Reuters report on Myanmar massacre brings calls for independent probe

Ten Rohingya Muslim men with their hands bound kneel as members of the Myanmar security forces stand guard in Inn Din village September 2, 2017.

(Reuters) – A Reuters investigation into the killing of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar prompted a demand from Washington for a credible probe into the bloodshed there and calls for the release of two journalists who were arrested while working on the report.

The special report, published overnight, lays out events leading up to the killing of 10 Rohingya men from Inn Din village in Rakhine state who were buried in a mass grave after being hacked to death or shot by Buddhist neighbors and soldiers.

“As with other, previous reports of mass graves, this report highlights the ongoing and urgent need for Burmese authorities to cooperate with an independent, credible investigation into allegations of atrocities in northern Rakhine,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.

“Such an investigation would help provide a more comprehensive picture of what happened, clarify the identities of the victims, identify those responsible for human rights abuses and violations, and advance efforts for justice and accountability,” she said.

The Reuters report drew on interviews with Buddhists who confessed to torching Rohingya homes, burying bodies and killing Muslims in what they said was a frenzy of violence triggered when Rohingya insurgents attacked security posts last August.

The account marked the first time soldiers and paramilitary police have been implicated by testimony from security personnel in arson and killings in the north of Rakhine state that the United Nations has said may amount to genocide.

In the story, Myanmar said its “clearance operation” is a legitimate response to attacks by insurgents.

Asked about the evidence Reuters had uncovered about the massacre, Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay said on Thursday, before publication of the report: “We are not denying the allegations about violations of human rights. And we are not giving blanket denials.”

If there was “strong and reliable primary evidence” of abuses, the government would investigate, he said.

There was no comment from the government following the publication of the report.

“A TURNING POINT”

Nearly 690,000 Rohingya have fled their villages and crossed the border of western Myanmar into Bangladesh since August.

British Labour Party lawmaker Rosena Allin-Khan told BBC’s Newsnight that the Reuters report was consistent with accounts she had heard while working as a doctor at Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh last year.

“We’ve been bystanders to a genocide,” she said. “This evidence marks a turning point because, for the first time since this all started to unfold in August, we have heard from the perpetrators themselves.”

She said that, as well as an international probe, there needed to be a referral to the International Criminal Court.

Human Rights Watch said Myanmar’s military leaders should be held accountable in an international court for alleged crimes against the Rohingya population.

“As more evidence comes out about the pre-planning and intent of the Myanmar armed forces to wipe out Rohingya villages and their inhabitants, the international community … needs to focus on how to hold the country’s military leaders accountable,” said HRW’s deputy Asia director Phil Robertson.

Campaign group Fortify Rights also called for an independent investigation.

“The international community needs to stop stalling and do what’s necessary to hold accountable those who are responsible before evidence is tainted or lost, memories fade, and more people suffer,” said the group’s chief executive Matthew Smith.

United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, said in a tweet: “During the reporting of this article, two Reuters journalists were arrested by Myanmar police. They remain held & must absolutely be released.”

Yanghee Lee, the U.N. human rights investigator for Myanmar who has been barred from visiting the Rohingya areas, echoed that call and added in a tweet: “Independent & credible investigation needed to get to the bottom of the Inn Din massacre.”

Police arrested two Reuters reporters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, on Dec. 12 for allegedly obtaining confidential documents relating to Rakhine and have accused them of violating Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act. They are in prison while a court decides if they should be charged under the colonial-era act.

(Writing by John Chalmers; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Alex Richardson)

More Rohingya flee Myanmar as Bangladesh prepares to start repatriation

Rohingya refugees line up for daily essentials distribution at Balukhali camp, near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh January 15, 2018.

By Zeba Siddiqui

TEKNAF, Bangladesh (Reuters) – More than 100 Rohingya Muslims have crossed into Bangladesh from Myanmar since Wednesday, with the latest refugees saying army operations are continuing in troubled Rakhine State, raising doubts about plans to send back 655,500 who had already fled.

