By Fiona MacGregor / The Myanmar Times
Dozens of Muslim women have allegedly been raped by state security forces in northern Rakhine State during counter-insurgency operations there, according to rights groups citing “credible” sources. Tight military controls in the region, including shutting out international humanitarian organisations, means independent verification has not been possible.
Around 30 women are reported to have been raped by security forces in a single village on October 19, according to Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, a Rohingya rights organisation.
Ms Lewa said she had also received additional reports of five girls aged between 16 and 18 being raped in another village on October 25 and two women at another location on October 20.
On October 25, the Burma Human Rights Network (BHRN) released a statement saying it was “extremely concerned” over at least 10 alleged rape cases that had been documented by civilians in Maungdaw township since the military operation had begun there, including one woman who was three months pregnant and later suffered a miscarriage.
“The Burmese government is deliberately violating international law and committing crimes that it promised the world they would refrain from,” said U Kyaw Win of the BHRN, referring to the Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict.
The reports of widespread sexual assaults come as security forces in the area hunt for those behind three deadly attacks on border police posts on October 9, believed to have been carried out by Rohingya insurgents.
Ms Lewa said, “[The security personnel] look down on women and Rohingya women in particular. These women are very vulnerable, especially when the men have fled the villages.”
A large swathe of northern Rakhine State has been under military lockdownsince the October 9 attacks, with local residents reporting extrajudicial killings, torture, large-scale evictions, and the burning and looting of property.
Many villages are reported by sources on the ground to be lying entirely empty, with an estimated 10,000 Rohingya people believed to have been displaced. In other villages men have fled fearing they will be accused of being insurgents and shot or arrested by authorities, leaving women vulnerable to assault, those sources on the ground have added.
International groups including the UN and INGOs have demanded that the government allow an independent investigation into the series of alleged human rights violations emerging from northern Rakhine State.
Authorities have denied that rights abuses are being perpetrated, and reports have remained impossible to independently verify as even humanitarian and aid organisations are being denied access to the area, where food and medical supplies are running low for tens of thousands of people.
Following calls from UN human rights experts for access to the area, President’s Office spokesperson U Zaw Htay told The Irrawaddy on October 25, “We haven’t done anything lawless.”
Women’s rights organisations have published numerous reports detailing incidents of sexual assault and rape by the Tatmadaw, particularly in ethnic minority areas. Under the 2008 constitution members of the military have impunity for such crimes, something rights organisations have long demanded should be changed.
“The Tatmadaw have a long and well-documented history of sexually abusing women in areas where they operate, so it’s shocking but not at all surprising that these kinds of reports about multiple rapes are coming out of northern Rakhine State. The question is what is [State Counsellor Daw] Aung San Suu Kyi and the government of Burma prepared to do about it because this is a real test of their political commitment to respect rights,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division.
Initial reports of the October 19 mass rape incident in U Shey Kya village began appearing on social media on October 21. The Rohingya Blogger website alleged it had received the names of at least 10 women, including two girls aged 15, who had been raped in that incident. However, Ms Lewa said two separate sets of research conducted by her organisation since then had found the number of alleged victims to been around 30. The names of about two-thirds of the victims have been recorded. The two sets of reports had been consistent with one another, she said, though she added that accounts had differed as to whether the alleged rapes were carried out solely by members of the military or whether members of the Border Police Force had also been involved.
Social media have also included reports of rapes in recent days.
The increasing reports of rape have added to further demands for immediate action.
“First, the government needs to order the Tatmadaw to let the humanitarian agencies and international observers into these areas where the military is running roughshod over the Rohingya. And the government needs to immediately launch an independent investigation of these abuses, leading to the criminal prosecution of any soldiers found to have engaged in such abuses and commanders who looked the other way as their troops committed these crimes,” said Mr Robertson.
“It will not pass the laugh test if the government lets the Tatmadaw respond by itself to these serious charges, because the military have regularly sought to cover up these kinds of crimes by their troops in the past.”