When mob was Rohingya, Myanmar’s response ruthless
Sectarian violence has gripped this predominantly Buddhist nation of 60 million in the last 16 months
Noor Jaan lifted her black Islamic veil and recalled the last time she saw her husband. He was among more than 600 Rohingya Muslim men thrown in jail in this remote corner of Myanmar during a ruthless security crackdown that followed sectarian violence, and among one in 10 who didn’t make it out alive.
Jaan said that when she visited the jail, the cells were crammed with men, hands chained behind their backs, several stripped naked. Many showed signs of torture. Her husband, Mohammad Yasim, was doubled over, vomiting blood, his hip bone shattered.
“We were all crying so loudly the walls of the prison could have collapsed,” the 40-year-old widow said.
“They killed him soon after that,” she said of her husband. Her account was corroborated by her father, 10-year-old son and a neighbor. “Other prisoners told us soldiers took his corpse and threw it in the forest.
“We didn’t even have a chance to see his body.”
The sectarian violence that has gripped this predominantly Buddhist nation of 60 million in the last 16 months has been most intense in the western state of Rakhine, where 200 people have been killed in rioting and another 140,000 forced to flee their homes. Three-quarters of the victims have been Muslims - most of them members of the minority Rohingya community - but it is they who have suffered most at the hands of security forces.
For every Buddhist arrested, jailed and convicted in connection with mob violence across Rakhine state, roughly four Rohingya went to prison, according to data compiled by The Associated Press.
Members of the ethnic minority often have been severely punished, even when there is little or no evidence of wrongdoing. For example, Amnesty International says Dr. Tun Aung was summoned by authorities to try to help ease tensions but could not quiet the agitated crowd. He was arrested a week later, labeled an agitator and is serving nine years in prison. The human-rights group calls the doctor a prisoner of conscience.
Nowhere have Rohingya - described by the U.N. as one of the most persecuted religious minorities in the world - been more zealously pursued than in northern Rakhine, which sits along the coast of the Bay of Bengal and is cut off from the rest of the country by a parallel running mountain range.
It’s home to 80 percent of Myanmar’s 1 million Rohingya. Some descend from families that have been here for generations. Others arrived more recently from neighboring Bangladesh. All have been denied citizenship, rendering them stateless. For decades, they have been unable to travel freely, practice their religion, or work as teachers or doctors. They need special approval to marry and are the only people in the country barred from having more than two children.
A half-century of brutal military rule in Myanmar ended when President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government took power in 2011. But in northern Rakhine, where Buddhist security forces have been allowed to operate with impunity, many say life has only gotten worse for Rohingya.
“As far as I know, not a single member of the security forces has even been questioned,” said the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Tomas Ojea Quintana, calling on the state to investigate allegations of official brutality.
“This government needs to understand it has a responsibility toward its people, that there has to be some accountability.”
Despite more than a half-dozen inquiries by phone and email, presidential spokesman Ye Htut refused to comment about allegations of abuse by soldiers, police and security forces linked to sectarian violence.
The AP in September became the first foreign media organization to be granted access to northern Rakhine, which has been under a government crackdown since ethnic violence erupted there on June 8, 2012.
Thousands of knife- and stick-wielding Rohingya rioted in the township of Maungdaw, killing 10 Buddhists, including a monk, and torching more than 460 Buddhist homes, according to state advocate general Hla Thein. The violence came in reaction to a deadly Buddhist attack on Muslim pilgrims in southern Rakhine that was sparked by rumors of a gang rape by Muslim men.
Most of the anti-Buddhist bloodshed occurred in Ba Gone Nar, a rambling village of 8,000 and home to Jaan and dozens of others interviewed by the AP.
Made up of dark teak homes on stilts, Ba Gone Nar is divided by a web of dusty foot paths. Residents peered cautiously through the slats of tall bamboo fences, then eagerly beckoned the journalists through their gates. Some pulled out pictures of sons, brothers or fathers who have been imprisoned since their arrests in the weeks that followed the violence.
For months, residents said, soldiers, police and members of a feared border security unit known as Nasaka showed up at homes, hauling in more than 150 men.
Those left behind have held on to whatever evidence they had, no matter how small. Men with tired, weathered faces dragged out plastic buckets filled with broken glasses, dishes, picture frames - belongings wrecked when security forces ransacked their houses.
Villagers said security forces beat them, looted gold and other valuables and raped women.
“As soon as they came inside, we couldn’t do anything,” said a 64-year-old woman who alleges she and her two daughters were raped by members of Nasaka. Her voice trembling, she asked not to be named, saying she feared reprisals.
