Exclusive: U.S. team in refugee camps investigating atrocities against Rohingya

FILE PHOTO: Rohingya refugees cross the Naf River with an improvised raft to reach to Bangladesh at Sabrang near Teknaf, Bangladesh November 10, 2017. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain/File Photo

By Jason Szep, Matt Spetalnick and Zeba Siddiqui

WASHINGTON/COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh (Reuters) – The U.S. government is conducting an intensive examination of alleged atrocities against Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims, documenting accusations of murder, rape, beatings and other possible offenses in an investigation that could be used to prosecute Myanmar’s military for crimes against humanity, U.S. officials told Reuters.

The undertaking, led by the State Department, has involved more than a thousand interviews of Rohingya men and women in refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh, where almost 700,000 Rohingya have fled after a military crackdown last year in Myanmar’s northwestern Rakhine State, two U.S. officials said. The work is modeled on a U.S. forensic investigation of mass atrocities in Sudan’s Darfur region in 2004, which led to a U.S. declaration of genocide that culminated in economic sanctions against the Sudanese government.

The interviews were conducted in March and April by about 20 investigators with backgrounds in international law and criminal justice, including some who worked on tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, the U.S. officials said.

FILE PHOTO: Gultaz Begum, who said she fled from Myanmar with her seven children after she was shot in the eye, her husband killed and village burnt, rests at the ward for Rohingya refugees in Sadar hospital in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh September 28, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Gultaz Begum, who said she fled from Myanmar with her seven children after she was shot in the eye, her husband killed and village burnt, rests at the ward for Rohingya refugees in Sadar hospital in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh September 28, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj/File Photo

The information will be analyzed in Washington and documented in a report to be sent to the State Department’s leadership in May or early June, the officials said. It’s unclear whether the Trump administration will publicly release the findings, or whether they will be used to justify new sanctions on the Myanmar government or a recommendation for international prosecution.

“The purpose of this investigation is to contribute to justice processes, including community awareness raising, international advocacy efforts, and community-based reconciliation efforts, as well as possible investigations, truth-seeking efforts, or other efforts for justice and accountability,” said a document used by the investigators in the sprawling refugee camps and reviewed by Reuters.

Three U.S. officials in Washington and several people involved in the investigation on the ground in Bangladesh disclosed details of the fact-finding operation to Reuters.

A State Department official, asked to confirm the specifics of the investigation conducted in the refugee camps as reported by Reuters, said “the program details are accurate.” The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the U.S. government was using all available information and a wide range of tools, but added: “We cannot get ahead of the deliberative, policymaking process.”

As of publication, the Myanmar government and military had not responded to questions from Reuters. Myanmar has said its operations in Rakhine were a legitimate response to attacks on security forces by Rohingya insurgents.

The interviewers in the camps asked the refugees basic demographic questions, the date the person left Myanmar, and to recount their experiences during the wave of violence unleashed against the Rohingya in Rakhine State by the Myanmar military and local Buddhist residents.

The investigators also asked refugees to describe the battalions and weaponry used by the Myanmar military in Rakhine State during operations against the Rohingya, said one person involved with the investigation in the camps, which are located in the Cox’s Bazar district in southern Bangladesh. The investigators have received names of individual perpetrators and the identities of specific battalions allegedly involved, this person said.

A second person involved in the project on the ground said 1,025 refugees have been interviewed and the assignment may include a second phase focused on military units.

Zohra Khatun, 35, a Rohingya refugee in the camps, said she told investigators that soldiers waged a campaign of violence and harassment in her village in Rakhine State starting last August. They made arrests and shot several people, driving her and others to flee, she said.

“One military officer grabbed me by the throat and tried to take me,” she told Reuters, clutching her shirt collar to demonstrate. The military, she said, burned homes in the village, including hers.

The investigation coincides with a debate inside the U.S. government and on Capitol Hill over whether the Trump administration has done enough to hold Myanmar’s military to account for brutal violence against the largely stateless Rohingya.

FILE PHOTO: A boy sits in a burnt area after fire destroyed shelters at a camp for internally displaced Rohingya Muslims in the western Rakhine State near Sittwe, Myanmar May 3, 2016. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun/File Phot

FILE PHOTO: A boy sits in a burnt area after fire destroyed shelters at a camp for internally displaced Rohingya Muslims in the western Rakhine State near Sittwe, Myanmar May 3, 2016. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun/File Photo

The Rohingya are a small Muslim minority in majority-Buddhist Myanmar. Though they have been present in what’s now Myanmar for generations, many Burmese consider them to be interlopers. Violence against them has increased in recent years as the country has made a partial shift to democratic governance.

In November, following the lead of the United Nations and the European Union, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared that the Rohingya crisis constituted “ethnic cleansing,” a designation that raised the possibility of additional sanctions against Myanmar’s military commanders and increased pressure on its civilian leader, Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. The Myanmar government has denied the accusations.

