Vil­lagers re­count vi­o­lence by Ro­hingya mil­i­tants

Amid Mus­lim ex­o­dus from Burma, oth­ers are also flee­ing their homes, re­count­ing killings by in­sur­gents and fear­ing for their lives

The Washington Post - - THE WORLD - BY AN­NIE GOWEN

sit­twe, burma — The Hindu woman wept as she vowed never to re­turn home, where she said Ro­hingya mil­i­tants slaugh­tered her son, daugh­ter-in-law and three grand­daugh­ters in Au­gust.

“They killed my fam­ily,” Halu Bar Hla, 70, said through tears at a camp for in­ter­nally dis­placed peo­ple in western Burma. “I will not go back. I will die if I go back to my vil­lage. They will slit my throat.”

Hla’s ac­count il­lus­trates the com­plex­ity of the Ro­hingya cri­sis, in which Bud­dhists and mi­nori­ties such as Hin­dus claim that mil­i­tant Ro­hingya have car­ried out atroc­i­ties against them even as a bru­tal mil­i­tary “clear­ance op­er­a­tion” has sent 600,000 Ro­hingya Mus­lims across the bor­der into Bangladesh.

The U.N. hu­man rights chief has called the Burmese mil­i­tary’s crack­down a “text­book ex­am­ple of eth­nic cleans­ing,” and Burma’s demo­crat­i­cally elected gov­ern­ment and its de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, have been widely con­demned dur­ing the ex­o­dus.

U.S. Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son will meet with Suu Kyi and the mil­i­tary com­man­der on Wed­nes­day in Burma, where he is ex­pected to press for a “cred­i­ble in­ves­ti­ga­tion” into al­leged abuses and could raise the pos­si­bil­ity of re­newed sanc­tions, a State Depart­ment of­fi­cial said. The Burmese mil­i­tary is­sued an in­ter­nal re­port this week that ex­on­er­ated its sol­diers of any wrong­do­ing.

In­ter­views with monks, politi­cians and refugees in this port city demon­strate how dif­fi­cult it will be for Burmese and Bangladeshi of­fi­cials to ham­mer out a plan for the Ro­hingya to re­turn to Rakhine state. Lead­ers from both the Bud­dhist com­mu­nity and Suu Kyi’s gov­ern­ment deny atroc­i­ties against Ro­hingya have taken place at all, say­ing that the refugees fled in fear af­ter Ro­hingya mil­i­tants at­tacked po­lice posts in late Au­gust.

“The ex­trem­ists in­cited vil­lagers to go away say­ing the Burma army would come and kill them. They killed Hin­dus and other eth­nic mi­nori­ties. We could not find the death of any Mus­lim,” said Win Htein, a top ad­viser to Suu Kyi. “There is no geno­cide or eth­nic cleans­ing.”

Sit­twe is about as close as jour­nal­ists can freely get to north­ern Rakhine state, now sealed by the mil­i­tary, where the mil­i­tants at­tacked on Aug. 25. Be­hind the mil­i­tary cordon, the vi­o­lence has ebbed. Vil­lagers and aid work­ers al­lowed en­try to that area de­scribe ghostly scenes of burned Ro­hingya vil­lages, largely de­void of peo­ple. Es­ti­mates vary, but be­tween 100,000 to 200,000 Ro­hingya re­main, with food and med­i­cal sup­plies run­ning low.

“Even with the de­struc­tion, you can see a bi­cy­cle that’s just left. It’s a very strange feel­ing, as if life has stopped. The sense of empti­ness is quite strik­ing,” said Fabrizio Car­boni, the head of the Burma del­e­ga­tion of the In­ter­na­tional Com­mit­tee of the Red Cross.

Red Cross groups — so far the only out­side aid work­ers per­mit­ted to en­ter — have dis­trib­uted food and cash as­sis­tance to 86,000 since late Au­gust.

A Ro­hingya gro­cer in the town of Maung­daw said by tele­phone that se­cu­rity is tight and the Ro­hingya are not per­mit­ted to travel.

“We’re trapped and sur­rounded by mil­i­tary,” said Ko Hla Win, 34. They are sur­viv­ing be­cause some Bud­dhists are se­cretly sell­ing them food, he said.

Else­where, state work­ers be­gan har­vest­ing 70,000 acres of rice pad­dies the Ro­hingya left be­hind, a spokesman said. They are also pre­par­ing two camps to house re­turn­ing refugees.

It’s been more than two months since the Au­gust at­tacks trig­gered a crack­down that left more than 280 vil­lages burned — ac­cord­ing to a Hu­man Rights Watch anal­y­sis of satel­lite photos — and scores dead. Sur­vivors have al­leged wide­spread hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions by the mil­i­tary, in­clud­ing rapes and mass ex­e­cu­tions. Wit­ness ac­counts have been dif­fi­cult to ver­ify be­cause the gov­ern­ment has de­nied U.N. hu­man rights in­ves­ti­ga­tors and oth­ers ac­cess to the area.