Scores more were waiting to cross the Naf river that forms the border, even as Dhaka prepares to start repatriating next week some of the Rohingya who have escaped from what the Myanmar military calls counter-insurgency operations since late August.

Bangladesh and Myanmar said on Tuesday they had agreed to complete the return of the refugees within two years, with the process due to begin on Jan. 23.

The United Nations has described the Myanmar military operations in the northern part of Rakhine, launched in response to attacks by militants on police and soldiers on Aug. 25, as a classic case of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya.

One boat crossed the Naf river carrying 53 people early Wednesday, and another boat arrived from the Bay of Bengal with 60 people Thursday morning, according to a Bangladeshi intelligence official in Dhaka, and aid officials at the sprawling Rohingya camp in Kutupalong, near Cox’s Bazar.

Those waiting on the Myanmar side to cross were stuck there because they did not have enough money to pay the boatmen, the recent arrivals said. They said they paid between 30,000 and 40,000 kyat ($20-$30) a person for the night-time trips on rickety boats to Teknaf, in the southernmost part of Bangladesh.

Most of the recent arrivals said they came from Sein Yin Pyin village in Buthidaung district, and escaped because they feared they would be picked up by the military if they left their homes to go to work.

LOOTING IN THE FOREST

Mohammad Ismail, 48, and four others said two weeks ago they saw a dead body hanging by a rope in a forest where Ismail used to collect wood to sell at the market.

“After this I never went to the forest again, and all my money was gone, so my family had nothing to eat for three days,” said Ismail.

Myanmar Police Colonel Myo Thu Soe, spokesman for the military-controlled Home Affairs Ministry, said “there’s no clearance operation going on in the villages”. But, he added, “security forces are still trying to take control of the area” in northern Rakhine. He declined to elaborate.

Government spokesman Zaw Htay did not respond to requests for comment.

Myanmar’s military said in October that it was withdrawing soldiers from western Rakhine state.

Villagers from Sein Yin Pyin said a group of soldiers caught around 200 of them sleeping in the forest on their journey to Bangladesh and looted them of their belongings, including rice, phones, solar chargers and money.

They were stopped again later that day at a beach in Dongkhali village, where around 20 soldiers recorded video of them on their smartphones, while questioning the group and urging them to stay.

“Why are you leaving? You are safe here, don’t go. We will give you a car, go back to your village. If you leave, you will not be able to come back again,” Arif Ullah, 20, said the soldiers told the group.

More than two dozen refugees that Reuters interviewed recounted a similar version of events.

“First their men looted us, and then they stopped us again to ask why we were leaving,” said Umme Habiba, 15. “We left because we were scared.”

Fayazur Rahman, a 33-year-old labourer from southern Buthidaung, said 12 soldiers barged into his home two weeks ago and sexually assaulted his 18-year-old sister. “Day by day, things were getting worse,” he said.

Reuters could not independently confirm the accounts the new arrivals gave. Myanmar has denied most allegations of abuses leveled against its security forces during the operations in Rakhine.

REPATRIATION START DATE?

In Dhaka, a senior foreign ministry official told Reuters that the deadline of next Tuesday for starting the Rohingya repatriation to Myanmar “may not be possible”.

“The return has to be voluntary, safe and dignified,” said the official, who was part of a 14-member team at talks with Myanmar this week about the repatriation.

He said Myanmar would take back 1,500 Rohingya a week, “although our demand was 15,000 per week”, adding the number could be ramped up over the next few months.

They would sheltered in a temporary transit camp in Myanmar before being moved to “houses as per their choices”.

“They (Myanmar) will create all kind of provisions including for their livelihood. We want to make sure there’s a sustainable solution to the crisis,” the official said.

(Reporting by Zeba Siddiqui; Additional reporting by Shoon Naing in Yangon and Ruma Paul in Dhaka; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Alex Richardson)

Exclusive: ‘We will kill you all’ – Rohingya villagers in Myanmar beg for safe passage

A Rohingya refugee girl collects rain water at a makeshift camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, September 17, 2017. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

By Wa Lone and Andrew R.C. Marshall

SITTWE, Myanmar (Reuters) – Thousands of Rohingya Muslims in violence-racked northwest Myanmar are pleading with authorities for safe passage from two remote villages that are cut off by hostile Buddhists and running short of food.

