Myanmar rejects evidence gathered by human rights researchers that supports charges by the United Nations Security Council that its soldiers raped at least 300 Rohingya Muslim women and girls during a crackdown in Rakhine state last year, a government spokesman said on Wednesday.
On Monday, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres issued his annual report on conflict-related sexual violence and cited Myanmar’s armed forces as one of 47 parties in 19 countries that committed such violence in armed conflict during 2017.
About 700,000 Rohingya fled violence that included killings, rape, and arson, during the crackdown that began in northern Rakhine on Aug. 25 following deadly attacks on police outposts by a Muslim militant group.
“The widespread threat and use of sexual violence was integral to this strategy, serving to humiliate, terrorize and collectively punish the Rohingya community, as a calculated tool to force them to flee their homelands and prevent their return,” Guterres said in the report.
Human rights activist and lawyer Razia Sultana told the Security Council meeting on sexual violence in conflict that her own research and interviews of Rohingya provided evidence that soldiers raped more than 300 women and girls in 17 villages in Rakhine state.
Hau Do Suan, Myanmar’s permanent representative to the U.N., rejected the accusations that the army used sexual violence as a strategy to force the Rohingya to flee their homes.
He told the U.N. on Monday that the decision to list the military in the report was done based on unverified allegations despite attempts to interview alleged victims living in mass displacement camps in southeastern Bangladesh.
Repeating what has been Myanmar’s stock reaction to widely available evidence of atrocities in Rakhine, Hau Do Suan also expressed disappointment that Myanmar’s request for proper investigations had been denied. He said that if there is concrete evidence of such crimes, the country will take action against perpetrators in accordance with the law without impunity.
Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay repeated Hau Do Suan’s assertion that Myanmar officials would launch an investigation and take action against perpetrators when presented with evidence and more information about charges related to the more than 300 rape cases.
“It’s a baseless accusation that sexual violence was used as a weapon to force them [the Rohingya] to flee their homes,” he said. “Even an ordinary person can see that 300 rape cases in 17 villages is impossible.”
Zaw Htay told RFA’s Myanmar Service that when a delegation from Maungdaw township — the focal point of the crackdown along with neighboring Buithdaung and Rathedaung townships — visited Bangladesh, its members heard many “stories” about attacks by the military.
“OK, so let us know the details like who, where, and when these cases occurred,” Zaw Htay said. “Then we'll launch an investigation.”
He also said when members of the Rakhine State Inquiry Commission visited Bangladesh last year, they could not see any of the victims, because they talked to them through a curtain.
A team led by Win Myat Aye, Myanmar’s minister of social welfare, relief, and resettlement, that met with Rohingya living in displacement camps in Bangladesh earlier this month did not “get any solid evidence” of sexual violations, he said.
Rohingya residents, however, complained that the minister spoke without listening to them, while protesters unfurled a banner calling him a collaborator in and denier of genocide against Rohingya in Rakhine state and rejected the delegation’s appeal for them to return to Myanmar.
The U.N. report noted that “many women are reticent to return to locations still under the control of the forces that compelled them to flee, in particular in the absence of accountability, as noted by Rohingya refugees.”
No blind denial
After some Rohingya said they were raped last year, authorities asked the women to file reports with local police, but they did not, Zaw Htay said.
Then they told international media, including a reporter for The New York Times, different versions of their stories, saying that the military was gang-raping women to force them to leave, he said.
“We are not blindly denying these stories,” he said. “If the stories are found to be true, give us concrete evidence. These charges are not based on concrete evidence. The government has a zero-tolerance policy on such crimes.”
The army — which has repeatedly rejected allegations of wanton killings and other atrocities against the Rohingya — must abide by military and civilian law, and violators will be punished by both sides, he said.
In a rare move, the Myanmar military said last week that an army investigation team had concluded that the murders of 10 Rohingya civilians without legal arrest during the crackdown in Rakhine were extrajudicial killings.
Seven officers and soldiers of other ranks were found guilty of slaughtering the men and were sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Myanmar will continue to work with international bodies on resolving the Rakhine crisis and repatriating Rohingya refugees who want to voluntarily return to the country, Zaw Htay said.
But accusing the military of raping Rohingya women and girls won’t bode well for the process, he said.
“The government is looking for ways to solve the problem, and these accusations instead of helping resolve it will certainly complicate it,” Zaw Htay said. “We accept that the international community should point out the rights violations, but the charges we are hearing now will exacerbate the situation.”
‘Security Council has failed us’
At the U.N. session on Monday, Razia Sultana told the Security Council that it had failed to prevent the Rohingya refugee crisis and that it must refer sexual violence and other crimes against the Muslim group to the International Criminal Court (ICC) which prosecutes individuals for the international crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.
“Where I come from, women and girls have been gang-raped, tortured and killed by the Myanmar army, for no other reason than for being Rohingya,” Sultana, a Rohingya lawyer, said during the open debate on preventing sexual violence in conflict
“However, the international community, especially the Security Council, has failed us,” she said.
“This latest crisis should have been prevented if the warning signs since 2012 had not been ignored,” she added, referring to communal violence between Muslims and Buddhists in Rakhine state six years ago that left more than 200 dead and displaced tens of thousands.
Sultana also said the Security Council must refer the matter to the ICC without delay.
Last week, an ICC prosecutor asked the tribunal’s judges to rule on whether the body can exercise jurisdiction over the alleged deportation of the Rohingya people from Myanmar to Bangladesh.
She raised the jurisdiction issue because Bangladesh is a member of the ICC, while Myanmar is not.
Though the Myanmar government said the extension of jurisdiction is not in line with the ICC Charter and other international statutes to which the country is not a party, the pre-trial chamber agreed to hold a hearing on the issue during which Myanmar and other interested parties can state their views on the question of jurisdiction.
Reported by Thiri Min Zin for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.