The United States responded in December by imposing targeted sanctions on one Myanmar general and threatening to penalize others. Washington has also scaled back already-limited military ties with Myanmar since the Rohingya crisis began. Human rights groups and Democratic lawmakers in Washington have urged the Republican White House to widen sanctions and designate the violence as “crimes against humanity,” a legal term that can set the stage for charges at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

“No decisions have been made on that front, but it’s something being looked at very carefully,” a senior Trump administration official told Reuters.

A Reuters investigation published in February provided the first independent confirmation of what had taken place in the village of Inn Din, where 10 Rohingya Muslim men and boys were hacked to death by Rakhine Buddhist villagers or shot by security force members. The story was based on accounts not only from Rohingya refugees but also from soldiers, police officers and Buddhist locals who admitted to participating in the bloodshed.

Pictures obtained by Reuters showed the men and boys with their hands tied behind their backs and their bodies in a shallow grave. Two Reuters journalists were jailed while reporting the story and remain in prison in Yangon, where they face up to 14 years in jail on possible charges of violating Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act.

So far, there has been resistance by lawyers in the White House and State Department to adopt the terms “crimes against humanity” or “genocide” in describing deaths of Rohingya in Myanmar, the U.S. officials said.

The State Department itself has been divided over how to characterize or interpret the violence against the Rohingya, the officials said.

The East Asian and Pacific Affairs Bureau, staffed largely by career diplomats and representing the view of the embassy in Myanmar, has held at times “to a success narrative” on Myanmar since the lifting of sanctions was announced in October 2016 and the strong public role played by the U.S. government in the historic 2012 opening of the country after decades of military rule, one official said.

Diplomats in Yangon have also been reluctant to jeopardize Washington’s relationship with Suu Kyi, a democratic icon who has faced criticism for failing to do more to rein in the violence against the Rohingya. Some senior U.S. officials still believe Suu Kyi remains the best hope for a more democratic Myanmar, one official said. “They are reluctant to upset that relationship.”

That contrasts with the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, based in Washington, which has pushed for tougher sanctions, the officials said. Bridging that gap has been made more difficult because the State Department under President Donald Trump has yet to fill many important diplomatic positions, the officials said.

Officials described the process in the refugee camps of documenting the abuses as rigorous. Each interview was coded with key words according to the alleged crime, such as killing, rape, sexual violence and lynching. Different categories of alleged perpetrator also have codes – from civilians to insurgents, Myanmar military personnel and police.

“After the 1,000 interviews and statistical analysis, we can draw certain conclusions about the perpetrators of crime and patterns of crime,” one official said.

The official said one possible result from the documentation of abuses against the Rohingya could be a vote by the United Nations General Assembly to establish an international body to investigate the most serious crimes committed against the Rohingya, similar to what it’s done with Syria.

The State Department did not respond to questions about divisions within the administration over how to characterize the violence and criticism that the administration was too slow in acting to halt abuses.

Subiya Khatun, 29, who fled her Rakhine home in September and reported seeing three dead bodies in a canal on her way to the Bangladesh border, said she hoped for justice and a safe return to Myanmar.

“They said they have come from America. ‘This investigation will be used for your help,'” she said she was told by the people who interviewed her in the camps. “If Allah wishes, we will get justice and our demands will be fulfilled.”

(Additional reporting by Clare Baldwin in Cox’s Bazar. Edited by Peter Hirschberg.)

Myanmar not ready for return of Rohingya Muslims, says UNHCR

FILE PHOTO: A Rohingya refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, September 19, 2017. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton/File Photo

By Serajul Quadir

DHAKA (Reuters) – The U.N. refugee agency called a Myanmar minister’s visit to Bangladesh to meet Muslim Rohingya refugees a confidence-building measure, but said conditions in Myanmar were not ready for their return.

Myanmar Social Welfare Minister Win Myat Aye, who heads rehabilitation efforts in Myanmar’s troubled western Rakhine state, told about 50 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh on Wednesday that getting the repatriation process moving was top priority.

But the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said on Thursday Myanmar was not prepared.

“Conditions in Myanmar are not yet conducive for the voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable return of refugees,” it said in a statement, adding that the responsibility remains with the government to create such conditions.

According to U.N. officials, nearly 700,000 Rohingya have fled into Bangladesh from Rakhine to escape a military crackdown since August, amid reports of murder, rape and arson by Myanmar troops and Buddhist vigilantes which the United Nations has likened to “ethnic cleansing”.

Buddhist-majority Myanmar rejects the charge, saying its security forces launched a legitimate counter-insurgency operation on Aug. 25 in response to Rohingya militant attacks.

The refugees are living in cramped camps in the port of Cox’s Bazar and Bangladesh is keen for them to return home soon, especially with the oncoming monsoons expected to cause major devastation at the camps.

The UNHCR called on Myanmar to provide the agency unhindered access in Rakhine to assess the situation and monitor the return and reintegration of refugees if and when they voluntarily return.

Acknowledging the mistrust and fear of the Rohingya of Myanmar, Win Myat Aye told the group of refugees on Wednesday to set aside the past and to prepare to go back, promising new villages would be built with hospitals and schools.

But some refugees have said they are worried about going back, fearing persecution.

