#Myanmar: Rape and violence “used as a tactic of war” against the civilian population
#Myanmar: Rape and violence “used as a tactic of war” against civilian population as part of “deliberate strategy”.
The Independent International Fact-finding Mission’s Radhika Coomaraswamy briefed the press in Geneva this week on the Mission’s new report.
In its report, the Mission concludes that human rights violations in Myanmar “amount to the gravest crimes under international law,” warranting criminal investigation and prosecution of top army generals.
The report calls for the situation in Myanmar to be referred to the International Criminal Court, or for an ad hoc international criminal tribunal to be created.
The full report is available here –
Report of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar*
* The present report was submitted after the deadline in order to reflect the most recent developments
** For detailed findings, see document A/HRC/39/CRP.2.
- Human Rights Council resolution 34/22 established the independent international fact-finding mission on Myanmar (the Mission). The President of the Council appointed Marzuki Darusman (Indonesia) as chairperson and Radhika Coomaraswamy (Sri Lanka) and Christopher Sidoti (Australia) as members. A secretariat was recruited by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
- The Mission presented an oral update at the Council’s thirty-sixth session and an oral interim report at the thirty-seventh session, and delivered a video statement at the twenty-seventh special session on 5 December 2017. This report is submitted pursuant to Council decision 36/115, requesting the Mission to submit its final report at its thirty-ninth session. It presents its main findings and recommendations herewith, which are detailed in document A/HRC/39/CRP.2.
- The Mission regrets the lack of cooperation from the Government of Myanmar, despite appeals from the Council and the Mission. The Mission requested in-country access through letters of 4 September 2017, 17 November 2017 and 29 January 2018. It sent a detailed list of questions on 27 March 2018. The Mission had limited informal contact with Government representatives but received no official response to its letters. This report was shared with the Government prior to its public release. No response was received.
II. Mandate and methodology
- Resolution 34/22 mandated the Mission “to establish the facts and circumstances of the alleged recent human rights violations by military and security forces, and abuses, in Myanmar, in particular in Rakhine State, […], with a view to ensuring full accountability for perpetrators and justice for victims.”
- The Mission focused on the situation in Kachin, Rakhine and Shan States since 2011. This reflects the resumption of hostilities in Kachin State and escalation in Shan State in 2011, and the outbreak of major violence in Rakhine State in 2012. These events were turning points, generating renewed allegations of serious human rights violations and abuses. The Mission selected several significant incidents for in-depth fact-finding, allowing detailed findings on specific allegations of violations and abuses while revealing broader patterns of conduct. Serious allegations have also arisen in other contexts, meriting further investigation.
- Factual findings are based on the “reasonable grounds” standard of proof. This standard was met when a sufficient and reliable body of primary information, consistent with other information, would allow an ordinarily prudent person to reasonably conclude that an incident or pattern of conduct occurred.
- The Mission amassed a vast amount of primary information. It conducted 875 in-depth interviews with victims and eyewitnesses, both targeted and randomly selected. It obtained satellite imagery and authenticated a range of documents, photographs and videos. It checked this information against secondary information assessed as credible and reliable, including organizations’ raw data or notes, expert interviews, submissions, and open source material. Specialised advice was sought on sexual and gender-based violence, child psychology, military affairs, and forensics. Only verified and corroborated information was relied upon.
- To collect information, the Mission members travelled to Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and the United Kingdom. The secretariat undertook numerous additional field-missions between September 2017 and July 2018. The Mission also held over 250 consultations with other stakeholders, including intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations, researchers, and diplomats – in person and remotely. It received written submissions, including through a public call.
- The Mission strictly adhered to the principles of independence, impartiality and objectivity. It sought consent from sources on the use of information, ensuring confidentiality as appropriate. Specific attention was paid to the protection of victims and witnesses, considering their well-founded fear of reprisals. The Mission is gravely concerned at the intimidation and threats faced by persons cooperating with Council mechanisms examining the situation in Myanmar. It urges Myanmar to protect human rights defenders.
C. Legal framework
- Facts were assessed in light of international human rights law, international humanitarian law and international criminal law, as applicable in Myanmar. In addition to non-international armed conflicts in Kachin and Shan States, the Mission considered that the violence in Rakhine State between the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) and the Myanmar security forces constituted a non-international armed conflict, at least since 25 August 2017.
