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Crisis in Myanmar: Rohingya ethnic cleansing

Los Angeles (CNN) More than 600,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled predominately Buddhist Myanmar for neighboring Bangladesh in what the UN describes as “ethnic cleansing” by the army.

The military crackdown began in August after insurgents attacked police outposts in Rakhine State.

But human rights groups say the response left thousands of innocent civilians dead and hundreds of villages burned to the ground with one goal in mind: to erase entire Rohingya communities.

New York Times South Asia Bureau Chief Jeffrey Gettleman traveled to refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.

He talked to survivors who indicated: “Much of the violence was flamboyantly brutal, intimate and personal — the kind that is detonated by a long, bitter history of ethnic hatred.”

© AFP/Getty Images

One of the many victims of this crisis is a woman named Rajuma. This is her story as told by Gettleman to “CNN Newsroom L.A.’s” Isha Sesay.

“This is pretty upsetting,” he began. “It’s one of the most horrendous interviews I’ve ever done in my career.”

He took a deep breath.

“Rejuma was a woman who saw government soldiers coming into her village and burning down houses. She was hiding in her house with her family and was surrounded by these troops that were just looting and burning all around her.

“When she tried to run away, she was quickly captured. And she told the story of how troops then marched her down to the riverbank in her village, separated the men from the women and then methodically raped all the women and killed just about all the men.”

Sadly, things got even worse for Rajuma.

“She had a small baby in her arms and she said that these soldiers grabbed her baby son and threw him into a fire right in front of her. And he was screaming her name as he burned to death.”

Gettleman says he felt helpless working on this story because there are so many people in such great need who have suffered so much. Most painful, for him, “There was nothing I could do to help her.”

The Rohingyas have been an isolated group inside Myanmar for decades.

They have endured religious persecution. The government has even taken away their rights for citizenship — making it difficult for them to marry, get an education and find employment.

Gettelman says, “In recent years, as Burma has gone through a political transition, these Rohingya people have been vilified, demonized and dehumanized. So there was this build-up of hatred towards these people who are very poor, very cut-off.

“Many people like Rejuma who I spoke to had never been to school. Here we are in 2017, and you have this large population of totally uneducated people that has had very little contact with the outside world.”

UNICEF Rohingya SS

© UNICEF

Then, in August, a Rohingya militant group launched the attack on the police outposts — “fighting for what they saw as the rights and the dignity of these people,” Gettleman says. “The government used that as an excuse to just wipe out hundreds of Rohingya villages.

“Another issue with the Rohingya is nobody wants them. So you now have more than half a million  Rohingya stuck in Bangladesh — right on the border, right outside of Burma — and Bangladesh does not want them staying there. They’re negotiating behind-the-scenes to push these people back into Burma.

“At the same time, Burma is saying, ‘These are not our people. They are not ethnic Burmese. They are invaders or (illegal) immigrants.’

“So you have this huge community stuck in these muddy camps, packed into these really squalid conditions and nobody wants them. That’s hampering aid efforts. That’s hampering the diplomatic efforts to broker some type of peace deal or stability.

“So many people are walking around with these really heavy stories of trauma. And there’s no psychotherapist there. There’s nobody to help them.

“And that’s why, as a journalist being on the front line absorbing it, it’s really hard to feel good about the work I’m doing when you just know these people are in such great need and there’s nothing I can do.”

The de facto leader of Myanmar is Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi. After weeks of silence, on September 19, she stunned the world when she denied the ethnic cleansing that aid groups, the U.N. and satellite imagery had all confirmed.

“Since 5 September, there have been no armed clashes and there have been no clearance operations,” Suu Kyi said. She claimed government efforts to resolve the conflict have been complicated by what she termed “allegations and counter-allegations.”

“We have to listen to all of them. We have to make sure those allegations are based on solid evidence before we take action,” she said. “We want to find out why this exodus is happening. We’d like to talk to those who have fled, as well as those who have stayed.”

Amnesty International says the speech was full of a “mix of untruths and victim-blaming.”

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On October 18, Amnesty International released a report titled: My World Is Finished’: Rohingya Targeted in Crimes against Humanity in Myanmar — and here’s what it determined.

Witness accounts, satellite imagery and data, and photo and video evidence gathered by Amnesty International all point to the same conclusion: hundreds of thousands of Rohingya women, men, and children have been the victims of a widespread and systematic attack, amounting to crimes against humanity.

Tirana Hassan, Crisis Response Director at Amnesty International, joined “CNN Newsroom L.A.” and told Isha Sesay, “What we found in our latest research, after talking to 120 Rohingya refugees, victims and witnesses, is that this is ethnic cleansing. There’s absolutely no doubt of that.

“There are eleven acts listed in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court — when committed in these circumstances, rise to the level of crimes against humanity. And consistently in the interviews that we have done, six of those have been continuously coming up: rape, sexual violence, assault, persecution, forced displacement and the denial of basic services like access to food.