“We’re terrified,” Maung Maung, a Rohingya official at Ah Nauk Pyin village, told Reuters by telephone. “We’ll starve soon and they’re threatening to burn down our houses.”

Another Rohingya contacted by Reuters, who asked not to be named, said ethnic Rakhine Buddhists came to the same village and shouted, “Leave, or we will kill you all.”

Fragile relations between Ah Nauk Pyin and its Rakhine neighbors were shattered on Aug. 25, when deadly attacks by Rohingya militants in Rakhine State prompted a ferocious response from Myanmar’s security forces.

At least 430,000 Rohingya have since fled into neighboring Bangladesh to evade what the United Nations has called a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.

About a million Rohingya lived in Rakhine State until the recent violence. Most face draconian travel restrictions and are denied citizenship in a country where many Buddhists regard them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

Tin Maung Swe, secretary of the Rakhine State government, told Reuters he was working closely with the Rathedaung authorities, and had received no information about the Rohingya villagers’ plea for safe passage.

“There is nothing to be concerned about,” he said when asked about local tensions. “Southern Rathedaung is completely safe.”

National police spokesman Myo Thu Soe said he also had no information about the Rohingya villages but that he would look into the matter.

Asked to comment, a spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department’s East Asia Bureau made no reference to the situation in the villages, but said the United States was calling “urgently” for Myanmar’s security forces “to act in accordance with the rule of law and to stop the violence and displacement suffered by individuals from all communities.”

“Tens of thousands of people reportedly lack adequate food, water, and shelter in northern Rakhine State,” spokeswoman Katina Adams said. “The government should act immediately to assist them.”

Adams said Patrick Murphy, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asia, would reiterate grave U.S. concern about the situation in Rakhine when he meets senior officials in Myanmar this week.

Britain is to host a ministerial meeting on Monday on the sidelines of the annual U.N. General Assembly in New York to discuss the situation in Rakhine.

 

NO BOATS

Ah Nauk Pyin sits on a mangrove-fringed peninsula in Rathedaung, one of three townships in northern Rakhine State. The villagers say they have no boats.

Until three weeks ago, there were 21 Muslim villages in Rathedaung, along with three camps for Muslims displaced by previous bouts of religious violence. Sixteen of those villages and all three camps have since been emptied and in many cases burnt, forcing an estimated 28,000 Rohingya to flee.

Rathedaung’s five surviving Rohingya villages and their 8,000 or so inhabitants are encircled by Rakhine Buddhists and acutely vulnerable, say human rights monitors.

The situation is particularly dire in Ah Nauk Pyin and nearby Naung Pin Gyi, where any escape route to Bangladesh is long, arduous, and sometimes blocked by hostile Rakhine neighbors.

Maung Maung, the Rohingya official, said the villagers were resigned to leaving but the authorities had not responded to their requests for security. At night, he said, villagers had heard distant gunfire.

“It’s better they go somewhere else,” said Thein Aung, a Rathedaung official, who dismissed Rohingya allegations that Rakhines were threatening them.

Only two of the Aug. 25 attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) took place in Rathedaung. But the township was already a tinderbox of religious tension, with ARSA citing the mistreatment of Rohingya there as one justification for its offensive.

In late July, Rakhine residents of a large, mixed village in northern Rathedaung corraled hundreds of Rohingya inside their neighborhood, blocking access to food and water.

A similar pattern is repeating itself in southern Rathedaung, with local Rakhine citing possible ARSA infiltration as a reason for ejecting the last remaining Rohingya.

 

‘ANOTHER PLACE’

Maung Maung said he had called the police at least 30 times to report threats against his village.

On Sept. 13, he said, he got a call from a Rakhine villager he knew. “Leave tomorrow or we’ll come and burn down all your houses,” said the man, according to a recording Maung Maung gave to Reuters.