- A succession of military regimes ruled Myanmar from 1962. In 2008, a new Constitution was adopted, designed by the military to retain its dominant role in politics and governance. It instituted a system of government with military and civilian components. The military (known as “Tatmadaw”) appoints 25 per cent of seats in both legislative bodies, and selects candidates for three key ministerial posts (Defence, Border Affairs and Home Affairs), and at least one of two Vice-Presidents. This is sufficient to control the National Defence and Security Council and the entire security apparatus, and block constitutional amendments. The Tatmadaw has the right to independently administer and adjudicate its affairs, without civilian oversight. Current or former military officers occupy positions of authority across all branches of government, within the civil service and the judiciary, and in many State-owned enterprises. In 2010, the Thein Sein government embarked on wide-ranging reforms towards political and economic liberalisation, without amending the Constitution. The National League for Democracy won the November 2015 election, and a government led by that party took office on 31 March 2016. Sanctions were lifted and foreign investment welcomed.
- In addition to the Bamar, Myanmar includes other ethnic groups that constitute 32 per cent of the estimated population. Since independence, the numerous ethnically-based armed conflicts have been used by the Tatmadaw to justify its power, presenting itself as the guarantor of national unity. Several groups hold deep-rooted grievances, struggling for greater autonomy and an equitable sharing of natural resources. While governments have made overtures towards negotiated peace agreements, hostilities have continued. These conflicts indicate that the nation-building efforts of the military have failed: there is no unifying “Myanmar” national identity and resentment against Bamar-Buddhist domination has only grown. Notably, under military rule the concept of “national races” has gradually become the key criterion for membership in Myanmar’s political community, creating a common “other”. The military regime has constructed eight major ethnic groups, further broken down into 135 “national races”. This list defines who “belongs” in Myanmar. All others, regardless how many generations have lived in Myanmar, are considered outsiders or immigrants. This includes the Rohingya. The Tatmadaw expounds, “Despite living among peacocks, crows cannot become peacocks.”
- According to the 2014 census, 87.9 per cent of the population is Buddhist, 6.2 per cent Christian, and 4.3 per cent Muslim. The Bamar are predominantly Buddhist; many other ethnic groups contain large numbers of non-Buddhists. Attempts in the 1960s to designate Buddhism as the State religion were divisive. The 2008 Constitution recognises the “special position of Buddhism” while acknowledging other religions. Since reforms began in 2011, Myanmar has seen an increase in Buddhist nationalism, virulent anti-Muslim rhetoric and violence between Buddhists and Muslims. Among the largest Buddhist nationalist organizations is the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion (or “MaBaTha”), which cast itself as the protector of Buddhism. While MaBaTha was nominally disbanded, its successors are still widely supported.
- Today, the Tatmadaw enjoys increased popularity among the Bamar-Buddhist majority. The violence, particularly the “Rohingya crisis”, has been used by the military to reaffirm itself as the protector of a nation under threat, and further cement its political role. This is remarkable considering the Tatmadaw’s appalling human rights record, and the democracy movement’s long struggle against its rule. Myanmar has been a country of concern for the United Nations for 30 years, with resolutions condemning its human rights situation since 1991. For three decades, successive Special Rapporteurs on the situation of human rights in Myanmar concluded that patterns of human rights violations were widespread and systematic, linked to State and military policy. Allegations of gross human rights violations have continued since 2011 and are the focus of this report.
IV. Emblematic situations
- The Mission focused on three emblematic situations: the crisis in Rakhine State; the hostilities in Kachin and Shan States; and the infringement on the exercise of fundamental freedoms, focusing on hate speech.
A. Rakhine State
- Rakhine State has a poverty rate nearly double the national average. All communities in Rakhine suffer from poor social services and a scarcity of livelihood opportunities. The state’s two largest groups are the Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims. The former constitutes the majority; the latter is the majority in the north. There are several other ethnic minorities, including the Kaman Muslims. The problems in Rakhine State are often ascribed to poor relations between the Rohingya and the Rakhine, reflective of deeply-rooted grievances and prejudices. Yet, the majority of Rohingya and Rakhine interviewed indicated that relationships with the other community were good prior to 2012, citing examples of business dealings and friendships.
1. Violations against ethnic Rakhine
I want to share my story with the whole world because the world does not know what is happening in our place.
- The Mission spoke to many ethnic Rakhine, who highlighted serious human rights violations perpetrated by the Myanmar security forces against them. These violations are similar to those experienced by other ethnic groups in Myanmar.
- The Tatmadaw used Rakhine men, women and children for forced or compulsory labour, mostly for “portering”. Other violations included forced evictions through land confiscation, arbitrary arrest and detention, as well as violations of the rights to life, to physical and mental integrity, and to property. Tatmadaw soldiers also subjected Rakhine women to sexual violence, often in the context of forced labour. For example, one victim explained how in 2017, she was taken to a military base, beaten, and raped by a Tatmadaw captain.