“What we have documented is a widespread and systemic attack that has been affecting and targeting the Rohingya population as a whole. As we know, there were attacks by a Rohingya insurgency group. The government, then, in response to that, has claimed that they are carrying out clearance operations.

“But what it is is essentially collective punishment against the Rohingya population, which has seen wide scale burning — and the type of burning that we believe has actually been done, not only to punish the Rohingya population, but to drive them permanently out of the area.

“Consistently, in some of the worst attacks that we saw, the witnesses have been able to identify the insignia on the actual security forces uniforms — and we have been able to identify the army’s western command, the 33rd Light Infantry Division and the border guard police, as being consistent actors in some of the worst abuses that we have documented…

“We’re talking about killings, rape, and the mass burning of civilian villages. There must be justice and accountability of the Myanmar security services who have been involved in these attacks. A lot of focus has been on Aung San Suu Kyi, but we do know that Min Aung Hlaing is the Commander in Chief and he has the responsibility to reel these troops in.”

On November 3, Save the Children and four other NGOs warned that almost a quarter of Rohingya children under the age of five who fled to Bangladesh in the past two months are suffering from acute malnutrition.

The research shows about a third of those children are severely malnourished, meaning they are nine times more likely to die than the children who are not malnourished. They are significantly more vulnerable to infections and diseases like watery diarrhea and chest infections.

“What you see around you is unhygienic circumstances, but also, malnutrition,” Save the Children spokesman Rik Goverde told “CNN Newsroom L.A.’s” Isha Sesay.

“We speak of an emergency when it’s 15% (child malnutrition), and here it’s 25%,” Goverde said. “So you can imagine the hardship that they are going through right now. It’s really a potential disaster for outbreaks of diseases, as well. Children who are malnourished and not treated, they may very well die.”

Goverde explained the reason for the extremely dire situation: “Many have traveled a long time, for days or even weeks to get where they are right now running from violence and hunger that was already in Myanmar. So they came to the camps exhausted. Now they’re in the camps and there was a shortage of food.

“NGOs and other organizations are really trying to get enough food to the people, but the influx is just so high… 600,000 in the last two months. It’s a city that has been erected in a hilly area where there used to be only trees and brushes. Now it’s a village of bamboo and tarp with unhygienic circumstances.”

Save the Children brought in mental health specialists to examine the young boys and girls in the Bangladeshi camps. “And what they saw was signs of toxic stress,” according to Goverde.

“Toxic stress is very dangerous for children. It can affect the brain in a lasting way — which makes it hard to develop themselves, to control emotions, to touch on their imaginations.”

© UNICEF

Despite all the mounting evidence of the ongoing persecution of the Rohingya, it barely rated a mention by leaders at the ASEAN Summit.

According to Reuters, the final comminuque had just one paragraph that “mentions the importance of humanitarian relief provided for victims of natural disasters in Vietnam and a recent urban battle with Islamist militants in the Philippines, as well as ‘affected communities’ in northern Rakhine state.”

Senior Emergency Coordinator for UNHCR, Louise Aubin, joined “Newsroom L.A.” to explain why so many leaders are reluctant to intervene in this crisis.

“It’s difficult to understand,” Aubin said, “because here we’re dealing with probably one of the fastest growing refugee crisis we’ve witnessed in decades. Rohingya refugees have been streaming across the border, and they still do, in search of security and life-saving assistance. It’s hard to ignore.

“Certainly the government of Bangladesh and the people of Bangladesh have not been ignoring the plight of refugees. I think they’re showing the world the best demonstration of compassion that we’ve seen in a very long time.”

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In other words, one of the poorest countries in the world seems to be the only one doing something about this.

The UNHCR is conducting family counting exercises, compiling data to better determine refugee camp populations.

“(The refugees) have told us of extreme forms of violence,” Aubin said. “The result is that we’re seeing many families having been separated with missing family members, young children extremely traumatized and in need of psycho-social support, young women, including children, are heading households at the moment and needing to fend for themselves.

“The refugee hosting areas are becoming more and more congested because we are speaking about a country with very limited land and space to be able to afford hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees in Bangladesh at the moment.

“The needs are pressing. They are immediate. They are urgent. They must link together both the urgent needs of refugees — which are overwhelming — with longstanding needs of local communities here.”

Myanmar military did an internal investigation in early-November. It claims to have gathered answers from 3,000 villages and concluded that “security forces did not commit shooting at innocent villagers and sexual violence and rape cases against women. They did not arrest, beat and kill the villagers. They did not totally destroy, rob and take property, gold and silver wares, vehicles and animals of villagers from the villages and displaced villages. They did not set fire to the mosques of Bengali villages.”

Matthew Smith is the co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of Fortify Rights. He, too, has visited the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar. He’s talked to too many victims to count. And his findings directly contradict the Myanmar army’s findings.

On November 14, his group, along with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, put out a report describing mounting evidence of genocide of Rohingya people in Myanmar.

