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    When mob was Rohingya, Myanmar’s response ruthless

    November 24, 2013

    BA GONE NAR, Myanmar (AP) — 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, her 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,” she said.
    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 Htutrefused 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,” she said.
    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.”

    In this Sept. 12, 2013 photo, a Muslim woman records her movements at a security checkpoint as a man and a child wait for their turn in Kyark Pan Du village, Maungdaw, Rakhine state, Myanmar. A state of emergency declared after last year’s sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslims, meant that Rohingya were barred from traveling, even from one village to the next. Rohingya still can’t go outside northern Rakhine, not even for emergency medical care. Photo: Gemunu Amarasinghe, AP