The Myanmar government, including its de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, has repeatedly said that attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) forced the military (Tatmadaw) to launch a crackdown in Rakhine state.
This week a UN fact-finding mission concluded the crackdown was genocide, adding that the ARSA attacks and ensuing “clearance operations” did not occur in a vacuum: “They were foreseeable and planned.”
Between May and July last year, ultranationalist Buddhist monk Wirathu visited northern Rakhine twice to conduct sermons. The Rohingya village of Zay Di Pyin (Rathedaung Township) was besieged by Rakhine villagers and security forces throughout August, the UN report said.
Amid heightened tension before August 25, Myanmar media increasingly reported on alleged ARSA activity in a sensationalised and inflammatory manner while state-sponsored hate speech targeting the Rohingya continued, it added.
A build-up of troops and military equipment across northern Rakhine began earlier that month, following a meeting between Rakhine politicians and the Tatmadaw commander-in-chief.
Soldiers from the 33rd and 99th Light Infantry Divisions were airlifted into Rakhine along with additional military equipment.
“The increased presence was evident,” the UN report says.
Soldiers took over Border Guard Police posts. Rakhine men were recruited into the security forces. There was fast-track recruitment into the police. Local Rakhine men were mobilised and armed, the report says.
This build-up required logistical planning and time to implement and indicated that the subsequent operations were foreseen and planned.
The UN report also contains recommendations of the mission on Myanmar.
The three-member mission, established by the UN Human Rights Council last year, meticulously assembled hundreds of accounts of displaced Rohingya, along with research, analysis, satellite footage and other information to prepare the report.
While Myanmar claimed its “clearance operations” ended on September 5 last year, the UN probe found military engagement continued well into October. Freedom of movement was further constrained, restricting remaining Rohingya to their houses, with limited access to markets and livelihoods and exacerbating malnutrition.
“Humanitarian access was severely restricted or blocked. Conversely, no protection was provided to Rohingya against vigilante attacks and the theft of property, livestock and other possessions by civilians of other ethnic groups. Sporadic attacks, including sexual violence, continued. These factors forced more Rohingya to Bangladesh, an average rate of 1,733 per month since the beginning of 2018.”
The mass displacement and burning of Rohingya villages was followed by systematic appropriation of emptied land. Bulldozers flattened, burned and damaged even surviving structures to erase trace of the Rohingya and destroy criminal evidence.
In the place of Rohingya villages, new structures for security forces and new housing for other ethnic groups were built.
While Myanmar’s government has, in principle, committed to Rohingya repatriation, nothing thus far indicates this will be in a manner ensuring respect for human rights, essential for a safe, dignified and sustainable return of the refugees from Bangladesh.
“The root causes of the exodus, including state-sanctioned oppression and an exclusionary and divisive rhetoric, are denied and continue unabated.”
What happened on August 25?
According to the report, ARSA in the early hours launched coordinated attacks on a military base and up to 30 security force outposts across northern Rakhine state, in an apparent response to increased pressure on Rohingya communities and with the goal of global attention.
A small number of poorly-trained leaders had guns, and a significant number of untrained villagers wielded sticks and knives. Some had improvised explosive devices. Twelve security personnel were killed.
The security forces’ response, starting within hours, was immediate, brutal and grossly disproportionate. Ostensibly to eliminate the “terrorist threat” posed by ARSA, in the days and weeks that followed, it encompassed hundreds of villages across Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Rathedaung. The operations targeted and terrorised the entire Rohingya population.