The report concluded: Fortify Rights and the Simon-Skjodt Center continue to be gravely concerned about growing evidence of genocide against Rohingya Muslims in northern Rakhine State. Without an adequate and immediate response to crimes perpetrated against the Rohingya and documented in this report, state-led violence in Myanmar will persist, impunity will reign, and dangerous and discriminatory policies will gain permanence.

UNICEF Rohingya SS

© UNICEF

Smith detailed the results from a year-long investigation to Isha Sesay on “CNN Newsroom L.A.”

“We uncovered grave crimes against the Rohingya population. We’re talking about mass killing,” he said. “We’re documenting cases in which soldiers slit throats, threw infant children into fires. In some cases, entire groups of residents in Rohingya villages were corralled, told that they would be safe, told not to flee and then they were massacred.

“We’ve been concerned about the crime of genocide for some time. The indications were clear for many, many months leading up to the recent wave of violence. This is a population that has faced severe human rights violations for decades. So what this report does is try to help clarify the nature of the crimes and the gravity of the crimes that are being perpetrated.

“Governments need to urgently act to apply pressure on the Myanmar authorities to end these attacks against the civilian population. But also there needs to be a serious move toward accountability. Regardless of how the crimes are categorized, really what we need to see right now is urgent action.”

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© International Rescue Committee

Queen Rania of Jordan visited the Kutupalong Refugee Camp. “Everywhere you looked around the camp, misery stared right back at you,” she said.

Queen Rania wondered to the media gathered if stereotypes have prevented the world from viewing Muslims as victims. “It leads one to wonder if the tables were turned, and these acts of violence were committed by Muslims, if the world’s response would have been as muted as the response that we are seeing here today.”

Matthew Smith told Sesay, “To a certain extent, many Rohingya do feel that their faith has a lot to do with why the international community has failed to adequately defend human rights and these killings from taking place.

“But I think it is important to note that this is a population that everywhere they go they are facing human rights violations. And it needs to stop. Southeast Asian nations need to step up. The international community has failed the Rohingya people.”

On November 15, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson flew to Myanmar to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi. Smith said he didn’t expect a silver bullet solution to the problem but hoped “Secretary Tillerson is very clear that human right’s violations of this nature, atrocity crimes will not be tolerated.

“It’s very important that Secretary Tillerson talks to General Min Aung Hlaing about the prospects of accountability for atrocity crimes. There is complete impunity in Myanmar and, until that impunity stops, until the perpetrators are held accountable, we’re afraid that we’re going to see more killings, and more violence and more abuses against the Rohingya and other populations.”

Tillerson, instead, called for an investigation and stopped short of declaring the crisis an ethnic cleansing. “We are very concerned by reports of widespread atrocities committed by Myanmar security forces,” the Secretary of State said.

“What we know occurred in Rakhine state… has a number of characteristics of crimes against humanity,” he added. “Whether it meets all the criteria of ethnic cleansing we continue to determine ourselves.”

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The President of the International Federation of the Red Cross, Francesco Rocca, spent time in those refugee camps. He told Isha Sesay on “CNN Newsroom L.A.” that — “the situation of suffering, for me, is something that I’ve never experienced before. The level of desperation is the highest that I’ve ever seen in my entire experience.

“600,000 refugees in just a few weeks with no electricity, no water, no facilities. The situation is really something unbelievable.”

As far as assistance that Red Cross has been able to provide, Rocca said, “Water was the priority. We set up a field hospital. We deployed seven of our mobile clinics working together with the Bangladesh Red Crescents to help the most vulnerable. We are distributing a lot of ice and we are reaching tens of thousands but we are fully aware that this is not enough.

“There was a strong risk of cholera but the WHO had a strong vaccination campaign. Especially for the children, the situation is really, really difficult. A lot of them are very malnourished. It is very, very sad to see.

“We are very proud of the nurses and the medical doctors who everyday walk up to one-hour just to reach the furthest part of the camp… but for one person you are able to reach, maybe there are three that you are unable to reach. That makes the level of frustration very high.”

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Sesay pointed out, “It’s not like the world doesn’t know what’s going on here. They’ve seen the pictures and messages of desperation on social media. So why isn’t more being done?”

“This is another failure of the international community,” Rocca answered. “Sometimes it seems that they turn their head away. The international community doesn’t want to see the suffering of the people. So we are calling to all the most powerful nations to support the humanitarian action of our organization and all the organizations in the field. It is really a shame what is happening under our eyes.”

Sesay asked, “Is it time for the international community to speak together with one voice and take the steps to call this a genocide? Because, as you know, that would trigger a compulsory action on part of the U.N. to intervene here?”

“Yes,” Rocca said. “But how many times have we asked the international community to speak with one voice? But it hasn’t been the case. This time maybe it would be the last one and maybe the international community would respond to these cries for help that is coming from 600,000 people — from thousands and thousands of children. This is unacceptable to face the kinds of challenges that these people have to live every day.

“Can you imagine every night with no electricity in these immense camps in little houses built up in only a few hours? Thousands of these children are with no relatives. No parents. It’s a shame the international community is not supporting the Bangladesh government in building up a better life for these people in putting pressure on all the actors to restore the dignity they deserve.”

