The Unspeakable Horrors Endured by the World's Most Persecuted Minority

The Rohingya people of Myanmar have lived through mass gang rape, brutal beatings, and killings. A new UN report exposes the scale of atrocity suffered by its women and children.

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Feb 27 2017, 3:10pm

A Rohingya woman at a refugee camp in Bangladesh. Photo by Masfiqur Sohan/NurPhoto via Getty Images

"When my two sisters, eight and ten years old, were running away from the house having seen the military come, they were killed. They were not shot dead, but slaughtered with knives." Jat* had already been raped by soldiers, and had watched her mother beaten to death too. She is from a village in the troubled state of Maungdaw in northern Myanmar, and has seen her entire family killed with long knives—the kind used for slaughtering cattle.

Jat was targeted because she is a Muslim Rohingya, described by the UN as the most heavily persecuted ethnic group in the world. Since October, 70,000 Rohingya have fled across the narrow stretch of the Bay of Bengal to Bangladesh—they pay extortionate bribes to smugglers, or some try to paddle themselves across on floating plastic containers. According to a UN report released in early February, thousands of Muslims like Jat have been slaughtered across the region, in what is being described by the Malaysian government as ethnic cleansing.

There are around one million Rohingya in Burma, a Buddhist majority country. However, they are denied citizenship because the government believes that the Rohingya—even those who have lived in Myanmar for three generations—are ethnically Bengalis from Bangladesh. The Rohingya do share a similar language with Bangladesh, so Myanmar's neighbor may feel like a more welcoming option. But Bangladesh doesn't recognize or want them either. Some ministers in Myanmar have even denied the existence of the minority population. All of this has made it significantly easier to persecute an entire group of people with little international attention.

In early October, nine border guards were killed in Rakhine State, the epicenter of violence. In retaliation, the army launched a counter-insurgency campaign, killing, raping, and maiming Rohingya across Rakhine State.

Read more: Myanmar's Water Festival Is an Alcohol-Fueled, Misogynistic Mess

The UN report has identified arson as a major cause of death. Testimonies collected from villages convey horrifying reports of women and children burned alive in their homes by soldiers. Numerous people claim the army deliberately set fire to homes, and, in some particularly tragic cases, set fire to buildings and then pushed people into them. Eyewitnesses report several separate instances where both non-Rohingya villagers and the army locked several families of Rohingya Muslims into buildings and set fire to them.

One eyewitness said, "The army set fire to my house, burning my elderly mother-in-law and a sister-in-law, who was mentally disabled, alive. We were unable to carry them with us, when the military attacked the village." Another told UN officials, "The military dragged my grandmother and grandfather out of their house. First they were severely beaten, then tied to a tree. The military then put dried grass, woods around them and set them on fire."

A 2015 protest in London calling for an end to Rohingya persecution. Photo via Flickr user See Li

"Refugee accounts paint a horrific picture of an army that is out of control and rampaging through Rohingya villages. The Burmese government says its crackdown is in response to a security threat, but what security advantage could possibly be gained by raping and killing women and children?" said Brad Adams, the Asia director of Human Rights Watch.

When international pressure reached a climax in December of last year, Myanmar's government relented and said they would look into claims of abuses. The government—led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi—set up an office run by the vice president to investigate crimes against the minority, and they found "insufficient evidence" of rape. In response, humanitarian organizations such as Human Rights Watch have slammed the investigation as "methodologically flawed." The government also claims allegations are made up.

The testimony collected by UN officials tells a different story. "After entering our house, the army apprehended us. They pushed my mother on the ground. They removed her clothes, and four officers raped her," said one 11-year-old Rohingya girl. "They also slaughtered my father, a prayer leader, just before raping my mother. After a few minutes, they burnt the house with a rocket, with my mother inside. All this happened before my eyes."

They removed all my clothes and all my mother's clothes and kicked us with their boots.

Many Rohingya are afraid to return to Myanmar, and those who have been able to flee the brutal crackdown are now stuck in Bangladesh, a country that cannot afford to support them because of its own development issues and food shortages.

It's not just the army who hate the Rohingya. Buddhist monks are regularly seen protesting against the minority group and recently protested against the arrival of a ship filled with aid from Malaysia. Ye Myint Aung, the Burmese envoy in Hong Kong tried his best to make the rest of the world feel as he did about the Rohingya people. "They are as ugly as ogres," he said. They do not have the "fair and soft skin" like other people in Myanmar, he added.

Is a whole ethnic group really being persecuted because of the texture of their skin? An expert on the Rohingya, who requested anonymity as they still travel frequently to Myanmar, explains that there is more to the conflict than just Muslim versus Buddhist. "Essentially, it boils down to money and privileges. In Burma, an ethnic minority is given privileges by the government, and the Buddhists, who are very poor in Rakhine State, do not want the Rohingya to receive these privileges. They fight against their existence and to eliminate them."

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Rape is particularly widespread in Rakhine State. Fifty-two percent of the 101 women interviewed said they had survived being raped. Survivors say they were raped by the police and other villagers, as well as the army. The UN report suggests women are raped as punishment and for interrogation purposes. "The one who raped me asked me where my husband was. I said, 'I do not know, my house burned.' He said, 'Tell the truth and we will release you. Then he beat me and raped me," said one 22- year-old woman.

One gang rape victim was reportedly as young as 11, and there are reports of pre-adolescent children being targeted by soldiers. The military found one 11 year old and her mother alone in the house, and then the soldiers locked the mother outside and gang raped the child. "The next time the military came, there were eight to 10 of them, they were asking where my father and sisters were," the child told UN officials. "They were also saying that they were searching for people from Bangladesh. They removed all my clothes and all my mother's clothes and kicked us with their boots."

The soldiers left, she said, but returned the next day. "This time there were seven of them. They dragged my mother outside the house and locked themselves in the room with me. I do not know if they all abused me, I lost consciousness at some point. My mother woke me up with water. I was bleeding a lot."

The fate of the Rohingya hangs in fine balance. This week, after facing more international pressure, the government said they would look into the situation. The army have pulled out, leaving the police force in charge. But with young women and eyewitnesses claiming the police also took part in these crimes, it is possible there will be no respite for this group of persecuted people.

* Name has been changed