When Maung Maung protested that they had no means to escape, the man replied: “That’s not our problem.”

On Aug. 31, the police convened a roadside meeting between two villages, attended by seven Rohingya from Ah Nauk Pyin and 14 Rakhine officials from the surrounding villages.

Instead of addressing the Rohingya complaints, said Maung Maung and two other Rohingya who attended the meeting, the Rakhine officials delivered an ultimatum.

“They said they didn’t want any Muslims in the region and we should leave immediately,” said the Rohingya resident of Ah Nauk Pyin who requested anonymity.

The Rohingya agreed, said Maung Maung, but only if the authorities provided security.

He showed Reuters a letter that the village elders had sent to the Rathedaung authorities on Sept. 7, asking to be moved to “another place”. They had yet to receive a response, he said.

People reach out during the distribution of bananas in a Rohingya refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, September 17, 2017.

People reach out during the distribution of bananas in a Rohingya refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, September 17, 2017. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

VIOLENT HISTORY

Relations between the two communities deteriorated in 2012, when religious unrest in Rakhine State killed nearly 200 people and made 140,000 homeless, most of them Rohingya. Scores of houses in Ah Nauk Pyin were torched.

Since then, said villagers, Rohingya have been too scared to leave the village or till their land, surviving mainly on monthly deliveries from the World Food Programme (WFP). The recent violence halted those deliveries.

The WFP pulled out most staff and suspended operations in the region after Aug. 25.

Residents in the area’s two Rohingya villages said they could no longer venture out to fish or buy food from Rakhine traders, and were running low on food and medicines.

Maung Maung said the local police told the Rohingya to stay in their villages and not to worry because “nothing would happen,” he said.

But the nearest police station had only half a dozen or so officers, he said, and could not do much if Ah Nauk Pyin was attacked.

A few minutes’ walk away, at the Rakhine village of Shwe Long Tin, residents were also on edge, said its leader, Khin Tun Aye.

They had also heard gunfire at night, he said, and were guarding the village around the clock with machetes and slingshots in case the Rohingya attacked with ARSA’s help.

“We’re also terrified,” he said.

He said he told his fellow Rakhine to stay calm, but the situation remained so tense that he feared for the safety of his Rohingya neighbors.

“If there is violence, all of them will be killed,” he said.

 

(Reporting by Wa Lone and Andrew R.C. Marshall; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Washington; Editing by Ian Geoghegan and Peter Cooney)

 

Explosions rock Myanmar area near Bangladesh border amid Rohingya exodus

Rohingya refugees sit as they are temporarily held by the Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) in an open area after crossing the border, in Teknaf, Bangladesh, September 3, 2017.

By Simon Lewis and Wa Lone

COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh/YANGON (Reuters) – Two blasts rocked an area on the Myanmar side of the border with Bangladesh on Monday, accompanied by the sound of gunfire and thick black smoke, as violence that has sent nearly 90,000 Muslim Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh showed no sign of easing.

Bangladeshi border guards said a woman lost a leg from a blast about 50 meters inside Myanmar and was carried into Bangladesh to get treatment. Reuters reporters heard explosions and saw black smoke rising near a Myanmar village.

The latest violence in Myanmar’s northwestern Rakhine state began on Aug. 25, when Rohingya insurgents attacked dozens of police posts and an army base. The ensuing clashes and a military counter-offensive have killed at least 400 people and triggered the exodus of villagers to Bangladesh.

A Rohingya refugee who went to the site of the blast – on a footpath near where civilians fleeing violence are huddled in no man’s land on the border – filmed what appeared to be a mine: a metal disc about 10 centimeters (3.94 inches) in diameter partially buried in the mud. He said he believed there were two more such devices buried in the ground.

Bangladeshi border guards said they believed the injured woman stepped on an anti-personnel mine, although that was not confirmed.

Two refugees also told Reuters they saw members of the Myanmar army around the site in the immediate period preceding the blasts which occurred around 2:25 p.m.