Southeast Asia journalist Poppy McPherson joined “CNN Newsroom L.A.” from Yangon, Myanmar. She’s been reporting on the crisis for months and explained the complexities of covering this crisis.

“It’s very difficult, because since August, we haven’t had independent access to Rakhine state. There have been a few, very select, government controlled tours — but the information we get trickles out from the few Rohingya who have stayed behind and a few people who are supplying information to human rights’ groups and that paints a very bleak picture of the situation.

“Hundreds of villages have been burned down completely. There are thousands of people who are trapped on beaches trying to make their way across to Bangladesh to safety. These people are starving.”

For those who have made it to Cox’s Bazar — “It’s truly horrific,” McPherson explains. “Every single person that you speak to has a story. Every single family can say something that happened to them or a very close relative. It’s very visible. The trauma on peoples’ faces is absolutely visible.

“You walk into a tent, and there’s somebody just lying on the ground or somebody staring into the distance and you ask people, ‘Well, what happened?’ — and they say, ‘That man, his whole family was killed.’

“When you do start to speak to people, it’s just floods and floods of tears — and yet the Myanmar government and many people in Myanmar say that the people in Bangladesh are actors. That Rohingya are making up stories. That they’re performing for the cameras — which when you’re in Bangladesh and you’re talking to people — it’s really a horrific accusation.”

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McPherson has been covering Myanmar for several years — documenting the rising tension. “The Rohingya have long been absolutely hated,” she says. “We’ve watched rhetoric escalating against them, coming from state media and ordinary people. They’re absolutely loathed as illegal immigrants and now people view them as terrorists because of this new insurgency.

“The view here is a state of denial and frustration with the international community and the media. A lot of people say the reports are fake news. That it’s false and that most people who have fled to Bangladesh are terrorists or terrorist sympathizers.”

With that backdrop, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where Rohingya will be able to return home anytime soon.

“When I was in the camps talking to people, I found the talk of repatriation quite strange — because the vast majority of the people I spoke to say that, although they long to be back in their homeland, they really want to go back to their mother country.

“At the moment, they are extremely traumatized. They don’t want to go back until they are recognized as citizens. And citizenship is at the root of this crisis because the Rohingya are not considered citizens. A lot of the problems that they were facing before this crisis — lack of access to proper education, restrictions to freedom of movement — those were traced back to their statelessness.”

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On November 21, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson finally elevated American rhetoric in the region. “After a careful and through analysis of available facts, it is clear that the situation in northern Rakhine state constitutes ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya. Those responsible for these atrocities must be held accountable. The United States continues to support a credible, independent investigation to further determine all facts on the ground to aid in these processes of accountability,” the statement read.

Omar Waraich is the Deputy South Asia Director at Amnesty International. He told “CNN Newsroom L.A.’s” Isha Sesay, “We don’t know why Secretary of State Tillerson took this long, but we do know that it was definitely a political decision. There’s no new evidence that’s come to light in the intervening weeks.

“He was just in Myanmar where he had the chance to make this statement there but preferred to hold on. But, at the very least, he’s come through and confirmed what Amnesty International and other groups have been saying for a long time that this is a campaign of ethnic cleansing which in legal terms amounts to crimes against humanity.

“It represents a late, but necessary, hardening of a response from the international community. Until now, we have seen a number of states equivocate about the atrocities that have taken place in northern Rakhine state. But now we’re looking at the U.S. taking a firm line and raising the prospect of targeted sanctions when it comes to the military leadership who are responsible for these crimes.

“If the military is not held accountable, what’s stopping them from carrying out these abuses again? Are we going to reward ethnic cleansing? Is the world going to let this pass? Are we going to allow military leaders to get away with mass atrocities?”

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Tillerson called for an independent investigation — not an international one. And that distinction matters. “We believe it’s very necessary for there to be an international investigation — because only then can it be a credible investigation. So, for example, a U.N. fact finding mission needs to be allowed to go there. Our simple point is, ‘If the Myanmar authorities have nothing to hide, why don’t they let the investigators in?

“Once an investigation takes place, only then can we account for the brutal crimes that ensued three months ago and ever since then. And it’s only when those crimes are accounted for can we begin to see the glimmers of justice.”

Waraich’s group took the crisis a step further — calling it “apartheid.” After a two-year investigation, Amnesty International found that the Rohingya are “trapped in a vicious system of state-sponsored, institutionalized discrimination that amounts to apartheid” — which the United Nations defines as “inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them.”

On November 23, with pressure mounting for a resolution to the conflict, Bangladesh and Myanmar agreed to take help from the U.N. refugee agency to safely repatriate Rohingya refugees. They agreed to a process which they said should start within two months.

But the pact includes a requirement that returnees have to show proof of residency in Myanmar and who knows if they have that or if they even want to return to their burned villages. The deal also says the Myanmar government must take all possible measures to see that returnees are not settled in temporary places for a long period of time and will have the final say in disputes.

