Myanmar’s rapists and butchers must be held to account
By KERRY KENNEDY, President of RFK Human Rights JULY 20, 2018 2:24 PM (UTC+8)
I have spent the last 10 days in Myanmar and Bangladesh, speaking with refugees, IDPs, members of the Rakhine and Rohingya community, human rights defenders and government officials about the massive attacks on the Rohingya people.
Our interest in Myanmar is based on our support for all the people of that great country, who seek democracy, peace, and a society based on a common understanding of humanity. We consider ourselves friends of Myanmar. We do not want this great country to return to the bad old days of isolation and unrelenting sanctions. We believe that both the United States and Myanmar will be best served by increasing the strength of our relationship, including in trade, aid, and military cooperation.
But none of that can happen until the elements of Myanmar security forces are held accountable for the crimes it has committed. Aspirations for a more free and prosperous country, connected to the West, cannot be realized in the context of genocide and impunity for the perpetrators of that terrible crime.
Everything we heard from Rohingya women and men, both in the refugee camps in Bangladesh and the Internally Displaced Person camps in Rakhine State, Myanmar, as well as all the evidence we have seen, point to genocide. Nothing we heard from government sources credibly rebutted that overwhelming evidence.
We spent two days taking testimonies from survivors in the camps in Cox’s Bazar, the largest refugee camp on earth, on the southern tip of Bangladesh. The camp is a spaghetti bowl of narrow alleys, dotted with rudimentary shelters precariously clinging to slippery slopes, seemingly ready to slide.
Drenched and covered in mud, my daughter Cara and I carefully hung our umbrellas on the bamboo rafters outside one of the more stable huts, removed sludge-soaked sneakers and socks and entered a pristine room, cleared of all furnishings save a few mats, the thatched walls protected from rain by blue tarps stamped “made in So Korea.”
We sat on the floor along with five women dressed in burkhas, their heads draped in hijabs. Two were our young Rohingya interpreters, both students aspiring for university degrees, their faces open and bright, their English, learned in the camp, flawless — a tribute to their thirst for knowledge in a place where most schooling ends after the fifth grade. Three women, newly arrived to the camps, greeted us warmly, carefully unhitched their veils, and told us about their families, the homes they fled, their lives in the camps.
We talked for hours, interrupted only when the monsoon rains pounded the tin roof with such force we could not hear one another. Children peaked through paneless windows. A curious but shy toddler wrapped himself in the colorful drape that served as a doorway to an adjoining room. When a tray of coffee and biscuits passed through the curtain, he carefully unfurled himself, and briefly joined our small circle, emboldened by the lure of a sweet treat.
A woman who I will call M is 36 years old. She said: “My home is near a security forces outpost. On August 25 at 12pm the security forces starting shooting. They shot all day and night, and finally stopped at 5am. I saw them kill 12 people at the outpost alone. They burned our village, and when people ran from their burning homes they captured the beautiful women. I knew it was for rape. They didn’t rape me, I think because I speak Rakhine and work as a translator. I knew two women taken by the police. When I inquired about the women, I heard that the women were dead.”
T arrived on August 27 last year. She said when the military came to her village they burned all the homes. She saw them rape three women. As they left the village, she said: “Security forces just started shooting people. They killed two little children who were running away.”
J arrived on August 29. She was at home when soldiers burned her village and started shooting her friends.
Elsewhere at Cox’s, another woman told us she was raped by many soldiers. She said she is always in pain and is still bleeding — then she lifted her dress and showed us the fresh blood on her slip. One after another, women told us the details of their terror, of watching in horror as soldiers burned their villages, gang-raped women, murdered men and boys, raped girls – 5, 6, 7 years old, set flames to mosques, rounded people up and threw their bodies into mass graves.
While Cara and I spoke with women, our colleagues from Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights spoke with men, and heard horrific reports of mass graves, burned villages, children tortured, parents forced to watch soldiers gang-rape daughters and wives, a breastfeeding woman’s infant torn from her arms and tossed into a pyre.
Each woman told us about their lives, their families, their children, their loved ones raped, murdered, their homes destroyed, their communities burnt to the ground. And then each one talked about what they wanted — to return home. To be finally given the citizenship papers denied them by successive Myanmar regimes.
To have good schools for their children and access to healthy food for their families. To be allowed to move freely throughout their country. To enjoy the protection of the police, and the respect and friendship of their neighbors. The Rohingya are indigenous to Myanmar and are tied to the land in Rakhine State in a profound way. Bangladesh is not their home, and they wish to return as soon as it is safe.