- The Mission also received reports of repressive action against the assertion of Rakhine identity. For example, in January 2018, the police used excessive force in relation to a demonstration in Mrauk-U against the cancellation of an annual ethnic Rakhine event, killing seven protestors.
2. Systemic oppression and persecution of the Rohingya
In Rakhine State, Muslims are like in a cage, they cannot travel outside. There are no human rights for the Muslims of Rakhine. I don’t know why God sent us there.
- The process of “othering” the Rohingya and their discriminatory treatment started long before 2012. Their extreme vulnerability is a consequence of State policies and practices implemented over decades, steadily marginalising the Rohingya. The result is a continuing situation of severe, systemic and institutionalised oppression from birth to death.
- The cornerstone of this system is the lack of legal status. Successive laws and policies regulating citizenship and political rights have become increasingly exclusionary in their formulation, and arbitrary and discriminatory in their application. Most Rohingya have become de facto stateless, arbitrarily deprived of nationality. This cannot be resolved through the 1982 Citizenship Law – applied as proposed by the Government through a citizenship verification process. The core issue is the prominence of the concept of “national races” and the accompanying exclusionary rhetoric, originating under Ne Win’s dictatorship in the 1960s. The link between “national races” and citizenship has had devastating consequences for the Rohingya.
- The expulsions of Rohingya in the 1970s and 1990s, in the context of the military regime’s implementation of this exclusionary vision, were earlier markers. Observers, including United Nations human rights mechanisms and civil society, have alerted the Myanmar authorities and the international community to a catastrophe looming for decades.
- Travel of Rohingya between villages, townships and outside Rakhine State has long been restricted based on a discriminatory travel authorisation system. This has had serious consequences on economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to food, health and education. Levels of malnutrition in northern Rakhine State have been alarmingly high. Other discriminatory restrictions include procedures for marriage authorisation, restrictions on the number and spacing of children, and denial of equal access to birth registration for Rohingya children. For decades, security forces have subjected Rohingya to widespread theft and extortion. Arbitrary arrest, forced labour, ill-treatment, and sexual violence have been prevalent.
3. 2012 violence
We cried when we left. 25 years of hard work was lost. My time is almost finished, but what will happen to my children and my grandchildren?
- In this context, two waves of violence swept Rakhine State in June and October 2012, affecting 12 townships. The murder and alleged rape of a Rakhine woman and the killing of 10 Muslim pilgrims are commonly presented as key triggers. According to the Government Inquiry Commission, the violence left 192 people dead, 265 injured and 8,614 houses destroyed. Actual numbers are likely much higher. Further violence took place in Thandwe in 2013.
- The Government’s portrayal of the violence as “intercommunal” between the Rohingya and Rakhine has prevailed but is inaccurate. While there certainly was violence between Rohingya and Rakhine groups, resulting in killing and destruction of property, these attacks were not spontaneous outbursts of hostility. They resulted from a plan to instigate violence and amplify tensions. A campaign of hate and dehumanisation of the Rohingya had been underway for months and escalated after 8 June 2012, led by the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP), various Rakhine organizations, radical Buddhist monk organizations, several officials and influential figures. It was spread through anti-Rohingya or anti-Muslim publications, public statements, rallies, and boycotts of Muslim shops. The Rohingya were labelled “illegal immigrants”, “terrorists”, and portrayed as an existential threat that might “swallow other races” with their “incontrollable birth rates.” In November 2012 the RNDP cited Hitler, arguing that “inhuman acts” were sometimes necessary to “maintain a race”.
- Myanmar security forces were at least complicit. They often failed to intervene to stop the violence, or actively participated. They injured, killed and tortured Rohingya and destroyed their properties. Witnesses from Sittwe and Kyaukpyu described security forces preventing Rohingya or Kaman from extinguishing houses set on fire by Rakhine, including by gunfire. Witnesses from Maungdaw described security forces shooting indiscriminately at Rohingya and conducting mass arbitrary arrests, including of Rohingya NGO workers. Large groups were transferred to Buthidaung prison, where they faced inhuman conditions and torture. Prisoners were beaten by prison guards and fellow Rakhine detainees, some fatally.
- The 2012 violence marked a turning point in Rakhine State; the relationship between the Rakhine and Rohingya deteriorated; fear and mistrust grew. Although the Kaman are a recognized ethnic group, they were targeted alongside the Rohingya as Muslims, and have since suffered increasing discrimination and marginalisation.