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Kate Vigneswaran, Legal Director for Fortify Rights, called the agreement premature arguing that it doesn’t address the underlying issues that have plagued the Rohingya. She told “CNN Newsroom L.A.’s” Isha Sesay, “There’s been no indication they’re going to unravel decades of systemic discrimination in the forms of restrictions on citizenship, movement, births and marriages or deal with the intercommunal violence and tension that has been ongoing or the violence perpetrated by the military.

“As far as we’re able to ascertain, the government and military intends to house returnees in camps, and if the camps that have been in existence since 2012 are anything to go by, this merely means internment in squalid conditions. So I think really this would be a disaster for the Rohingya if they were able to return at this point.”

Pope in Myanmar

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The agreement between Myanmar and Bangladesh came just days ahead of a visit by Pope Francis to the region from Nov. 26 to Dec. 2 that is aimed at promoting “reconciliation, forgiveness and peace.”

The Pontiff had previously called the Muslims in Rakhine state his persecuted “brothers and sisters,” but on this trip to Myanmar, he was forced to walk a religious and diplomatic tightrope. His own cardinal advised the Pope not to use the word Rohingya (a term many in Myanmar revile) due to concerns about a backlash against Christians and diluting his message of healing.

It’s a play that doesn’t sit well with Vigneswaran. “The Rohingya is a term that is a term that is adopted by the Rohingya community, itself. They have a right to self identify and they have a right to nationality. The Myanmar government and military has been disavowing that right to self identify by calling them Bengali interlopers and foreigners that should return to where they’ve come from.”

She argues that for the Pope to not use the term Rohingya it “feeds into that dehumanizing approach and doesn’t play the diplomatic role and the role the international community should be playing by putting pressure on this government to actually give these people their rights.”

Pope Francis did meet with Aung San Suu Kyi and it’s not known what was said behind closed doors. Later, though, the leader of the world’s Roman Catholics stood next to Suu Kyi and delivered a public speech urging reconciliation and “respect for each ethnic group and identity.” He never mentioned ethnic cleansing and never used the word Rohingya.

Instead, the Pontiff said religion holds the key bringing the people of Myanmar together. “The arduous process of peace-building and national reconciliation can only advance through a commitment to justice and respect for human rights.”

Suu Kyi spoke in general terms about her country’s deep divisions. “As we address long standing issues, social, economic and political, that have eroded trust and understanding, harmony and cooperation, between different communities in Rakhine, the support of our people and of good friends who only wish to see us succeed in our endeavors has been invaluable,” she said.

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In Yangon, the Pope held a public mass in front of 150,000 people. Again, no direct mention of the Rohingya people. Instead, during his Homily, he said, “I know that many in Myanmar bear the wounds of violence, wounds both visible and invisible. The temptation is to respond to these injuries with a worldly wisdom that, like that of the king in the first reading, is deeply flawed. We think that healing can come from anger and revenge. Yet the way of revenge is not the way of Jesus. Jesus’ way is radically different. When hatred and rejection led him to his passion and death, he responded with forgiveness and compassion.”

CNN Vatican Correspondent Delia Gallagher told “Newsroom L.A.” from Yangon, “Going into this, the Vatican knew that Myanmar authorities are well aware of where the Pope stands on the Rohingya crisis.

“The gamble was for the Pope to mention the Rohingyas in a public speech in front of Aung Sung Suu Kyi and government leaders and risk shutting down the dialog that he has come here to establish. So that was likely the reason that the Pope sort of went soft on that in the public limelight.”

In fact, Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said: “This was not the trip to Lesbos, which was a refugee trip. This was about diplomatic relations. The trip was organized before the  refugee crisis emerged, it was not conceived as a refugee trip.”

While in Myanmar, Pope Francis also met with the Supreme Council of Buddhist Monks — the predominant religion in the country. Gallagher said, “The Pope’s aim here is to bring on religious leaders… to say, ‘You are responsible for showing the example of tolerance. The Pope knows that, if there is to be a stable democracy in this country, it is not going to just come from the laws — it has to come from the social fabric of society. And in this country that comes from the religious leaders.”

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The second leg of the Pope’s trip took him to Bangladesh where he used Rakhine state and the word Rohingya for the first time. He met with refugee families in Dhaka and told them, “Dear brothers and sisters, Christianity teaches us that God created man at his image. We are now his image. Let us not close our heart. Let’s not look away. The presence of God today is also called Rohingya.”

With the Pope wheels up the Vatican, The New York Times came out with a report claiming that there’s a concerted effort by authorities in Myanmar to re-write history and claim that the Rohingya never existed in that country.

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The article referenced an October report from the UN Human Rights Office that concluded, Myanmar security forces “targeted teachers, the cultural and religious leadership, and other people of influence in the Rohingya community in an effort to diminish Rohingya history, culture and knowledge.”

The report also determined that security forces had worked to “effectively erase all signs of memorable landmarks in the geography of the Rohingya landscape and memory in such a way that a return to their lands would yield nothing but a desolate and unrecognizable terrain.”