(Reporting by Serajul Quadir; Writing by Euan Rocha; Editing by Nick Macfie)

How the families of 10 massacred Rohingya fled Myanmar

Rehana Khatun, whose husband Nur Mohammed was among 10 Rohingya men killed by Myanmar security forces and Buddhist villagers on September 2, 2017, poses for a picture with her child at Kutupalong camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, March 25, 2018. Picture taken March 25, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

By Andrew R.C. Marshall

KUTUPALONG REFUGEE CAMP, Bangladesh (Reuters) – Rehana Khatun dreamed her husband came home. He appeared without warning in their village in western Myanmar, outside their handsome wooden house shaded by mango trees. “He didn’t say anything,” she said. “He was only there for a few seconds, and then he was gone.” Then Rehana Khatun woke up.

She woke up in a shack of ragged tarpaulin on a dusty hillside in Bangladesh. Her husband, Nur Mohammed, is never coming home. He was one of 10 Rohingya Muslim men massacred last September by Myanmar soldiers and Rakhine Buddhists at the coastal village of Inn Din.

Rehana Khatun’s handsome wooden house is gone, too. So is everything in it. The Rohingya homes in Inn Din were burned to the ground, and what was once a close-knit community, with generations of history in Myanmar, is now scattered across the world’s largest refugee camp in Bangladesh.

A Reuters investigation in February revealed what happened to the 10 Rohingya men. On September 1, soldiers snatched them from a large group of Rohingya villagers detained by a beach near Inn Din. The next morning, according to eyewitnesses, the men were shot by the soldiers or hacked to death by their Rakhine Buddhist neighbors. Their bodies were dumped in a shallow grave.

The relatives the 10 men left behind that afternoon wouldn’t learn of the killings for many months – in some cases, not until Reuters reporters tracked them down in the refugee camps and told them what had happened. The survivors waited by the beach with rising anxiety and dread as the sun set and the men didn’t return.

This is their story. Three of them fled Inn Din while heavily pregnant. All trekked north in monsoon rain through forests and fields. Drenched and terrified, they dodged military patrols and saw villages abandoned or burning. Some saw dead bodies. They walked for days with little food or water.

They were not alone. Inn Din’s families joined nearly 700,000 Rohingya escaping a crackdown by the Myanmar military, launched after attacks by Rohingya militants on August 25. The United Nations called it “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing,” which Myanmar has denied.

On Tuesday, the military said it had sentenced seven soldiers to long prison terms for their role in the Inn Din massacre. Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay told Reuters the move was a “very positive step” that showed the military “won’t give impunity for those who have violated the rules of engagement.” Myanmar, he said, doesn’t allow systematic human rights abuses.

Reuters was able to corroborate many but not all details of the personal accounts in this story.

The Rohingya streamed north until they reached the banks of the Naf River. On its far shore lay Bangladesh, and safety. Many Inn Din women gave boatmen their jewelry to pay for the crossing; others begged and fought their way on board. They made the perilous crossing at night, vomiting with sickness and fear.

Now in Bangladesh, they struggle to piece together their lives without husbands, fathers, brothers and sons. Seven months have passed since the massacre, but the grief of Inn Din’s survivors remains raw. One mother told Reuters her story, then fainted.

Like Rehana Khatun, they all say they dream constantly about the dead. Some dreams are bittersweet – a husband coming home, a son praying in the mosque – and some are nightmares. One woman says she sees her husband clutching a stomach wound, blood oozing through his fingers.

Daytime brings little relief. They all remember, with tormenting clarity, the day the soldiers took their men away.

“ALLAH SAVED ME”

Abdul Amin still wonders why he was spared.

Soldiers had arrived at Inn Din on August 27 and started torching the houses of Rohingya residents with the help of police and Rakhine villagers. Amin, 19, said he and his family sought refuge in a nearby forest with more than a hundred other Rohingya.

Four days later, as Inn Din burned and the sound of gunfire crackled through the trees, they made a dash for the beach, where hundreds of villagers gathered in the hope of escaping the military crackdown. Then the soldiers appeared, said Amin, and ordered them to squat with their heads down.

Amin crouched next to his mother, Nurasha, who threw her scarf over his head. The soldiers ignored Amin, perhaps mistaking him for a woman, but dragged away his brother Shaker Ahmed. “I don’t know why they chose him and not me,” Amin said. “Allah saved me.”

The soldiers, according to Amin and other witnesses, said they were taking the men away for a “meeting.” Their distraught families waited by the beach in vain. As night fell, they returned to the forest where, in the coming days, they made the decision that haunts many of them still: to save themselves and their families by fleeing to Bangladesh – and leaving the captive men behind.

Abdu Shakur waited five days for the soldiers to release his son Rashid Ahmed, 18. By then, most Rohingya had set out for Bangladesh and the forest felt lonely and exposed. Abdu Shakur said he wanted to leave, too, but his wife, Subiya Hatu, refused.

“I won’t go without my son,” she said.

“You must come with me,” he said. “If we stay here, they’ll kill us all.” They had three younger children to bring to safety, he told her. Rashid was their oldest, a bright boy who loved to study; he would surely be released soon and follow them. He didn’t. Rashid was one of the 10 killed in the Inn Din massacre.