- The Government responded to the violence by an increased presence of security forces and enforced segregation of communities. A state of emergency declared on 10 June 2012 was lifted only in March 2016. Township authorities in Rakhine State imposed a curfew and prohibited public gatherings of more than five people. These restrictions remain in force today in Maungdaw and Buthidaung and have been applied in a discriminatory manner against the Rohingya. They impact on freedom of religion, as people are prevented from praying collectively in mosques.
- The violence displaced more than 140,000 people, mostly Rohingya. The few thousand displaced ethnic Rakhine were able to return or were resettled by the Government. Six years after the violence, 128,000 Rohingya and Kaman remain segregated, confined in camps and displacement sites, without freedom of movement, access to sufficient food, adequate health care, education and livelihoods. The displaced are prevented from returning to their place of origin. Such confinement exceeds any justifiable security measure and constitutes arbitrary deprivation of liberty. Other Rohingya in central Rakhine, including those resettled, also face severe restrictions, including on freedom of movement impacting on daily life.
- The 2012 violence exacerbated the oppression of the Rohingya. Movements outside Rakhine State became even more difficult. Rohingya students have not been able to enrol at Sittwe University since 2012, effectively removing access to higher education. It is a violation of the right to education and a powerful tool to ensure cross-generational marginalisation. Although Rohingya were allowed to vote in 2010, this right was revoked prior to the 2015 elections. This oppressive climate led to an increase in Rohingya leaving Rakhine State by boat in the following years.
4. 25 August 2017 and “clearance operations”
That day felt like the last day of this world as if the whole world was collapsing. I thought judgment day had arrived.
- What happened on 25 August 2017 and the following days and weeks was the realisation of a disaster long in the making. It resulted from the systemic oppression of the Rohingya, the 2012 violence, and the Government’s actions and omissions since then. It caused the disintegration of a community.
- In the early hours of 25 August, ARSA launched coordinated attacks on a military base and up to 30 security force outposts across northern Rakhine State, in an apparent response to increased pressure on Rohingya communities and with the goal of global attention. A small number of minimally-trained leaders had some arms, and a significant number of untrained villagers wielded sticks and knives. Some had improvised explosive devices. Twelve security personnel were killed.
- The security forces’ response, starting within hours, was immediate, brutal and grossly disproportionate. Ostensibly to eliminate the “terrorist threat” posed by ARSA, in the days and weeks that followed, it encompassed hundreds of villages across Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Rathedaung. The operations targeted and terrorised the entire Rohingya population. The authorities called them “clearance operations”. As a result, nearly 725,000 Rohingya had fled to Bangladesh by mid-August 2018.
- Despite the operations covering a broad geographic area, they were strikingly similar. Tatmadaw soldiers would attack a village in the early hours, frequently joined by other security forces, often by Rakhine men and sometimes men from other ethnic minorities. The operations were designed to instil immediate terror, with people woken by intense rapid weapons fire, explosions, or the shouts and screams of villagers. Structures were set ablaze and Tatmadaw soldiers fired their guns indiscriminately into houses and fields, and at villagers.
- The nature, scale and organization of the operations suggests a level of preplanning and design on the part of the Tatmadaw leadership consistent with the vision of the Commander-in-Chief, Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing, who stated at the height of the operations, “The Bengali problem was a long-standing one which has become an unfinished job despite the efforts of the previous governments to solve it. The government in office is taking great care in solving the problem.”
- Human rights catastrophe
Everyone was just running for their lives. I was not even able to carry my children.
- The “clearance operations” constituted a human rights catastrophe. Thousands of Rohingya were killed or injured. Information collected by the Mission suggests that the estimate of up to 10,000 deaths is conservative. Mass killings were perpetrated in Min Gyi (Tula Toli), Maung Nu, Chut Pyin, Gudar Pyin, and villages in Koe Tan Kauk village tract. In some cases hundreds of people died. In both Min Gyi and Maung Nu, villagers were gathered together, before men and boys were separated and killed. In Min Gyi, women and girls were taken to nearby houses, gang-raped, then killed or severely injured. Houses were locked and set on fire. Few survived. In numerous other villages, the number of casualties was also markedly high. Bodies were transported in military vehicles, burned and disposed of in mass graves.
- People were killed or injured by gunshot, targeted or indiscriminate, often while fleeing. Villagers were killed by soldiers, and sometimes Rakhine men, using large bladed weapons. Others were killed in arson attacks, burned to death in their own houses. This disproportionately affected the elderly, persons with disabilities and young children, unable to escape. In some cases, people were forced into burning houses or locked into buildings set on fire.