“We were afraid. If they wanted to kill, they would,” she said, shrouding much of her face with a light blue headscarf so that she could speak on camera.
“They did whatever they wanted. Made us feel ... that we are nothing.”
Zura Khatun was among many residents who said security forces arrested relatives who had done nothing wrong. Some said people who were not even in the area at the time of the riots were taken away.
“They came into our house and destroyed everything. They didn’t even leave a single plate we were using,” said Zura Khatun, 50. “And then ... they took my 30-year-old son, Baseer.”
Noor Mamed, a neighbor, said he saw Baseer’s arrest from his home.
“Nasaka, security police and soldiers were dragging Baseer, hitting him with a gun many times, as his mother and wife begged them to stop,” the 67-year-old said. “They grabbed both his hands on one side, and his two legs on the other, and threw him onto the truck like trash.”
Zura Khatun clutched a picture of Baseer close to her chest while she was interviewed. It was taken shortly after he was detained and shows him squatting on the ground, looking up at the camera with glazed, terrified eyes.
Baseer was taken first to a detention center in Maungdaw. Days later he was taken 25 kilometers (14 miles) away to Buthidaung, where a larger jail is reserved for more hardened criminals.
“I went to see him,” said Zura Khatun, her cheeks moist with tears. “But when I got there, less than two weeks later, they turned me away. They said he was dead.”
Chris Lewa, director of Arakan Project, an independent humanitarian-based research group that has spent nearly a decade documenting abuses in the region, said 966 Rohingya from northern Rakhine were jailed after the riots: 611 in northern Rakhine jails, where 62 inmates died (all in Buthidaung), and another 287 at the jail in the state capital, Sittwe, where she tallied another six prisoner deaths.
The numbers were based on testimony from family members and released inmates. Lewa said many inmates were denied lifesaving medical treatment for injuries sustained during arrest or from torture and beatings in jail - both by wardens and Buddhist Rakhine inmates.
Quintana said he has gathered statistics on prisoner deaths that are similar to Lewa’s. He said jail conditions appeared to have improved by the time he last visited northern Rakhine in August, but he added that there were credible reports that sick, elderly and underage inmates had been temporarily moved to other locations before his visit.
Northern Rakhine is the only place in Myanmar where Buddhists were the main targets of mob violence, and the only place in the country where most people are Muslim. Hla Thein said that across Rakhine state, at least 147 Muslims and 58 Buddhists were killed.
Rohingya make up not only the vast majority of victims, but the vast majority of suspects. Data collected from rights groups, courts, police and other officials indicate that at least 1,000 mostly Rohingya Muslims and 260 Buddhists were arrested following the statewide riots.
More than 900 trials have been held in northern Rakhine, all against Rohingya, according to Lewa. Three were sentenced to life in prison in August for the killing of the monk, she said, and many others got up to 17 years behind bars. Those accused of lesser crimes such as arson got between three and 10 years.
Less than a dozen have been acquitted.
Many defendants were tried without the benefit of defense lawyers, Lewa said. There were no translators or family members present. Some were tried collectively, according to Quintana.
“These kinds of proceedings are not following any kind of process of law or judicial guarantees,” he said. “In many cases, it’s not clear what charges have been filed against each of these prisoners.”
One of the only steps the government has taken to address abuses since the sectarian crisis flared has been to disband Nasaka in July, largely over fears the U.S. was preparing to slap it with sanctions.
The announcement won international praise. But Thein Sein’s government has made no effort to explain what happened to its former members. Human-rights activists and Rohingya speculate that they were simply transferred to other units.
During the AP’s visit to northern Rakhine, one soldier escorting Myanmar dignitaries carried a gun with a Nasaka insignia. And officials said a new security force made up of police and immigration officers, operating out of the old Nasaka camp, has assumed many of the responsibilities that the former, feared border security unity held.
“They are no different than Nasaka. So don’t start thinking about freedom.”
Ba Thun Aung, the Buddhist Rakhine administrator of Ba Gone Nar, told Rohingya villagers, according to his own account.
Ba Thun Aung said that among other things, the new force is tasked with keeping much-hated family lists in which Rohingya are registered or “blacklisted.”
Children born to unwed parents, or those who have already met a two-child limit imposed only on Rohingya, are not recognized by the government and are not eligible for such basics as public education and health care.
With no ethnic violence in northern Rakhine for more than a year, some Rohingya say security forces aren’t as brutal as they once were.
But some, like Jaan, whose husband was killed in jail, have lost hope that the persecution of their people will ever end.
“It’s better,” she said, “if Allah just takes our lives.”