The ex­o­dus has riv­eted in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion on the plight of more than 1 mil­lion Ro­hingya Mus­lims long de­nied cit­i­zen­ship and other ba­sic rights in Burma, the ma­jor­ity-Bud­dhist na­tion of 51 mil­lion peo­ple in South­east Asia that is also known as Myan­mar. The coun­try held largely demo­cratic elec­tions in 2015, but the mil­i­tary still con­trols se­cu­rity, key min­istries and lu­cra­tive sta­te­owned en­ter­prises.

At the same time the Ro­hingya fled, more than 30,000 Hin­dus, Bud­dhists and eth­nic mi­nori­ties were also dis­placed, with some flee­ing south to Sit­twe to take refuge in monas­ter­ies. In in­ter­views, dis­placed vil­lagers said they were afraid to re­turn home be­cause they feared the Ro­hingya in­sur­gents whose at­tacks on po­lice posts in their vil­lages pre­cip­i­tated the cri­sis.

In the years since Burma’s in­de­pen­dence from Bri­tain in 1948, the coun­try’s mil­i­tary regime grad­u­ally di­min­ished the rights of the Ro­hingya, strip­ping them of cit­i­zen­ship and the right to vote. Today the gov­ern­ment con­sid­ers Ro­hingya il­le­gal im­mi­grants from Bangladesh; they are called “Ben­galis” here, or the slur “Kalar.” Even the term “Ro­hingya” is anath­ema; Suu Kyi her­self won’t use it be­cause it is in­flam­ma­tory, she told The Wash­ing­ton Post in an in­ter­view last year.

In 2012, the rape of a Bud­dhist woman by Ro­hingya men trig­gered wide­spread com­mu­nal vi­o­lence af­ter which more than 100,000 Ro­hingya were con­fined to de­ten­tion camps. At the same time, a move­ment of hard-line Bud­dhist na­tion­al­ism gath­ered steam, led by rad­i­cal monks.

Shortly there­after, a group of Saudi-based Ro­hingya ex­pa­tri­ates formed the mil­i­tant Arakan Ro­hingya Sal­va­tion Army, or ARSA, ac­cord­ing to a De­cem­ber re­port from the In­ter­na­tional Cri­sis Group. Its lead­ers even­tu­ally trav­eled to the area to re­cruit and sur­rep­ti­tiously train vil­lagers in guer­rilla war tac­tics, the re­port said.

Maung Oo Than Tin, 25, a Bud­dhist col­lege stu­dent, re­called that one of his best school friends, a Ro­hingya, stopped speak­ing to him af­ter the 2012 vi­o­lence and later left the coun­try. About three months ago, the for­mer friend mes­saged him omi­nously on Face­book, “We are go­ing to kill you.”

Gro­cery store owner San­der Moe, 25, a mem­ber of the eth­nic Marma com­mu­nity, which was also al­legedly threat­ened by mil­i­tants, said she be­lieved that most of her Ro­hingya neigh­bors joined ARSA last year af­ter four vil­lage men were re­cruited to be lo­cal lead­ers. They trained vol­un­teers in the woods and ex­horted Ro­hingya to stop pa­tron­iz­ing Bud­dhist busi­nesses, caus­ing her sales to drop from $20 to $3 a day.

She said lo­cals made up the mob that at­tacked a po­lice sta­tion across the street from her home in Au­gust, armed with long knives and grenades. In the crowd, she could dis­cern the mul­lahs, a stocky rice farmer and even an 8-year-old boy. She and oth­ers fled to a monastery, which was be­sieged for sev­eral days be­fore the vil­lagers were able to escape to Sit­twe. She now fears re­turn­ing home. “I don’t want to go back,” she said, adding that she wor­ries she may be raped.

The story of Hindu vil­lagers al­legedly killed en masse by Ro­hingya mil­i­tants is more com­pli­cated than the ex­pe­ri­ences of oth­ers who al­lege vi­o­lence by the in­sur­gents. In late Septem­ber and early Oc­to­ber, gov­ern­ment spokesman Zaw Htay re­peat­edly posted on Face­book about the al­leged at­tack on Hin­dus by “ex­trem­ist ter­ror­ists.” A group of jour­nal­ists was flown to view 45 Hin­dus al­legedly ex­humed from a mass grave. Hu­man Rights Watch ac­cused the gov­ern­ment of “play­ing pol­i­tics” with the dead.

But now the sur­vivors are lan­guish­ing. More than 500 Hin­dus, in­clud­ing Halu Bar Hla, re­main camped in squalid con­di­tions un­der the bleach­ers in Sit­twe’s soc­cer sta­dium. The gov­ern­ment has not pro­vided food ra­tions since Nov. 2, they say, and they are sur­viv­ing on rice do­na­tions from monks and other well-wish­ers in town.

PHOTOS BY AN­NIE GOWEN/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

In Sit­twe, Burma, monks and pub­lic of­fi­cials deny that the mil­i­tary has com­mit­ted atroc­i­ties, and refugees tell of killings by Ro­hingya mil­i­tants. At left, Maung Oo Than Tin, 25, a Bud­dhist, says a for­mer Ro­hingya friend mes­saged to say, “We are go­ing to kill you.”

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