In words and pictures: The devastating cruelty of Myanmar

Muslim families are suffering horrific killings, beatings and acts of rape at the hands of Myanmar’s military claim desperate survivors that have fled to Bangladesh. The government says it will investigate. 

By Holly Reeves

An eight-month-old baby killed while five security officers gang-raped his mother. Seven members of the same family lost to a rain of bullets from a low-flying helicopter. A mother who wept that her five-year-old daughter was trying to protect her from a violent assault when a man, “took out a long knife and killed her by slitting her throat.” These are the horrifying stories that so-called Rohingya Muslims are telling United Nations (UN) staff having fled Myanmar for Bangladesh.

“What kind of ‘clearance operation’ is this? What national security goals could possibly be served by this?” asked UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein as he poured scorn on the military’s excuses. He continued, “What kind of hatred could make a man stab a baby crying out for his mother’s milk. And for the mother to witness this murder while she is being gang-raped by the very security forces who should be protecting her.”

The fleeing Rohingyas say there is widespread violence and human rights abuses

These horrific tales come from 204 of the 66,000 so-called Rohingya people estimated to now live in camps along the border of Myanmar and Bangladesh.  A 43-page report from the High Commissioner’s Office lays out what they claim; that back in their villages murder is common, that rape is widespread, that security forces are taking part, or are at least complicit in these crimes, and that people and buildings are burning. Almost two-thirds of people (64%) reported being beaten and over half of the women (52%) claim they suffered sexual violence.

There are photographs and videos taken by victims, witnesses and other interviewees that back up these allegations. The UN also has pictures of bullet and knife wounds, burns, and injuries from beatings with rifle butts or bamboo sticks. Myanmar’s officials still deny abuses are happening.

Aung San Suu Kyi is sympathetic; other officials say there has been a lot of disinformation

Aye Aye Soe, deputy director at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is quoted in the Bangkok Post saying that Myanmar would investigate. The country had been the victim of, “disinformation, misinformation and fake news” on the issue, she explained. “If we find that these allegations are true, we will take action,” the senior diplomat added.

Perennial failure Aung San Suu Kyi has even less to say. Al-Hussein told The New York Times that when he called her to ask for urgent assistance, she appeared “genuinely moved” and expressed no defensiveness or denial, but asked for further proof. She is stalling as there is nothing she can do; the military is all-powerful.

The military is above justice

“These horrific attacks on Rohingya women and girls by security forces add a new and brutal chapter to the Burmese military’s long and sickening history of sexual violence against women,” said advocacy group Human Rights Watch’s senior emergencies researcher, Priyanka Motaparthy. She optimistically believes,”Military and police commanders should be held responsible for these crimes.”

Phyu Phyu Sann, Senior Burma Researcher at the Global Justice Center in New York, explained that actually, “The 2008 Constitution drafted by the military was a deliberate attempt to shield Myanmar, formerly Burma, from the reach of international law protecting human rights. It remains one of the critical barriers to access to justice, including for women and girls, who continue to be raped as a weapon of war.”

The stories continue to roll in as Aung San Suu Kyi and human rights defenders talk. “The military dragged my grandmother and grandfather out of their house. First, they were severely beaten, then tied to a tree. The military then put dried grass, woods around them and set them on fire,” another eyewitness to atrocities told UN staff.

Survivors also tell stories of slaughtered animals, spoiled crops and supplies, mosques razed to the ground and pregnant women and girls beaten so severely that their unborn children die. Entire families, including the young, old and disabled, are supposed to have been locked in burning buildings until every one of them was dead.

Access to the most dangerous areas remains tightly restricted

These stories are incredibly hard to read, but there is a more painful truth. There are currently more than 24,000 people displaced in northern Maungdaw township, say aid workers, and they are still not allowed to offer them help outside the main centres. Access for protection activities is also severely limited.

This means there are thousands of other tragic stories playing out every day under cover of the army’s “clearance operations” that we cannot, and probably will not, ever hear. This is a disgrace. Every story on every page of this report brings further shame on Myanmar, and by association, her friends and neighbours that do nothing to stop the bloodshed. Where is ASEAN? Where is the much-needed political pressure? Where is Myanmar’s humanity?