The Myanmar military carried out systematic killings and rapes of several hundred Rohingya men, women, and children during a crackdown in northern Rakhine state, according to a report issued by an international human rights group on Tuesday.
The 30-page report by New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the Myanmar army trapped and massacred Rohingya residents of Tula Toli village, known officially as Min Gyi, in Maungdaw township on Aug. 30.
The massacre occurred during a brutal military crackdown targeting Rohingya in northern Rakhine’s Maungdaw, Buithidaung, and Rathedaung townships following deadly attacks on police outposts by a Muslim militant group on Aug. 25. The campaign forced nearly 650,000 Rohingya to flee to neighboring Bangladesh where they now live in massive refugee camps.
Rights groups, including HRW, the United Nations, and the United States say the atrocities amount to crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.
Based in part on interviews with 18 survivors of the massacre who fled to Bangladesh, the report details the army’s trapping of Tula Toli’s 4,300 Rohingya residents along a riverbank where soldiers shot, hacked to death, and raped residents while torching their village.
Soldiers and ethnic Rakhine villagers burned the bodies in pits they dug in the sand to try to destroy evidence of the slaughter, HRW said.
“The Burmese army’s atrocities at Tula Toli were not just brutal, they were systematic,” said Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director, in a statement. “Soldiers carried out killings and rapes of hundreds of Rohingya with a cruel efficiency that could only come with advance planning.”
HRW used satellite imagery to confirm the complete destruction of Tula Toli and nearby Dual Toli village, which together contained 746 buildings, while neighboring non-Muslim villages remained untouched.
HRW also issued a report on Monday with new satellite images showing that 40 Rohingya villages had been destroyed by fire since October and November in northern Rakhine, at a time when the Myanmar government was in talks with Bangladesh about a plan to return Rohingya who had fled during the crackdown.
The two countries signed an agreement on Nov. 23 to allow those who wished to return to Myanmar to do so if they could prove prior residency.
‘Very general terms’
Responding to both reports, Nyan Win, spokesman of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party, said HRW’s information was based on generalities.
“They are saying this in very general terms, and they should come up with solid facts,” he told RFA’s Myanmar service.
“International organizations have mixed the information they got with actual facts and have distorted them,” Nyan Win said. “If they know the exact facts, then they can inform us with evidence, and we will do what we need to.”
Myanmar’s government and military have repeatedly denied accusations that soldiers committed atrocities in northern Rakhine state, with the army completing its own investigation which cleared security forces of committing any violent acts.
But the country’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi or military commander Senior General Min Aung Hlaing may one day face genocide charges at an international court, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the U.N.’s high commissioner for human rights told the BBC on Monday.
“It’s very hard to establish because the thresholds are high,” Zeid said during the interview. “But it wouldn’t surprise me in the future if the court were to make such a finding on the basis of what we see.”
On Tuesday, Win Myat Aye, Myanmar’s minister for social welfare, relief, and resettlement, said Zeid’s talk of genocide was unfounded.
“I don’t want to comment on what Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said about genocide in Myanmar because it is not true at all,” he told RFA. “The current government has responded immediately about what it has to [about Zeid’s comments].”
Nyan Win also denied that there was genocide in the country.
“There is no genocide in Myanmar,” he said. “Talking about genocide in Myanmar is based on incorrect views, thoughts, and information.”
Mass grave investigated
Meanwhile, the Myanmar army said it is investigating a mass grave where 10 bodies were found in Inn Din village in Maungdaw township, one of three areas affected by the violence.
“A group was formed this morning to investigate the mass grave site,” said Maungdaw township lawmaker Hla Tun Kyaw. “The group has five members, including medical doctors, a forensics expert, police, a judge, and an administrator. They went to the cemetery to see the bodies.”
The group led by Maungdaw district administrator Ye Htut together with township judge Zaw Than, Inn Din village police officer Aye Min Tun, township doctor Kyaw Maung Thein, and assistant doctor Myat Tun Khine found the bodies, though their identities could not be established, according to an announcement on Monday by Min Aung Hlaing’s office.
If investigators determine that security forces were involved in this case, they will be prosecuted, according to the announcement.
Also on Tuesday, a Myanmar delegation with officials from the foreign affairs and immigration ministries arrived in Bangladesh to finalize the agreement signed on Nov. 23 for the voluntary return of Rohingya refugees. The two countries are forming a working group to carry out the repatriation program, which Myanmar will begin on Jan. 22.
“The delegation group is visiting Bangladesh because the joint agreement said a committee would be formed in three weeks to begin accepting refugees,” said Win Myat Aye. “It seems they are working according to the agreement.”
Rights groups, including HRW, have criticized the agreement for not including the United Nations in the repatriation plan, for an unrealistic timetable for voluntary returns, and for continued discrimination against the Rohingya, who are considered by Myanmar to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and are denied citizenship and access to basic services.
By Thiri Min Zin, Khin Khin Ei, Thinn Thiri, Kyaw Thu, Thant Zin Oo, and Aung Theinkha for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.