“We did the right thing,” says Abdu Shakur today, in a shack in the Kutupalong camp. “I feel terrible, but we had to leave that place.” As he spoke, his wife sat behind him and sobbed into her headscarf.

“DAY OF JUDGMENT”

By now, the northward exodus was gathering pace. The Rohingya walked in large groups, sometimes thousands strong, stretching in ragged columns along the wild Rakhine coastline. At night, the men stood guard while women and children rested beneath scraps of tarpaulin. Rain often made sleep impossible.

Amid this desperate throng was Shaker Ahmed’s wife, Rahama Khatun, who was seven months pregnant, and their eight children, aged one to 18. Like many Rohingya, they had escaped Inn Din with little more than the clothes they wore. “We brought nothing from the house, not even a single plate,” she said.

They survived the journey by drinking from streams and scrounging food from other refugees. Rahama said she heaved herself along slippery paths as quickly as she could. She was scared about the health of her unborn child, but terrified of getting left behind.

Rahama’s legs swelled up so much that she couldn’t walk. “My children carried me on their shoulders. They said, ‘We’ve lost our father. We don’t want to lose you.'” Then they reached the beach at Na Khaung To, and a new ordeal began.

Na Khaung To sits on the Myanmar side of the Naf River. Bangladesh is about 6 km (4 miles) away. For Rohingya from Inn Din and other coastal villages, Na Khaung To was the main crossing point.

It was also a bottleneck. There were many Bangladeshi fishing boats to smuggle Rohingya across the river, but getting on board depended on the money or valuables the refugees could muster and the mercy of the boatmen. Some were stranded at Na Khaung To for weeks.

The beach was teeming with sick, hungry and exhausted people, recalled Nurjan, whose son Nur Mohammed was one of the 10 men killed at Inn Din. “Everyone was desperate,” Nurjan said. “All you could see was heads in every direction. It was like the Day of Judgment.”

CROSSING THE NAF

Bangladesh was perhaps a two-hour ride across calm estuarine waters. But the boatmen wanted to avoid any Bangladesh navy or border guard vessels that might be patrolling the river. So they set off at night, taking a more circuitous route through open ocean. Most boats were overloaded. Some sank in the choppy water, drowning dozens of people.

The boatmen charged about 8,000 taka (about $100) per person. Some women paid with their earrings and nose-rings. Others, like Abdu Shakur, promised to reimburse the boatman upon reaching Bangladesh with money borrowed from relatives there.

He and his wife, Subiya Hatu, who had argued over leaving their oldest son behind at Inn Din, set sail for Bangladesh. Another boat of refugees sailed along nearby. Both vessels were heaving with passengers, many of them children.

In deeper water, Abdu Shakur watched with horror as the other boat began to capsize, spilling its passengers into the waves. “We could hear people crying for help,” he said. “It was impossible to rescue them. Our boat would have sunk, too.”

Abdu Shakur and his family made it safely to Bangladesh. So did the other families bereaved by the Inn Din massacre. During the crossing, some realized they would never see their men again, or Myanmar.

Shuna Khatu wept on the boat. She felt she already knew what the military had done to her husband, Habizu. She was pregnant with their third child. “They killed my husband. They burned my house. They destroyed our village,” she said. “I knew I’d never go back.”

THE ONLY PHOTO

Two months later, in a city-sized refugee camp in Bangladesh, Shuna Khatu gave birth to a boy. She called him Mohammed Sadek.

Rahama Khatun, who fled Myanmar on the shoulders of her older children while seven months pregnant, also had a son. His name is Sadikur Rahman.

The two women were close neighbors in Inn Din. They now live about a mile apart in Kutupalong-Balukhali, a so-called “mega-camp” of about 600,000 souls. Both survive on twice-a-month rations of rice, lentils and cooking oil. They live in flimsy, mud-floored shacks of bamboo and plastic that the coming monsoon could blow or wash away.

It was here, as the families struggled to rebuild their lives, that they learned their men were dead. Some heard the news from Reuters reporters who had tracked them down. Others saw the Reuters investigation of the Inn Din massacre or the photos that accompanied it.

Two of those photos showed the men kneeling with their hands behind their backs or necks. A third showed the men’s bodies in a mass grave. The photos were obtained by Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who were arrested in December while investigating the Inn Din massacre. The two face charges, and potentially 14-year jail sentences, under Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act.

Rahama Khatun cropped her husband’s image from one of the photos and laminated it. This image of him kneeling before his captors is the only one she has. Every other family photo was burned along with their home at Inn Din.

For the Rohingya crisis in graphics, click http://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/rngs/MYANMAR-ROHINGYA/010051VC46K/index.html

(Reporting by Andrew R.C. Marshall. Edited by Peter Hirschberg.)

Monsoon floods and landslides threaten 100,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh

A woman walks through the Chakmakul camp for Rohingya refugees in southern Bangladesh, February 13, 2018. REUTERS/Andrew RC Marshall

By Clare Baldwin and Andrew R.C. Marshall

CHAKMAKUL REFUGEE CAMP, Bangladesh (Reuters) – The Rohingya refugees who live in shacks clinging to these steep, denuded hills in southern Bangladesh pray that the sandbags fortifying the slopes will survive the upcoming monsoon.

