” observes Evan Rees, Southeast Asia analyst for the US-based independent intelligence firm Stratfor.
“Aung San Suu Kyi's party is still on the razor's edge and, from this precarious position, has little chance of resolving these issues,” Rees added.
Many human right observers however say that something has to be done now. The grievous rights abuses uncovered by OHCHR can only be adequately responded to they insist by an independent, international investigation commissioned by the US Human Rights Council when it meets next month.
“The Burma government had its chance and has only shown interest in whitewashing its security forces’ use of rape, extrajudicial executions, and arson to destroy entire Rohingya communities,” insists Phil Robertson, Asia division deputy director of Human Rights Watch.
For the moment that whitewashing continues. As long as it does, more abuses will likely be committed and the horror stories of those Rohingya, who have survived, will be told in the refugee camps in the Bangladeshi city of Cox’s Bazar, near the border of Myanmar.
As one UN official said of their recently compiled human rights report: “This is only the tip of the iceberg