- Rape and other forms of sexual violence were perpetrated on a massive scale. Large-scale gang rape by Tatmadaw soldiers occurred in at least ten village tracts of northern Rakhine State. Sometimes up to 40 women and girls were raped or gang-raped together. One survivor stated, “I was lucky, I was only raped by three men”. Rapes were often in public spaces and in front of families and the community, maximising humiliation and trauma. Mothers were gang-raped in front of young children, who were severely injured and in some instances killed. Women and girls 13 to 25 years of age were targeted, including pregnant women. Rapes were accompanied by derogatory language and threats to lifelike, “We are going to kill you this way, by raping you.” Women and girls were systematically abducted, detained and raped in military and police compounds, often amounting to sexual slavery. Victims were severely injured before and during rape, often marked by deep bites. They suffered serious injuries to reproductive organs, including from rape with knives and sticks. Many victims were killed or died from injuries. Survivors displayed signs of deep trauma and face immense stigma in their community. There are credible reports of men and boys also being subjected to rape, genital mutilation and sexualised torture.
- Children were subjected to, and witnessed, serious human rights violations including killing, maiming and sexual violence. Children were killed in front of their parents, and young girls were targeted for sexual violence. Of approximately 500,000 Rohingya children in Bangladesh, many fled alone after their parents were killed or after being separated from their families. The Mission met many children with visible injuries matching accounts of being shot, stabbed or burned.
- Numerous men and boys were rounded up, marched into the forest by security forces, or taken away in military vehicles. While some families hope their fathers and brothers were imprisoned, others suspect they were killed.
- Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fled, without shelter, food or water. They walked for days or weeks through forests and over mountains. People died on the way, some succumbing to injuries sustained during the attacks. Women gave birth; some babies and infants died. An unknown number of people drowned from capsized boats, or crossing rivers. The Tatmadaw also killed Rohingya during the journey and at border crossings. Landmines planted in border areas by the Tatmadaw in early September 2017, apparently to prevent or dissuade Rohingya from returning, led to further loss of life and severe injuries.
- Satellite imagery and first-hand accounts corroborate widespread, systematic, deliberate and targeted destruction, mainly by fire, of Rohingya-populated areas across the three townships. At least 392 villages (40 per cent of all settlements in northern Rakhine) were partially or totally destroyed, encompassing at least 37,700 individual structures. Approximately 80 per cent were burned in the initial three weeks of the operations; a significant portion of which after the Government’s official end date of the “clearance operations”. Over 70 per cent of the destroyed villages were in Maungdaw, where the majority of Rohingya lived. Most destroyed structures were homes. Schools, marketplaces and mosques were also burned. Rohingya-populated areas were specifically targeted, with adjacent or nearby Rakhine settlements left unscathed.
- A foreseeable and planned catastrophe
My Rakhine neighbour warned me: “You cannot stay here and we cannot control the bad behaviour of our own people. The government is planning to drive away your people.”
- The 2017 ARSA attacks and ensuing “clearance operations” did not occur in a vacuum. They were foreseeable and planned.
- ARSA emerged as a Rohingya resistance organization in response to the 2012 violence and increased State oppression over all aspects of life. On 9 October 2016, it launched a small first offensive against three Border Guard Police posts in northern Rakhine State. Nine police officers were killed and ARSA obtained some arms. The security forces, led by the Tatmadaw, responded with “clearance operations”. 87,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh. The same tactics and violations were seen in this operation as later in 2017, albeit on a smaller scale. A Government Investigation Commission led by the Vice-President, and the security forces’ own inquiries, cleared the security forces of wrongdoing, endorsing the lawfulness and appropriateness of the response.
- As in 2012, the 2016 violence resulted in a further intensification of oppressive measures against the Rohingya. Security forces, camps and checkpoints were increased. Daily life for the Rohingya became untenable, with extreme movement restrictions. Protective fences around Rohingya houses were removed, knives and other sharp implements were confiscated. Security patrols, house searches, beatings, theft and extortion increased. Hundreds of men and boys were arrested, with the most educated and influential frequently targeted. Many were subjected to ill-treatment or torture in detention. Some were later released on payment of bribes; others have not been seen since. Women and girls were subjected to sexual violence, including gang rape.
- In parallel, the authorities embarked on a renewed effort to impose the National Verification Card (NVC) on the Rohingya, a card they had refused as a symbol of a discriminatory system that would entrench their status as “Bengali immigrants”. The NVC increasingly became a pre-requisite to passing checkpoints, accessing farmland, and fishing. Intimidation and force were used, including at community meetings in the presence of the police and military, during which threats were made at gunpoint. At these meetings, villagers were told to “take t