Myanmar’s government is coming under increasing criticism for its handling of the crises in Rakhine state where an army crackdown may have killed more than 1,000 Rohingya Muslims.
While the actual number of dead in the western state that borders Bangladesh is disputed by the government, which has demanded more evidence from its critics, the crisis has brought international condemnation from human rights organizations, the United Nations, and the Vatican.
In his weekly general audience Pope Francis rebuked the Myanmar government for a campaign that has led to reports Rohingyas have been tortured and killed because of their religion.
“They are good people, they are not Christians, they are peaceful people, they are our brothers and sisters and for years they have been suffering, they are being tortured and killed, simply because they uphold their Muslim faith,” he said, according to a report by Vatican Radio.
Pope Francis' remarks come after a U.N. “flash report” detailed killings, rapes, forced disappearances, and other abuses committed against Rohingya Muslims allegedly by Myanmar security forces.
The U.N. report found that it was “very likely” that the abuses are “crimes against humanity.” While the U.N. report detailed some of the alleged abuses, a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) went even further.
The U.S.-based investigative nongovernmental organization on Feb. 6 detailed how “Burmese army and Border Guard Police personnel took part in rape, gang rape, invasive body searches, and sexual assaults in at least nine villages in Maungdaw district between Oct. 9 and mid-December.”
“These horrific attacks on Rohingya women and girls by security forces add a new and brutal chapter to the Burmese military’s long and sickening history of sexual violence against women,” said Priyanka Motaparthy, HRW’s senior emergencies researcher.
Military and police responsibility
“Military and police commanders should be held responsible for these crimes if they did not do everything in their power to stop them or punish those involved,” Motaparthy said.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was “horrified" by the Human Rights Watch report, according to U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric who gave the U.N. chief's reaction to the findings on Tuesday.
A separate report by ND-Burma, an organization comprised of 13 Burmese human rights organizations, found 154 human rights violations nationwide in 2016—almost double the 84 violations recorded in 2015.
Torture was the most common human rights violation, the organization found, with 67 cases recorded in 2016 compared with 26 in 2015.
The majority of abuses were perpetrated by government forces, with the rest having been committed by armed ethnic organizations, the group said. The report did not specifically focus on Rakhine state or the Rohingya and found most of the abuses were in northern Shan state where ethnic armies are fighting the national military.
“We believe that the legal immunity enjoyed by the army under the 2008 Constitution has allowed the military to continue committing human rights violations with impunity, resulting in this depressing spike in human rights violations,” said ND-Burma management board member Moon Nay Li.
Meanwhile Reuters reported that more than 1,000 Rohingya Muslims may have been killed in the crackdown by Myanmar’s military.
"The talk until now has been of hundreds of deaths. This is probably an underestimation-—we could be looking at thousands," a U.N. official told Reuters.
Reuters based its report on information provided by two U.N. officials who in separate interviews cited the weight of testimony gathered by their agencies from refugees over the past four months in concluding the death toll likely exceeded 1,000.
Government questions casualty reports
Myanmar's presidential spokesman Zaw Htay said the latest reports from military commanders were that fewer than 100 people have been killed in the counterinsurgency operation against Rohingya militants who attacked police border posts in October.
Asked about the U.N. officials' comments that the dead could number more than 1,000, he told Reuters: "Their number is much greater than our figure. We have to check on the ground."
About 1.1 million Rohingya Muslims live in apartheid-like conditions in northwestern Myanmar, where they are denied citizenship. Many in Buddhist-majority Myanmar regard them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and refer to them as Bengalis.
Last week the government led by Aung San Suu Kyi promised to investigate the allegations in the report. It has previously denied almost all accusations of killings, rapes and arson.
But mounting evidence of atrocities by the military puts Aung San Suu Kyi, who has no authority over the armed forces under a constitution written by the previous military government, in a difficult position.
The Nobel peace prize winner has faced criticism from the West for her silence on the issue, but challenging the generals is risky as it could put Myanmar's democratic transition in jeopardy.
Bengali broadcasts ignite protests
Aung San Suu Kyi's tenuous position is underscored by the announcement of protests in 13 states over a decision by the Ministry of Information’s decision to broadcast in the local Bengali dialect in Buthidaung, Maungdaw and Rathedaung townships in northern Rakhine state.
“We cannot accept the decision of the government that was made without consulting the local people” Maung Maung Thet, a local protestor told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“It is an insult to all ethnics that the authorities are making plans to give these non-citizens priority and broadcast in the Bengali dialect when our nationals are not getting programs in our own dialects,” Maung Maung Thet said.
Rakhine state parliament members also plan to object to the program when the state’s parliament reconvenes on Feb 20.
The Ministry of Information defended the programs in a statement, saying that they are meant to give the latest news to people in those areas and that no other groups have been allowed to make such broadcasts.
A lot of false and fabricated news has come out during the recent conflict in Maungdaw, and the government wants area residents to learn the truth about the work of various government ministries, the ministry said. The broadcasts are in Burmese, Rakhine, and a local Bengali dialect.
Reported and translated by RFA's Myanmar Service. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.