“They make it safer, but they won’t hold if the rain is really heavy,” said Mohammed Hares, 18. Cracks have already formed in the packed mud on which his shack is built.

Nearly 700,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled to Bangladesh since last August to escape a military crackdown in neighboring Myanmar. Most now live in flimsy, bamboo-and-plastic structures perched on what were once forested hills.

Bangladesh is lashed by typhoons, and the Rohingya camps are clustered in a part of the country that records the highest rainfall. Computer modeling by the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) shows that more than 100,000 refugees will be threatened by landslides and floods in the coming monsoon.

The rains typically begin in April and peak in July, according to the Bangladesh Meteorological Department.

In Kutupalong-Balukhali, the biggest of the makeshift camps, up to a third of the land could be flooded, leaving more than 85,000 refugees homeless, according to the UNHCR. Another 23,000 refugees live on slopes at risk of landslide.

The UNHCR, International Organization for Migration (IOM) and World Food Programme are using bulldozers to level 123 acres in northern Kutupalong-Balukhali camp in an effort to make the area safer, said UNHCR spokeswoman Caroline Gluck.

IOM is putting debris-removal equipment and work crews throughout the camps, it said, and trying to improve roads and stabilize slopes. It is also setting up emergency diarrhoea treatment centers and providing search and rescue and first aid training.

Bangladesh Disaster Management Secretary Shah Kamal said the government was working with the UN to relocate 133,000 people living in high-risk areas. It is also launching a Rohingya-language radio station that will act as a natural disaster warning system, he said.

Bangladesh government officials have also previously told Reuters they are pushing ahead with a controversial plan to turn an uninhabited island in the Bay of Bengal into a temporary home for the Rohingya and move 100,000 refugees there ahead of the monsoon.

Flooding increases the risk of disease outbreaks. It could also threaten access to medical facilities, making them difficult to reach and restock, the modeling shows. Latrines, washrooms and tube wells may also be flooded.

The risk of landslides has been exacerbated by refugee families needing firewood to cook. Trees were cut down to make way for the refugees, who also dug up the roots for firewood, making the slopes even weaker and prone to collapse.

“This was a forest when I first arrived,” said Arafa Begum, 40, who lives with her three children in a shack on a barren, vertiginous slope in Chakmakul camp. She said she wanted to move before the monsoon but must await the instructions of the majhi, or block leader.

The majhi’s name is Jahid Hussain. “I don’t know what I’ll do when the rain comes,” he told Reuters. “It depends on Allah.”

 

(Reporting by Clare Baldwin and Andrew R.C. Marshall in CHAKMAKUL REFUGEE CAMP; Additional reporting by Ruma Paul in DHAKA; Editing by Alex Richardson)

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)

Turkish PM calls Rohingya killings in Myanmar ‘genocide’

Rohingya refugee children play at the Shamlapur refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh December 20, 2017. REUTERS/Marko Djurica

COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh (Reuters) – Turkey’s prime minister on Wednesday dubbed the killing of minority Muslim Rohingyas in Myanmar by its security forces “genocide” and urged the international community to ensure their safety back home.

Binali Yildirim met several Rohingyas in two refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar in neighboring Bangladesh.

Almost 870,000 Rohingya fled there, about 660,000 of whom arrived after Aug. 25, when Rohingya militants attacked security posts and the Myanmar army launched a counter-offensive.

“The Myanmar military has been trying to uproot Rohingya Muslim community from their homeland and for that they persecuted them, set fire to their homes, villages, raped and abused women and killed them,” Yildirim told reporters from Cox’s Bazar, before flying back to Turkey.

“It’s one kind of a genocide,” he said.

“The international community should also work together to ensure their safe and dignified return to their homeland,” Yildirim, who was accompanied by Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali, said.

Surveys of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh by aid agency Medecins Sans Frontieres have shown at least 6,700 Rohingya were killed in Rakhine state in the month after violence flared up on Aug. 25, MSF said last week.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein has called the violence “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” and said he would not be surprised if a court eventually ruled that genocide had taken place.

Yildirim inaugurated a medical camp at Balukhali, sponsored by Turkey, and handed over two ambulances to Cox’s Bazar district administration. He also distributed food to Rohingya refugees at Kutupalong makeshift camp.

He urged the international community to enhance support for Rohingyas in Bangladesh and help find a political solution to this humanitarian crisis.

U.N. investigators have heard Rohingya testimony of a “consistent, methodical pattern of killings, torture, rape and arson”.

The United Nations defines genocide as acts meant to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group in whole or in part. Such a designation is rare under international law, but has been used in contexts including Bosnia, Sudan and an Islamic State campaign against the Yazidi communities in Iraq and Syria.

Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s less than two-year old civilian government has faced heavy international criticism for its response to the crisis, though it has no control over the generals it has to share power with under Myanmar’s transition after decades of military rule.

Yildirim’s trip follows Turkish first lady Emine Erdogan’s visit in September to the Rohingya camp, when she said the crack down in Myanmar’s Rakhine state was “tantamount to genocide” and a solution to the Rohingya crisis lies in Myanmar alone.

