No place to call home for Rohingya, facing abuse and attacks
ABC(NAYPYITAW, Myanmar) — There have been disturbing reports emerging out of Myanmar recently about a new wave of attacks by government forces on the Rohingya, a Muslim minority considered one of the most persecuted groups in the world.
The Rohingya have been running for their lives, hoping to escape what they believe is certain death and risking it all to cross illegally from Myanmar to Bangladesh. As of Thursday, nearly 150,000 Rohingya have crossed into Bangladesh.
And thousands more are at the border waiting to cross, according to the United Nations and International Organization for Migration. The journey can be deadly. This week, 26 women and children drowned when their small boat capsized.
There have been reports of villages surrounded and homes burned to the ground as well as torture, executions and rape. Satellite images obtained by Human Rights Watch captured pictures of devastation. Yet, international aid to the region has recently been blocked by the government.
That these events are unfolding in State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s new democratic Myanmar is all the more surprising. In 1991, she won the Nobel Peace Prize for her principled stand against tyranny.
Despite U.N. demands that Myanmar open its doors to an independent inquiry into human rights violations and possible ethnic cleansing, Suu Kyi has said she’ll deny access.
“I don’t think there is ethnic cleansing going on,” she told the BBC in an April interview. “I think ethnic cleansing is too strong an expression to use for what is happening. I think there is a lot of hostility there. It is Muslims killing Muslims as well.
She added, “It is not just a matter of ethnic cleansing, as you put it. It is a matter of people on different sides of the divide, and this divide we are trying to close up as best as possible.”
Suu Kyi did not respond to an ABC News request for an interview. She did tell the BBC in the April interview that she does not agree with her critics.
“They condemn me because I don’t say what they want me to say,” she said. “I will not condemn one group over another.”
Even calls for cooperation and restraint from U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley, Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai and Pope Francis have gone unanswered.
“Sad news has reached us of the persecution of our Rohingya brothers and sisters. … Let us pray for our Rohingya brethren,” Pope Francis said in August.
Life for the Rohingya in Myanmar
In Myanmar, the Rohingya are restricted to large camps that have been called the world’s largest outdoor prison. In 2015, ABC News saw the deplorable conditions firsthand when Bob Woodruff and his team traveled to the camps. There was barbed wire everywhere and armed officers at the few exits.
In March, the head of the Myanmar military reaffirmed its hard-line stance that the Rohingya do not exist.
“I would like to make sure the world knows there are no Rohingya in Myanmar,” Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing said. “The people living in Rakhine state are Bengali. … They came from outside and are residing in our country.”
However, the Myanmar military later said its “nonexistent” Rohingya have created an extremist terrorist organization called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). The military said the group is fomenting revolution and is responsible for attacks on dozens of police posts, a military base and even civilians.
In Bangladesh, ABC News spoke with many who say they survived government attacks. Villagers shared stories of risking their lives to record abuse with their cellphones. Videos capture the markings of torture and beatings as well as villagers painfully searching for loved ones in the ashes.
Matthew Smith, CEO of Fortify Rights, and his team have been documenting what they said are atrocities for years.
“The level of persecution is severe and has been for a very long time, and the civilian population is facing a significant existential threat from the Myanmar military and other state security forces,” Smith said. “In some cases, there are photos and videos of women explaining rape that they had endured, videos of injuries, gunshot wounds, knife wounds. There’s a whole range of evidence that has been piling up.”
In southern Bangladesh, the Rohingya refugee camps are easy to spot. Resources are very limited. Black tarps serving as shelters dot the hills, and women and children can be seen begging by the side of the road. Smith told ABC News the particular camp had been established in the 1990s.
“This is an old one. It’s the oldest,” he said, “but these are all new arrivals here.”
Most of the new arrivals escaped with only the clothes on their backs. Their makeshift homes are empty of any belongings. They have no money. Children are suffering from acute malnutrition. And Bangladesh said it does not want them.
“The Bangladesh authorities won’t allow the UN agencies to register official refugee status,” Smith said. “They don’t want to draw more refugees into Bangladesh, but the reality is that people are fleeing for their lives. The Bangladesh authorities could certainly do a lot more to provide protection for refugees here.”
The Naf River separates Myanmar from Bangladesh. Rakhine state, on the Myanmar side, is reported to be where the attacks against the Rohingya are unfolding and also where the government now says it is fighting terrorists.
“The military enjoys complete impunity, and as long as that persists and as long as the Rohingya are denied their citizenship rights, I’m afraid we’re going to see more attacks just like we’ve been seeing recently,” Smith said.
Attah Ullah speaks
ABC News reached out to Attah Ullah, the leader of ARSA, through various networks on the ground. A hunted man with a price on his head, Ullah spoke with ABC News via cellphone and Skype. He remains in the jungles of Myanmar, but admitted to attacking police outposts.
“Their brutal military government has treated the Rohingya people like animals — that’s what we are fighting against,” Ullah said. “They have checkposts everywhere. The Rohingya can’t go anywhere, no rights. This is why we fight.”
“We are not terrorists,” he added. “We are working for the Rohingya people and their rights.”
When ABC News asked whether ARSA had any connections to ISIS or al Qaeda, Ullah said no.
“We have no connections. We don’t even want to connect with terrorist groups,” he said. “We don’t have any connections.”
He said that if he had a chance to meet with Suu Kyi, he’d tell her “to provide all the rights of the Rohingya people back to them. They want their rights back.”
With reports of new attacks by the insurgents and the government responding with “clearance operations,” any change of stance from Myanmar or Suu Kyi now seems unlikely. Fortify Rights’ Smith said Suu Kyi’s reputation internationally was suffering.
“Since October, she’s essentially spearheaded a propaganda campaign denying that human rights violations are taking place in the face of massive amounts of evidence,” he said. “She’s not providing the moral leadership. She’s not providing the sort of practical, political leadership that she should be.”
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