A report issued by the United States on Monday determined that violence committed by Myanmar security forces against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state last year was ‘extreme, large-scale, and widespread,” but failed to describe the atrocities as amounting to crimes against humanity or genocide.
The violence, which included murder, rape, and village burnings, forced more than 700,000 Rohingya across the border and into Bangladesh where they are living in sprawling displacement camps. The U.S., United Nations, and other countries have previously said that the crackdown amounted to ethnic cleansing.
The 20-page State Department report is based on a survey conducted earlier this year of more than 1,024 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh who fled the crackdown, many of whom witnessed killings and sexual assaults carried out in most instances by the Myanmar military.
“The survey reveals that the recent violence in northern Rakhine state was extreme, large-scale, widespread, and seemingly geared toward both terrorizing the population and driving out the Rohingya residents,” the report says.
“The scope and scale of the military's operations indicate they were well-planned and coordinated,” it says.
A comprehensive report issued last week by a United Nations-mandated fact-finding mission that investigated atrocities committed against the Rohingya provided chilling details of violence by security forces and called for the prosecution of defense force commanders for genocide, as well as the removal of the country’s military from politics.
That report was released the same day as the chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court announced that she was opening a preliminary probe into whether Myanmar’s “forced deportations” of Rohingya to Bangladesh constituted war crimes or crimes against humanity.
Crimes against humanity and genocide are specific crimes under international law that carry serious legal consequences, whereas ethnic cleansing is not.
The Myanmar government has denied that its security forces were responsible for most of the atrocities during the crackdown and has defended the military campaign as a necessary operation against a Rohingya militant group that carried out deadly attacks on police outposts in August 2017.
“The State Department’s report, confirming the systematic brutality of the Burmese military operations, should jolt the U.S. into action,” said Sarah Margon, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, in a statement issued Tuesday. “Now, having thoroughly documented the grave abuses against the Rohingya, the U.S. should immediately move to build support for international measures to ensure justice and accountability.”
Meanwhile, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., on Monday announced U.S. $185 million in new humanitarian assistance for people in Myanmar and Bangladesh affected by the crisis in Rakhine state, most of which is earmarked for shelter, food, water, and health care for Rohingya refugees in displacement camps in Bangladesh.
“We continue to call on the Burmese government to do more to hold those who have engaged in ethnic cleansing accountable for their atrocities, end the violence, and allow full humanitarian and free press access,” Haley said in a statement.
‘It was like that’
A Rohingya refugee living in the Kutupalong camp in southeastern Bangladesh on Tuesday corroborated the findings in the U.S.’s report, telling RFA’s Myanmar Service that he and others from Aung Sitpyan village in northern Rakhine state fled in August 2017 because Myanmar government soldiers set fire to their homes and killed people.
“Yes, it was like that,” Maung Maung Tin said. “Soldiers raped a group of women and set them on fire in a house. We have one woman who escaped from these soldiers.”
After soldiers burned his village — located about nine miles from a new processing center for returning Rohingya refugees in Taung Pyo Letwe village — residents fled to the border area where they stayed for three or four days, he said.
He denied that the Rohingya villagers themselves torched their own villages, as the Myanamar government and others in the region have claimed.
“They [Myanmar soldiers] did it,” he said. “We saw them do it with our own eyes.”
Maung Maung Tin also said that about 1,500 Rohingya women now living in the Kutupalong camp had been raped by Myanmar soldiers, and two of them had babies as a result of the attacks, while others terminated their pregnancies because of their religious beliefs.
Though Myanmar has said that it is ready to take back Rohingya refugees who can prove prior residency in Rakhine, Maung Maung Tin suggested that most refugees will not return because the government’s efforts are not sincere.
“We would return home if the Myanmar government asked us to return with goodwill, but it asks without goodwill,” he said. “It only asked us to return home to lessen the pressure it’s getting from the international community.”
He added that if the refugees decided to return, they would want to live in their former places of residence and not be housed in camps in the state.
“We lost our houses, land, and farms,” he said. “They have to compensate us for them. They now say they will place us in new houses, building in new places. We can’t live in these houses because we might face a situation in which we have to flee to Bangladesh again if we accept living in these new houses.”
“That’s why we are not returning home,” he said.
Call for ID program suspension
Also on Tuesday, the Rakhine state parliament urged the Union government of Myanmar to suspend the National Registration Card (NRC) process for ethnic Kamans in the state, arguing that immigration officials have been falsely registering Rohingya Muslims as members of the ethnic Kaman group.
NRCs, also known as pink cards, grant full citizenship to those to whom they are issued in line with Myanmar's 1982 Citizenship Law.
The Rohingya are considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and are not listed as one of Myanmar’s 135 official ethnic groups, whereas the predominantly Muslim Kamans are an official ethnic minority.
Than Maung, a lawmaker representing the Ramree constituency, submitted the proposal for consideration during the state parliament’s daily session.
There are currently about 200 of a total 7,000 Muslims in Ramree’s Kyauk Ni Maw village tract who are authentic Kaman, based on voter records from the 2015 general elections when 290 residents had ID cards identifying them as Kaman. But now more than 3,300 villagers have IDs listing them as Kaman.
Kyaw Aye Thein, Rakhine state’s minister of finance, revenue, planning, and economy, said during the session that the suspension of citizen analysis efforts had been followed by transferring registration forms to the appropriate Union-government ministry.
During the meeting, the state government urged the Union government to reevaluate those in Ramree city who have ID cards identifying them as members of the Kaman ethnic group and to revoke the cards of those who are incorrectly registered.
A majority of lawmakers voted in favor of the proposal.
“Given the current situation, we are suspending the identification programs in Ramree,” Kyaw Aye Thein said.
The Union minister of labor, immigration, and population will also be presenting the matter to the national parliament to reevaluate the situation and resume the identification program, he said.
“The government needs to avoid issuing IDs identifying Rohingya Muslims as Kamans as a measure to decrease pressure from the international community,” said Tun Aung Thein, a regional lawmaker from Buithidaung district.
“It needs to work on the ID process with transparency and in accordance with the law, because nothing should be above the law,” he said.
But lawmaker Min Aung, a member of the ruling National League for Democracy who represents Taungup township, opposed the proposal, saying that the state government has no authority to influence the Union government.
Reported by Tin Aung Khine and Thein Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.