(Reporting by Mohammad Nurul Islam; Editing by Malini Menon and Richard Balmforth)

Aboard rickety boats or swimming, over 750 Rohingya reach Bangladesh

Aboard rickety boats or swimming, over 750 Rohingya reach Bangladesh

By Tommy Wilkes and Simon Cameron-Moore

COX’S BAZAR/YANGON (Reuters) – They came in boats, others on flimsy rafts, some even swam. Around 750 Rohingya Muslims made their escape from Myanmar on Friday to reach Bangladesh, where the greatest danger is malnutrition and disease in teeming refugee camps.

Over 613,000 Rohingya have already taken refuge in the camps since a Myanmar military clearance operation forced them to abandon their villages in northern Rakhine State.

Rohingya who have reached Bangladesh have recounted horror stories of rape and murder. A top U.N. official described the military’s actions as “ethnic cleansing”, though Myanmar denied that, saying its operation was needed for national security after Rohingya militants attacked 30 security posts on Aug. 25.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of Myanmar’s less than two-year-old administration, was in Vietnam on Friday, attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit. She was expected to hold talks with several leaders on the sidelines of the gathering, including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Having won the Nobel Peace Prize for defying the generals who ruled predominantly Buddhist Myanmar with an iron fist for nearly half a century, Suu Kyi’s reputation as a stateswoman has suffered due to her failure to speak out more strongly over the Rohingya crisis.

Under a constitution written before the junta gave way, the civilian administration still has to share power with the generals, and has little say over defense and security issues.

Still, leaders at APEC, and two other regional summits to be hosted by the Philippines in the coming days, are expected to exert pressure on Suu Kyi to do more to stem the crisis.

And on Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will meet with Suu Kyi in Naypyitaw, the Myanmar capital, with senators back in Washington pressing to impose sanctions targeting the military.

International Rescue Committee, the leading aid agency headquartered in New York and led by former British foreign minister David Miliband, reckoned that up to two-thirds of the 300,000 Rohingya remaining in Myanmar will join the exodus to Bangladesh in the coming months.

The IRC in a statement highlighted the extremely dangerous health conditions for Rohingya living in camps in the port city of Cox’s Bazar.

A nutrition survey led by its partner Action Contre la Faim had found 40,000 Rohingya children faced malnutrition and required life-saving assistance.

It said 95 percent of the population was drinking contaminated water – and agencies had reported that two-thirds of Cox’s Bazar’s water was contaminated with faeces.

“The conditions we are seeing in Cox’s Bazaar create a perfect storm for a public health crisis on an unimaginable scale,” said Cat Mahony, the IRC’s emergency response director in Cox’s Bazar.

“The situation will only deteriorate with more arrivals and a greater strain on already overstretched resources.”

Trail of destruction: http://tmsnrt.rs/2y8FgQ8

NO MONEY… BUILD A RAFT OR SWIM

Still, Rohingya too scared to stay in Myanmar were ready to risk their lives crossing the waters around the mouth of the Naf river to reach Bangladesh.

They were helped on Friday by another day of calm seas, though more than 200 have drowned attempting the crossing during the past two months.

Bangladesh officials said significant numbers were arriving on rafts they had built from bamboo, lashing plastic jerrycans to the poles for extra buoyancy. They said more Rohingya had swum across on Thursday.

A Reuters photographer saw up to ten rafts landing on the beaches of Teknaf, at the southern tip of Cox’s Bazar, on Friday.

People reaching the shore have told Reuters that there are thousands living in desperate conditions on the strand of beach by the river’s mouth at Pa Nyaung Pin Gyi, as they waited for a chance to cross over.

Dil Muhammad, 30, from Buthidaung, one of the Rakhine regions that bore the brunt of the military operation, finally made it across with his wife and three children after weeks of living on the sand because he could not afford to pay a boatman.

“I stayed in Pa Nyaung Pin Gyi for two months because I didn’t have money to come,” he told Reuters.

Dil Mohammed said his 18 month old daughter was suffering from diarrhea and a fever. “I couldn’t get to a doctor as we were stuck in that place.”

And Sakhina Khatun, a woman of 35, said that three men who had been with her on the other side had been attacked by “Buddhists” when they went to search for bamboo to make a raft.

Border Guard Bangladesh officials counted 444 refugees coming ashore at Sabrang, near Teknaf, and 150 more arriving further along the coast.

Afruzul Haque Tutul, additional superintendent of police in Cox’s Bazar said his officers had rescued 125 Rohingya from a wooden fishing boat stranded off Inani beach and bussed them to the camps.

Mass exodus: http://tmsnrt.rs/2xTId74

A desperate escape: http://tmsnrt.rs/2xIvxQF

(Additional reporting by Mohammad Ponir Hossain and Nurul Islam in COX’S BAZAR; Writing by Simon Cameron-Moore; Editing by Toby Chopra)

U.S. says holds Myanmar military leaders accountable in Rohingya crisis

A Rohingya refugee woman who crossed the border from Myanmar a day before, carries her daughter and searches for help as they wait to receive permission from the Bangladeshi army to continue their way to the refugee camps, in Palang Khali, Bangladesh October 17, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

By David Brunnstrom and Jonathan Landay

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Wednesday the United States held Myanmar’s military leadership responsible for its harsh crackdown on the Rohingya Muslim minority.

