By Taruni Kumar
The hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who have been fleeing from the country of Myanmar because of atrocities and discrimination have been in the media spotlight since late August. The UN has called it “the world’s fastest growing refugee crisis,” and, “the most persecuted minority on earth.”
But The Associated Press highlighted another facet of the violence when it spoke to 21 Rohingya women who told the stories of their rape at the hands of the country’s armed forces. AP called the rape of these women by Myanmar’s military “sweeping and methodical.”
But despite the media attention around the ongoing crisis, and the concerns of the United Nations, Myanmar’s government denies wrongdoing, with one minister even saying that the Rohingya women were too ugly to be raped.
In light of the horrific stories of rape and violence coming out of Myanmar, here’s why India’s women need to sit up and pay attention to the sufferings of their Rohingya counterparts.
What is the Rohingya crisis?
The Rohingya are an ethnic Muslim group that resides in Rakhine State in Myanmar. They make up about one-third of the population there and are different from the rest of Myanmar’s predominantly Buddhist population in ethnicity, language and, of course, religion. Despite being able to trace their origins in the region back to the 15th Century, the Myanmar government refutes the group’s claims and denies them citizenship. This deems them stateless, leaving them without basic rights such as freedom of movement or education.
In August, a militant Rohingya group attacked security forces and army posts, leading to a vicious backlash that led to the deaths of over 500 people in clashes. The military cracked down on the Rohingya, destroying villages and forcing over 6,00,000 members of the community to flee the country.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has called the situation a “humanitarian and human rights nightmare.”
So, the military is attacking women specifically?
AP spoke to 29 women and girls, ranging from the age of 13 to 35, from various villages in Rakhine State who spoke of assaults that took place between October 2016 and mid-September 2017. Their stories are all chilling and similar. They all spoke of attacks by men and uniform or, in one case, men in plain clothes who were identified by her neighbours as belonging to the local military outpost. The stories speak of extreme, brutal violence that sometimes involved killing the woman’s friends and family members. Most stories involved the military men breaking into the women’s houses and some involved them surrounding an entire village, separating the men from the women and then taking the women away to another location to gangrape them.
The report claims that Myanmar’s military is actively using sexual assault and violence against women as a weapon in their arsenal “aimed at exterminating the Rohingya people.”
Are these verified reports?
AP clarified that the women’s accounts cannot be independently verified because foreign journalists are barred from entering the Rakhine region. But the stories seem to follow a pattern that are shockingly similar and seem systematic in their execution. Medical professionals from Doctors Without Borders have treated 113 survivors of sexual assault since August 2017 and doctors and aid workers in the country believe that only a fraction of the victims have come forward.
What is the Myanmar government doing?
Well, Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto head of state, has denied the ongoing ethnic cleansing. She’s also shrugged off international criticism and said, in September, that the government had “already started defending all the people in Rakhine in the best way possible.”
In December 2016, the government issued a press release disputing the reports of sexual assault and when questions were asked by journalists in September about the rape allegations, Phone Tint, Rakhine’s border affairs minister said, “These women were claiming they were raped, but look at their appearances. Do you think they are that attractive to be raped?”
Isn’t Kyi a human rights activist?
Kyi is a Nobel Peace Prize winner and has been praised for her non-violent stance during her 15-year house arrest, which was imposed on her by the military after she won a presidential election.
In a 2011 video statement to the Nobel Women’s Initiative, Kyi acknowledged that the military was carrying out wide scale abuses and condemned sexual violence by the forces. She said, “Rape is rife. It is used as a weapon by armed forces to intimidate the ethnic nationalities and to divide our country.”
The same Kyi is now oblivious to her fellow Nobel Prize winners’ and the world’s pleas to defend and protect the Rohingya.
This sounds awful.
It is. India has about 40,000 Rohingya refugees but the Indian government has termed them illegal immigrants. It believes these people are a drain on the country’s resources and a security threat and wants to deport them to Myanmar. Indian intelligence agencies say that because there are some Rohingya terrorist organisations, all the Rohingya are a threat. In September 2017, Union minister Kiren Rijiju was reported to have said, “I want to tell the international organisations whether the Rohingya are registered under the United Nations Human Rights Commission or not, they are illegal immigrants in India.” He added that they stand to be deported as per law.
The head of the United Nations Human Rights Council Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein responded to this statement, saying he deplored India’s measures to deport the Rohingya and that “by virtue of customary law, its ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the obligations of due process and the universal principle of non-refoulement [not forcing asylum seekers to return to a country where they are likely to be persecuted], India cannot carry out collective expulsions, or return people to a place where they risk torture or other serious violations.”
It is increasingly clear that we can’t turn a blind eye to the girls and women of Myanmar.
Co-published with Firstpost.