Matthew Smith, founder and CEO of Fortify Rights, told “CNN Newsroom L.A.’s” Isha Sesay, that without any meaningful intervention from the international community, “in some respects, the authorities have succeeded in as much as they have perpetrated thus far these atrocity crimes with impunity, driven out more than 700,000 new refugees into Bangladesh — effectively destroying many aspects of Rohingya culture, let alone the Rohingya as a group.

“We’ve documented eye witness testimony of eye witnesses of the Myanmar military raising entire villages… but beyond that, full-scale massacres, killings of men, women and children. So this is a systematic attempt to effectively destroy or drive out the Rohingya population.”

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On December 5, The UN held a special session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva. After going into grave detail of the situation on the ground in Rakhine state, Human Rights Chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein he asked the 47-member state forum, “Can anyone rule out that elements of genocide may be present?”

Zeid continued: “Ultimately, this is a legal determination only a competent court can make. But the concerns are extremely serious, and clearly call for access to be immediately granted for further verification.”

The UNHRC later adopted a resolution condemning “the very likely commission of crimes against humanity” by security forces and others against Rohingya.

journalists cuffedOn December 12, two Reuters reporters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, were detained in Myanmar after being invited to meet police officials on the outskirts of Yangon.

The journalists had been investigating the Rohingya crisis. Myanmar’s Ministry of Information said the reporters “illegally acquired information with the intention to share it with foreign media,” and released a photo of them in handcuffs.

If convicted of crimes against the 1923 Official Secrets Act, the men face up to 14 years in prison.

Reuters President and Editor-In-Chief Stephen J. Adler said, “We and their families continue to be denied access to them or to the most basic information about their well-being and whereabouts.

“Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo are journalists who perform a crucial role in shedding light on news of global interest, and they are innocent of any wrongdoing,” he said.

Reuters, along with several countries, the United Nations and journalist groups are all calling for the immediate release of the journalists.

By December 13, the International Red Cross suggested that “life has stopped in its tracks in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state” — where it estimates 180,000 Rohingya remain living in fear.

Muslim traders won’t re-open their shops and markets because of the ongoing tension with the Buddhist community. The Red Cross says, “the Muslims and Buddhists are deeply scared of each other.”

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As for the Rohingya refugees who escaped into Bangladesh, the camps are growing more deplorable by the day, yet many are now threatening to commit suicide should they be forced back to Myanmar, according to a new report from OXFAM.

Sultana Begrum, Regional Campaigns and Policy Manager for OXFAM, told CNN that after interviewing 208 refugees, “People, women in particular, are still very worried about their safety. They talk about the fear of sexual violence.”

“The camps are dark and not lit at night. They’re afraid to go out. We’ve heard about kidnappings. And men also say they’re staying awake at night because they’re worried their children will be kidnapped.

“The situation you have in Cox’s Bazar is that since August, you’ve got close to a million people in these camps. So you have over 600,000 people who came recently. But you also have thousands of Rohingya refugees who were there from previous periods — which shows that this is a cyclical problem.

“This has been happening over generations and this is the third time time in the last 40 years that people have fled violence. It’s the fastest growing refugee crisis since Rwanda in the 90’s.”

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Despite groups like OXFAM, people there are struggling to get food, water and basic necessities. With monsoon season approaching, it’s a race against time with international relief efforts still gravely underfunded.

doctors without borders

doctorswithoutborders.org

The Myanmar government has put the death toll from this conflict in the hundreds, but in mid-December Médecins Sans Frontières released a study that showed the numbers were exponentially higher.

The agency interviewed several thousand refugees in four camps in late October and early November, asking how many members of their families had died and how, both before and after the violence began.

The answers suggested that at least 9,425 Rohingya died from Aug. 25 to Sept. 24, with at least 6,700 – more than 70% — reported to have been killed by shooting and other violence. Disease and malnutrition caused the other 30% of deaths, the refugees told MSF. At least 730 of those fatalities were children under the age of 5-years-old.

Aerlyn Pfeil, an MSF midwife and board member, told CNN that those horrifying numbers are low estimates. She also shared sad stories about rape survivors that she treated in the refugee camps in Bangladesh.

“The majority of my patients were assaulted in Myanmar,” Pfeil said. “Many women were subjected to pretty gruesome types and levels of violence — including about one-third of the patients were under the age of 18.

“The conditions (in the camps) really are terrible. There’s not enough water. The sanitation is pretty low level. People are living in make-shift shelters of bamboo sticks and plastic sheeting. That’s a really big concern for the women coming in for post-rape treatment is just how they’re going to feed themselves and their children and how their going to put shelter over their heads.

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“The needs are much bigger than we alone can provide. We’ve had a massive measles outbreak. We’re in the middle of a diphtheria outbreak. The survivors of sexual violence are increasing in numbers as women know what the information is and are coming forward. There’s a need to dig wells and set up latrines. We’re talking about a muddy and dirty living conditions.”