Tillerson, however, stopped short of saying whether the United States would take any action against Myanmar’s military leaders over an offensive that has driven more than 500,000 Rohingya Muslims out of the country.

Washington has worked hard to establish close ties with Myanmar’s civilian-led government led by Nobel laureate and former dissident Aung San Suu Kyi in the face of competition from strategic rival China.

“The world can’t just stand idly by and be witness to the atrocities that are being reported in the area,” Tillerson told Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.

“We really hold the military leadership accountable for what’s happening,” said Tillerson, who said the United States was “extraordinarily concerned” by the situation.

Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar in large numbers since late August when Rohingya insurgent attacks sparked a ferocious military response, with the fleeing people accusing security forces of arson, killings and rape.

Tillerson said Washington understood Myanmar had a militancy problem, but the military had to be disciplined and restrained in the way it dealt with this and to allow access to the region “so that we can get a full accounting of the circumstances.”

“Someone, if these reports are true, is going to be held to account for that,” Tillerson said. “And it’s up to the military leadership of Burma to decide, ‘What direction do they want to play in the future of Burma?'”

Tillerson said Washington saw Myanmar, which is also known as Burma, as “an important emerging democracy,” but the Rohingya crisis was a test for the power-sharing government.

He said the United States would remain engaged, including ultimately at the United Nations “with the direction this takes.”

The European Union and the United States have been considering targeted sanctions against Myanmar’s military leadership.

Punitive measures aimed specifically at top generals are among a range of options that have been discussed, but they are wary of action that could hurt the wider economy or destabilize already tense ties between Suu Kyi and the army.

Tillerson also said he would visit New Delhi next week as the Trump administration sought to dramatically deepen cooperation with India in response to China’s challenges to “international law and norms” in Asia.

Tillerson said the administration had began a “quiet conversation” with some emerging East Asian democracies about creating alternatives to Chinese infrastructure financing.

(Reporting by David Brunnstrom and Jonathan Landay; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Alistair Bell)

‘I can’t take this any more’ – Rohingya Muslims flee Myanmar in new surge

Rohingya refugees, who arrived from Myanmar last night, walk in a rice field after crossing the border in Palang Khali near Cox's Bazaar, Bangladesh

By Tom Allard and Nurul Islam

COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh (Reuters) – Thousands of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar fled to Bangladesh on Monday in a new surge of refugees driven by fears of starvation and violence the United Nations has denounced as ethnic cleansing.

Reuters reporters on the Bangladeshi side of the border, in Palong Khali district, saw several thousand people crossing from Myanmar’s Rakhine state, filing along embankments between flooded fields and scrubby forest.

“Half of my village was burnt down. I saw them do it,” said Sayed Azin, 46, who said he had walked for eight days carrying his 80-year-old mother in a basket strung on a bamboo pole between him and his son.

Soldiers and Buddhist mobs had torched his village, he said.

“I left everything,” he said, sobbing. “I can’t find my relatives … I can’t take this any more.”

Some new arrivals spoke of bloody attacks by Buddhist mobs on people trekking toward the border.

Rohingya refugees who fled from Myanmar make their way through the rice field after crossing the border in Palang Khali, Bangladesh

Rohingya refugees who fled from Myanmar make their way through the rice field after crossing the border in Palang Khali, Bangladesh October 9, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

About 519,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar since Aug. 25, when attacks by Rohingya militants on security posts in Rakhine sparked a ferocious military response.

Refugees and rights groups say the army and Buddhist vigilantes have engaged in a campaign of killing and arson aimed at driving the Rohingya out of Myanmar.

Myanmar rejects accusations of ethnic cleansing and has labeled the militants from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army who launched the initial attacks as terrorists who have killed civilians and burnt villages.

Among those fleeing were up to 35 people on a boat that capsized off the Bangladesh coast on Sunday. At least 12 of them drowned while 13 were rescued, Bangladeshi police said.

“We faced so many difficulties, for food and survival,” Sayed Hossein, 30, told Reuters, adding that his wife, three children, mother and father in law had drowned.

“We came here to save our lives.”

 

‘GETTING WORSE’

The Myanmar government has said its “clearance operations” against the militants ended in early September and people had no reason to flee. But in recent days the government has reported large numbers of Muslims preparing to leave, with more than 17,000 people in one area alone.

The government cited worries about food and security as their reasons.

Some villagers in Rakhine said food was running out because rice in the fields was not ready for harvest and the state government had closed village markets and restricted the transport of food, apparently to cut supplies to the militants.

“The situation’s getting worse. We have no food and no guarantee of security,” said a Rohingya resident of Hsin Hnin Pyar village on the south of the state’s Buthidaung district.

He said a lot of people were preparing to flee.

“While the Myanmar military has engaged in a campaign of violence, there is mounting evidence that Rohingya women, men and children are now also fleeing the very real threat of starvation,” rights group Amnesty International said.

