MORE THAN 100 women were gang-raped. One was raped in front of people she loved and later killed. Even a woman eight months’ pregnant was raped.
Sultana Razia, a Rohingya teacher from Chittagong, exposed such atrocities perpetrated against her Muslim minority group during a conference on Myanmar genocide held in Berlin last Monday.
Systematic rape is a weapon of war used by Myanmar armed forces in its “clearance operation” to force Muslim Rohingya to vacate Rakhine state, according to experts attending the conference.
Arson, torture, rape, murder and massacres have been reported by international organisations, rights defenders and media. The United Nations used the term “ethnic cleansing”, but many Rohingya and experts have referred to the campaign in recent months not as ethnic cleansing, but as “genocide”.
Yanghee Lee, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, said recently the military operation against Rohingya bore “the hallmarks of genocide”.
Genocide, by definition under the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, is killing; causing serious bodily or mental harm; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; or forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
The Myanmar authority has systematically and intentionally denied the existence and identity of Rohingya, said Ro Tun Khin, president of Burmese Rohingya Organisation in the United Kingdom, adding that the state of affairs had persisted since his childhood.
Born and growing up in Rakhine state, which was formerly known as Arakan, Ro Tun Khin said he moved to the UK 16 years ago when he was 17 years old, but kept in touch with Rohingya in his home country and in Bangladesh where nearly 1 million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar have taken shelter. Violence against Rohingya has recurred over the past decades, which culminated in the exodus of about 700,000 Rohingya refugees after the Arakan Rohingya Solidarity Army (ARSA) militant group attacked Myanmar security officials last August.
The attack prompted a so-called “clearance operation” by the Tatmadaw, as Myanmar’s military is known, which killed thousands of people and displaced hundreds of thousands. Many Rohingya told The Nation that the operation was a part of a comprehensive plan to evict the stigmatised ethnic minority from the country.
The clearance operation is still ongoing with hundreds of Rohingya continuing to flee from Rakhine on a daily basis, said both Ro Tun Khin and Siyeed Alam, chairman of Rohingya Association in Thailand.
“When I met victims in the last two weeks, they told me they had been threatened by Rakhine extremists who are forcing Rohingya into starvation because they cannot go to the market for food, they cannot go to the rice fields and they cannot go fishing,” Ro Tun Khin said.
“Perhaps only some 70,000 people remain in Buthidaung, which used to be crowded,” Siyeed said.
“They intentionally destroyed the whole Rohingya community. From my point of view as a legal expert, if they did this intentionally, it is genocide,” Ro Tun Khin said in a phone interview from Europe.
The allegation was serious but the international community is unlikely to take concrete action to stop the atrocities, Ro Tun Khin said.
Rohingya communities in the United States, Europe and Southeast Asia have called for the international community, the United Nations and notably Asean, of which Myanmar is a member, to take urgent action to stop the genocide.
“This is the 21st century, and the population should not be treated in that way. Mass rape, mass killing and even taking a baby from a mother and throwing it into a fire are unspeakable and unimaginable,” he said.
Asean should call an immediate meeting to discuss how to stop the genocide and Myanmar should be excluded from Asean if the military continued to act in this way, Ro Tun Khin said.
While Western countries such as the US and members of the EU have denounced the atrocities and pressured Myanmar, Anusorn Chaiaksornwet, a Thai scholar at Walailak University, has called on Asean, its current chair Singapore and neighbouring Thailand to play constructive roles to end the crisis.
“Singapore could lead Asean to address the Rohingya issue this year and I hope Thailand will do a good job on that issue when it takes the chairmanship next year. We should have a clear policy to focus on human rights issues in the region, as the country previously did,” he said.
Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who has held office long enough to understand Asean very well, should lead the group to tackle problems in Myanmar, Anusorn said.
Thailand should play a role in bridging Myanmar and Asean and the international community, if the Kingdom wanted to resume its leadership role, he said. “But there is no sign to indicate the country will do the job, so far,” he added.
Rohingya including Ro Tun Khin have said an advisory board headed by former Thai foreign minister Surakiart Sathirathai will not fix the problem but merely “whitewash” the image of Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
However, Asean jointly has welcomed Surakiart’s role to help implement recommendations made by a panel on Rakhine led by former UN chief Kofi Annan.
An immediate concern for the Rohingya community around the world is the bilateral deal between Dhaka and Nay Pyi Taw to repatriate the refugees to what they consider to be “prison camps” in Rakhine state.
The two countries reached an agreement in November to send refugees back to Myanmar within two years, but the process has been delayed since late January because of a lack of readiness and safety concerns.
Violence is still going on with houses being burned, lands taken and at least 55 communities being bulldozed, reportedly to make way for new “economic zones”.
“From the Myanmar government side, the attitude toward Rohingya has not changed,” said Ro Tun Khin, “We belong to Myanmar. We are not asking for a separate state. We want our rights and we want a protected return to a protected homeland.”