On December 19, Myanmar state media reported that a mass grave with 10 bodies inside had been found at Inn Din, north of Rakhine state capital Sittwe. Photos published by the military showed the grave being exhumed and multiple skeletal remains.

The following day, Myanmar banned United Nations Special Rapporteur Yanghee Lee from investigating the ongoing crackdown in Rakhine State. The government claimed a previous report by her was biased and unfair.

Human Rights Watch obtained satellite imagery showing at least 40 Rohingya villages had burned since October — driving home that point that Myanmar authorities continue to torture the Muslim population despite ongoing international condemnation.

“This satellite imagery adds to the weight of evidence that we have that this campaign of ethnic cleansing has not completed,” according to Akshaya Kumar, Deputy U.N. Director, Human Rights Watch. She told CNN, “Unfortunately, the international community’s lukewarm statements haven’t done the trick.

“Myanmar authorities are not feeling the pressure. They don’t see a need to change their ways. And, in fact, they’re becoming more obstructionist by the day.”

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Human Rights Watch estimates 100,000 Rohingya remain in Myanmar. Their conditions are unknown. “We don’t have enough access, certainly not for independent journalists, for human rights workers, not even for aid workers who want to deliver life saving assistance,” Kumar said. “And for those Rohingya that remain, we have to be really worried because they’re trapped without access to people who could champion their rights or monitor what’s happening to them.”

Human Rights Watch was able to interview a 24-year-old victim of the violence who escaped to a refugee camp in Bangladesh. Her name is Shawfika and her story is very troubling. “I woke up and realized I was in a pool of sticky blood. I tried to wake the others but they didn’t move. Then, I broke through the (bamboo) wall and escaped… All the houses in the area were on fire. I could hear women screaming from some of the other houses. They could not escape the fires.”

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“The Burmese military, the authorities, they’re hopeful that if they just keep all of us out, if we’re not allowed into northern Rakhine state, that somehow the truth won’t come out. But we’ve proven them otherwise,” Kumar said.

“We have satellite imagery, we’ve taken testimonies, I went to the camps myself, we spoke to people like Shawifka. I can still see her in my eyes. Another woman who I spoke to — whose entire face, her skin, her arms had been burned because of fire. These wounds, this evidence is so blatant, it can’t be covered up.

“So this flimsy attempt to kick out the Special Rapporteur will actually just make things worse for them. Hopefully it will give some of the members of the U.N. Security Council a wake-up call. They need to take action now. The Burmese are not taking this seriously.”

As the conflict lingers, the cold is settling in — winter now dealing the most vulnerable people in the world another bitter blow.

Beatriz Ochoa is an advocacy manager for Save the Children. She told CNN that kids in these Bangladeshi camps are in desperate need of warm clothes, blankets and stronger shelters.

“They are telling us that when they are sleeping that they are shaking,” Ochoa said. “I want people to imagine that you are sleeping in a forest in a very simple structure made out of bamboo and covered with plastic. The only thing you have between your body and the cold is plastic, again. And that’s in 10 degrees Celsius or 50 degrees Fahrenheit.”

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In addition, children are running around in bare feat, wearing only shorts and t-shirts. Many of them are extremely hungry — putting them even more at risk of getting sick.

“For children under five, one out of every four are malnourished,” Ochoa said. “So when this is the case, the bodies are much more prone to disease. With malnourished children and the temperatures dropping, we’re afraid that there will be a rise in respiratory track infections.”

To help combat this, Save the Children has distributed 7,000 winter kits containing mattresses, blankets, gloves, pullovers and food baskets to help the 30,000 most vulnerable families in the camps. The aid group has also established more than 30 child-friendly spaces where kids can have a chance to be kids again — to play, relax and get counseling, if they need it.

Razia, 7, lives with her parents, four brothers and sisters in the camps for the Rohingya people. She has lived here for three months after her village in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine State was burnt down by a rocket launcher attack. Following the attack, the family hid for two days in the jungle. They managed to flee to Bangladesh after eight days. In their own words: “I was very scared when our village was on fire. I kept hoping that we would get to safety. At first, we tried to cross but we didn’t have any money so we could not cross. After, one boat was coming from Bangladesh so they asked to just board and go without any money, so we crossed the river. Now, every time I see people in army uniform I get very scared and start to cry. At night, it is very cold but it is from two things. It is very cold from the ground, the floor, and also water from the roof. That is why I have the cough. When we wake up we wipe out the plastic sheet and then we are sitting here. We only have four blankets for the whole family.”

On January 10, Myanmar authorities announced that they would prosecute the Reuters journalists arrested in Rakhine state a month ago.

Reuters President and Editor-In-Chief Stephen J. Adler again demanded the release of his journalists. “It’s an attack on press freedom because in a democracy you have to have the ability to cover government activity,” Adler said.

