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When mob was Rohingya, Myanmar’s response ruthless


By ROBIN McDOWELL
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