Reuters was unable to independently verify that the planted devices were landmines and that there was any link to the Myanmar army.

Rohingya refugees walk on the muddy path after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border in Teknaf, Bangladesh, September 3, 2017.

Rohingya refugees walk on the muddy path after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border in Teknaf, Bangladesh, September 3, 2017. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

The spokesman for Myanmar’s national leader Aung San Suu Kyi, Zaw Htay, said that a clarification was needed to determine “where did it explode, who can go there and who laid those land mines. Who can surely say those mines were not laid by the terrorists?”

“There are so many questions. I would like to say that it is not solid news-writing if you write based on someone talking nonsense on the side of the road,” said Zaw Htay.

The treatment of Buddhist-majority Myanmar’s roughly 1.1 million Muslim Rohingya is the biggest challenge facing Suu Kyi, accused by Western critics of not speaking out for the minority that has long complained of persecution.

The Nobel Peace Prize laureate has come under increasing diplomatic pressure from countries with large Muslim populations such as Turkey and Pakistan to protect Rohingya civilians.

Myanmar says its security forces are fighting a legitimate campaign against “terrorists” responsible for a string of attacks on police posts and the army since last October.

On Monday, Reuters reporters saw fires and heard gunshots before the explosions near the Myanmar village of Taung Pyo Let Way.

 

‘NO FOOD … NO TREATMENT’

Myanmar officials blamed Rohingya militants for the burning of homes and civilian deaths but rights monitors and Rohingya fleeing to neighboring Bangladesh say the Myanmar army is trying to force Rohingya out with a campaign of arson and killings.

The number of those crossing the border into Bangladesh – 87,000 – surpassed the number who escaped Myanmar after a series of much smaller insurgent attacks last October that set off a military operation. That operation has led to accusations of serious human rights abuses.

The newest estimate, based on calculations by U.N. workers in the Bangladeshi border district of Cox’s Bazar, takes to about 174,000 the total number of Rohingya who have sought refuge in Bangladesh since October.

The new arrivals have strained aid agencies and communities already helping hundreds of thousands of refugees from previous spasms of violence in Myanmar.

“We are trying to build houses here, but there isn’t enough space,” said Mohammed Hussein, 25, who was still looking for a place to stay after fleeing Myanmar four days ago.

“No non-government organizations came here. We have no food. Some women gave birth on the roadside. Sick children have no treatment.”

Hundreds of Rohingya milled beside the road while others slung tarpaulins over bamboo frames to make shelters against the monsoon rain.

Among new arrivals, about 16,000 are school-age children and more than 5,000 are under the age of five who need vaccine coverage, aid workers said over the weekend.

 

INTERNATIONAL ANGER

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, who said on Friday that violence against Myanmar’s Muslims amounted to genocide, last week called Bangladesh’s President Abdul Hamid to offer help in sheltering the Rohingya, Dhaka said.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi met Suu Kyi and other officials in Myanmar on Monday, to urge a halt to the violence.

Suu Kyi’s office said Marsudi expressed the Indonesian government’s “support of the activities of the Myanmar government for the stability, peace and development of Rakhine state”.

They also discussed humanitarian aid and the two countries would collaborate for the development of the state, Suu Kyi’s office said without giving further details.

There were more anti-Myanmar protests in Jakarta on Monday.

Malala Yousafzai, the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, called on Suu Kyi to condemn the “shameful” treatment of the Rohingya, saying “the world is waiting” for her to speak out.

In addition to tens of thousands of Rohingya, more than 11,700 “ethnic residents” had been evacuated from northern Rakhine state, the Myanmar government has said, referring to non-Muslims.

The army said on Sunday Rohingya insurgents had set fire to monasteries, images of Buddha as well as schools and houses in the north of Rakhine state. It posted images of destroyed Buddha statues.

 

(Reporting by Simon Lewis and Nurul Islam in COX’S BAZAR’; Writing by Antoni Slodkowski; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Robert Birsel, Martin Howell)