Reuters journalist Kyaw Soe Oo arrives at the court in Yangon, Myanmar January 10, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

Reuters journalist Kyaw Soe Oo arrives at the court in Yangon, Myanmar January 10, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

“And if the government blocks that reporting when it perhaps doesn’t like where the reporting is going, that both stops those reporters from doing their work, but also deters other reporters from doing free and independent journalism,” he continued. “And it’s essential in a democracy that you have a free press. If you don’t, it becomes very difficult to have any transparency about what’s going on in a country.”

Brad Adams, Executive Director with Human Rights Watch, told CNN’s Isha Sesay that he believed Aung San Suu Kyi would lead a revolution of freedom and openness. He believes that she’s done the opposite.

“We had very high expectations — because the National League for Democracy was the victims of these kinds of laws. Over half of their members of parliament were political prisoners, at one point. And Aung San Suu Kyi, herself, the leader of the party and the de facto leader of the civilian government was both a prisoner and under house arrest for most of the past twenty years,” Adams said.

“They made commitments that they would end these practices. Instead, what we’re seeing is that not only are the military having people arrested and setting up journalists, like the Reuters journalists, but members for the National League for Democracy, the ruling party themselves, are filing cases.

“This is the most prominent case, but there have been dozens of cases filed since Aung San Suu Kyi came to power against journalists, against peaceful protesters and they’re using some of the harshest laws in the country.”

Adams argued that the free flow of information out of Myanmar has declined under the National League for Democracy rule. “The military government was still running the country before the national elections that brought Aung San Suu Kyi to power. This was in the beginning of the Reform Era. Journalists had much more freedom than they do now. The trend towards openness ended after the NLD came to power.

“Right now, journalists and activists are very afraid… because many of them are being arrested, they’re being threatened, they’re seeing their colleagues being threatened. We’re having a hard time at Human Right’s Watch getting some people who were very open to speak to us now. And this is really quite striking in an era which is supposed to be reform.”

Adams continued, “It’s even worse for people who want to try to report on what’s happening in Rakhine state. If Burmese journalists or NGOs want to go up into Rakhine state and talk about what’s happening to the Rohingya, and even name the Rohingya as a victim group, they face a very serious backlash and a number of them have been arrested or threatened with arrest.”

These Reuters journalists were reportedly investigating a mass grave found in the coastal village of Inn Dinn. Hours after the men were officially charged, Myanmar’s military took responsibility for those deaths.

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It admitted that some of its soldiers had murdered 10 captured Muslims — “terrorists” as it referred to them — during insurgent attacks at the beginning of September.

The military concluded that members of the local Buddhist community forced the captured men into a grave they had dug. The statement read, “Villagers and members of the security forces have confessed that they committed murder.”

This is not a coincidence, according to Brad Adams. “The military has steadfastly denied ever having committed any abuses and any extrajudicial killings against the Rohingya. They set up their own investigation — which was a farce. It came back with a predetermined conclusion that the military had done nothing wrong. But this shallow grave was discovered and we are sure that there are many more mass graves around Burma and in Northern Rakhine state.

“They’ve admitted that these ten were killed and they said they were killed because the military had arrested them and they didn’t know what to do with them — so they killed them, and then they called them terrorists to make it sound like it was OK.

“The reason these journalists are in trouble is because they were doing their job of trying to dig up the news on these killings. And, of course, if you pull the string on these killings, you will find that there are many, many more.”

The army says it has now appointed a senior officer to investigate and added that action would be taken against the soldiers who confessed to the crimes.

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As this unfolds, UNICEF is reporting that as many as 60,000 children are trapped in squalid condition in Rakhine state — some separated from their loved ones.

Adams said that the U.S. and UN criticisms of the Myanmar authorities has made no difference in the way the Rohingya are being treated.

“Aung San Suu Kyi and the military are united in this respect. They’ve said that the United Nations fact finding team is not allowed, they’ve banned the UN Special Rapporteur of Human Rights — a South Korean lawyer, they’ve told international NGOs that they’re not allowed to operate independently, they can’t talk to people freely.

“There are people going to bed very hungry. There are people without medicine,” Adams said. “I just want to add, there’s another group of 120,000 people who’ve been in this situation from a previous round of ethnic cleansing in 2012. They are a forgotten population that we desperately need to get to.”

On January 16, Bangladesh and Myanmar agreed to repatriate the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees who fled the violence.

Representatives from both countries met in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw to finalize the Physical Arrangement which will facilitate the return of Rohingya from Bangladesh beginning on January 23 and take up to two years to complete.

Under the agreement, Bangladesh would establish five transit camps and then Myanmar would shelter the returnees in a temporary shelter at the 124-acre Hla Pho Khung camp before they’d return home.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR), responding to the plan, said “A huge effort of reconciliation is needed to allow it to take place properly,” he said. “The worst would be to move these people from camps in Bangladesh to camps in Myanmar, keeping an artificial situation for a long time and not allowing for them to regain their normal lives.”

What is abundantly clear… right now, at this very moment, the Rohingya are teetering on the edge of genocide in a living Hell. And the world needs to care.

Written and produced by Isha Sesay and Ben Bamsey for “CNN Newsroom L.A.”

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