Senior state government official Kyaw Swar Tun declined to go into details when asked about the food, except to ask, “Have you heard of anyone dying of hunger in Buthidaung?”

The reports of food shortages will add to the urgency of calls by aid agencies and the international community for unfettered humanitarian access to the conflict zone.

The insurgents declared a one-month ceasefire from Sept. 10 to enable the delivery of aid but the government rebuffed them, saying it did not negotiate with terrorists.

The ceasefire is due to end at midnight on Monday but the insurgents said in a statement they were ready to respond to any peace move by the government.

The ability of the group to mount any sort of challenge to the army is not known, but it does not appear to have been able to put up resistance to the latest military offensive.

Students of a local madrasa watch from inside their classroom as bodies of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, who were killed when their boat capsized on the way to Bangladesh, are brought to their school in Shah Porir Dwip, in Teknaf, near Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh, October 9, 2017.

Students of a local madrasa watch from inside their classroom as bodies of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, who were killed when their boat capsized on the way to Bangladesh, are brought to their school in Shah Porir Dwip, in Teknaf, near Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, October 9, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

COMING, GOING

Bangladesh was already home to 400,000 Rohingya who had fled earlier bouts of violence.

Mostly Buddhist Myanmar does not recognize the Rohingya as citizens, even though many have lived there for generations.

But even as refugees arrive, Bangladesh insists they will all have to go home. Myanmar has responded by saying it will take back those who can be verified as genuine refugees.

Many Rohingya fear they will not be able to prove their right to return.

Myanmar leader and Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has faced scathing international criticism for not doing more to stop the violence, although she has no power over the security forces under a military-drafted constitution.

The United States and Britain have warned Myanmar the crisis is putting at risk the progress it has made since the military began to loosen its grip on power in 2011.

 

(Additonal reportin by Damir Sagolj in COX’S BAZAR, Wa Lone in YANGON; Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Nick Macfie)

 

Rohingya insurgents open to peace but Myanmar ceasefire ending

A Myanmar soldier stands near Maungdaw, north of Rakhine state, Myanmar September 27, 2017. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

By Robert Birsel

YANGON (Reuters) – Muslim Rohingya insurgents said on Saturday they are ready to respond to any peace move by the Myanmar government but a one-month ceasefire they declared to enable the delivery of aid in violence-racked Rakhine State is about to end.

The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) did not say what action it would take after the ceasefire ends at midnight on Monday but it was “determined to stop the tyranny and oppression” waged against the Rohingya people.

“If at any stage, the Burmese government is inclined to peace, then ARSA will welcome that inclination and reciprocate,” the group said in a statement.

Government spokesmen were not immediately available for comment.

When the ARSA announced its one-month ceasefire from Sept. 10, a government spokesman said: “We have no policy to negotiate with terrorists.”

The rebels launched coordinated attacks on about 30 security posts and an army camp on Aug. 25 with the help of hundreds of disaffected Rohingya villagers, many wielding sticks or machetes, killing about a dozen people.

In response, the military unleashed a sweeping offensive across the north of Rakhine State, driving more than half a million Rohingya villagers into Bangladesh in what the United Nations branded a textbook example of “ethnic cleansing”.

Myanmar rejects that. It says more than 500 people have been killed in the fighting, most of them “terrorists” who have been attacking civilians and torching villages.

The ability of the ARSA, which only surfaced in October last year, to mount any sort of challenge to the Myanmar army is not known but it does not appear to have been able to put up resistance to the military offensive unleashed in August.

Inevitably, there are doubts about how the insurgents can operate in areas where the military has driven out the civilian population, cutting the insurgents off from recruits, food, funds and information.

The ARSA accused the government of using murder, arson and rape as “tools of depopulation”.

‘NATIVE’

The ARSA denies links to foreign Islamists.

In an interview with Reuters in March, ARSA leader Ata Ullah linked the creation of the group to communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine in 2012, when nearly 200 people were killed and 140,000, mostly Rohingya, displaced.

The group says it is fighting for the rights of the Rohingya, who have never been regarded as an indigenous minority in Myanmar and so have been denied citizenship under a law that links nationality to ethnicity.

The group repeated their demand that Rohingya be recognized as a “native indigenous” ethnic group, adding that all Rohingya people should be allowed “to return home safely with dignity … to freely determine their political status and pursue their economic, social and cultural development”.

The Rohingya have long faced discrimination and repression in Rakhine State where bad blood between them and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists, stemming from violence by both sides, goes back generations.

The ARSA condemned the government for blocking humanitarian assistance in Rakhine and said it was willing to discuss ceasefires with international organizations so aid could be delivered.

Some 515,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh but thousands remain in Rakhine.

Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi has faced scathing criticism for not doing more to stop the violence, although a military-drafted constitution gives her no power over the security forces.

Suu Kyi has condemned rights abuses and said Myanmar was ready to start a process agreed with Bangladesh in 1993 by which anyone verified as a refugee would be accepted back.

Many refugees fear they will not have the paperwork they believe Myanmar will demand to allow them back.

(Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Stephen Coates)