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Crisis in Myanmar: Rohingya ethnic cleansing

Los Angeles (CNN) Nearly 690,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled predominately Buddhist Myanmar for neighboring Bangladesh in what the UN describes as “ethnic cleansing” by the military.

The 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.

In October 2017, 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.”

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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.”

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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.”


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.

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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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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.”

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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


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.


“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.”


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. The deal only applies to Rohingya who fled after October 2016.

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The U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) issued a statement applauding dialog between the countries while expressing concern about how the plan will be implemented.

Kevin Allen, Head of Emergency Operations for UNHCR in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, told CNN’s Isha Sesay, “The voice of the refugees need to be central to any decision on return.

“When we’ve spoken to these 655,000 refugees who have crossed the border since 25 August, they have essentially set forth three preconditions from their perspective to return. The first is that the government of Myanmar needs to address the issue of citizenship and legal status. The second is that they need to be able to return in condition of safety. The third is that there needs to be reconstruction efforts to ensure that they’re able to enjoy their basic rights when they do go back home.”

umhcr rohingyaAllen emphasized UNHCR’s pledge to work with the Myanmar and Bangladeshi governments to execute the refugees’ wishes in accordance with international standards — “that their voluntary, safe and sustainable.” So far, UNHCR has not been party to any of those discussions.

“The key at this stage is that we are able to continue the dialogue, to be part of the discussion between the two states,” Allen said. “It’s interesting to note that these three requirements of the refugees are very much in line with the recommendation of a commission that was led by the former Secretary General, Kofi Annan, which has been endorsed by the government of Myanmar.

“So I think it is incumbent on UNHCR and the international community to encourage the government of Myanmar to implement those recommendations as quickly as possible so that the conditions for return are there — because, ultimately the hope of UNHCR and refugees across the globe, is that one day they’re able to go back home. We all want to be at home. But that can only occur if it’s voluntary and occurs in conditions of safety and dignity.”

But securing peaceful repatriation with real change in Myanmar is likely to be a daunting task. That’s because of the long-running discontent between the Buddhist majority and the Muslim minority.

Zarni, a non-resident fellow with Cambodia Genocide Documentation Center, told CNN’s Isha Sesay that the West’s romanticism of Buddhists as a pacifist, peace-loving people is misguided.

“This is the results of what I call ‘Positive Orientalism’ as opposed to ‘Negative Orientalism’ regarding Islam. Buddhism as a system of thought has always been juxtaposed with the violent history in Buddhist countries like Sri Lanka, Burma and Japan back in the 10th and 11th centuries.”

Zarni argued that any religion can be manipulated into justifying political ideology for violence and military conquest. “Buddhism is no exemption. Buddhist are no special people,” he said. “The West has romanticized Buddhism to the point that the popular perception of Buddhism is meditating, yoga, eating new age from Hollywood, followers of the Dalai Lama.

“Burma is a text book example of how a peaceful, doctrinal religion can be turned into an ideology that justifies genocide.”

A few years ago, Buddhist monks were particularly active in the push for democracy in Myanmar. Now, some of them are being implicated in this latest round of violence against the Rohingya.

As to the roots of the strident ethnic religious nationalism, Zarni said, “It’s a military controlled state that has propagated this false view that Rohingya people in the Western part of Burma and Muslims, in general, are a national security threat to Buddhists way of life.

unhcr burma

“Rohingya have been portrayed as vermin, viruses to be eradicated to be removed from the body politics, the society of Buddhist Burma. So, once a particular ethnic or religious community has been so viciously mis-framed, then in my country’s case, Buddhist monks become the leading mouds of espousing this genocidal view towards Muslims.”

Zarni has gone so far as to claim that Aung San Suu Kyi, who has yet to condemn the military crackdown, is a racist. “Back in the 1970’s when she was living in Oxford, England, one of her closest family friends who facilitated her coming to the U.K., was a senior figure in the British government. He wrote in an internal memo exposing her racism towards non-Buddhist people in Burma.

assk bbc“Again, a few years ago, she was interviewed by BBC’s leading journalist, Mishal Husain, British-Pakistani. Suu Kyi reportedly stormed out of the BBC studios saying that no one had briefed her that a Muslim would interview her on the subject of violence against Muslims.

“Because she has been falsely put on a pedestal in the league with Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi and Mandela, people around the world are completely incredulous that she is showing her true color.

“She is not simply looking the other way when the military is conducting these genocidal campaigns against Rohingya, she is proactively covering up and dismissing all kinds of credible allegations coming even from the United Nations that Burma is committing mass atrocities.”

Zarni believes that Rohingya repatriation, right now, would be like walking into a hate-filled pressure cooker. “We’ve been here before. Repatriation has been done three times before since 1978 when the first wave of terror struck the Rohingya community. This is like forcing the survivors of the Holocaust back into Auschwitz. The society and the entire military made it abundantly clear… they do not want Rohingya.”

He concluded, “This is going to end in tears for the Rohingya.”

On January 17, it was ethnic Buddhists who were killed by police in Myanmar’s troubled Rakhine state.

The violence occurred after more than 4,000 Buddhists gathered in Mrauk U to protest a ban on the annual commemoration of the fall of the ancient Arakan kingdom. Seven demonstrators were killed. Many more injured.

The United Nations called on authorities to “investigate any disproportionate use of force or other illegal actions that may have occurred in relation to this incident.

Brad Adams with Human Rights Watch told CNN’s Isha Sesay, “It shows that while the (military) can discriminate as they have by targeting the Rohingya with their ethnic cleansing campaign, they also don’t tolerate descent of any kind.

“There’s a long history of the Burmese military using force against protesters all over the country including the Buddhist population in Rakhine state, which not only has grievances against the Rohingya — and they discriminate against them and attack them — but they’ve also long felt estranged from Rangoon and Naypyidaw, the capitol of Burma, and felt that the rest of the Burmese population, even though they’re also Buddhist, look down on them and discriminate against them. So they feel like they’re the forgotten population.

“This is quintessentially the kind of case where Yanghee Lee, the U.N. Special Rapporteur, should be able to go into the country and perform her mandate and investigate exactly what happened. But the Burmese authorities are barring her from entering the country right now.”

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Instead, Lee is headed to Bangladesh to talk to Rohingya refugees. Adams said, “She’ll be able to interview a lot of the victims of sexual violence, of burnings of villages, of killings, their relatives — she’ll be able to see the trauma they’ve faced, and she’ll be able to point out first-hand why it’s not time for people to go back.

“This is an own goal for the government, because what she can’t do is report on what the government thinks, what the government’s arguments are, what the government’s evidence is, if any, about what’s happened inside the country. And so she will have to present the facts that she hears from Bangladesh and Thailand — which is where she goes next, and they’re not going to be very pretty for the government.”

Adams does not see the repatriation agreement between Bangladesh and Myanmar as a durable solution to the crisis. “The purpose of pushing all the Rohingya into Bangladesh was ethnic cleansing… so the idea that the Rohingya will be welcomed back with open arms, that they’ll be protected, that they’ll be safe, that they’ll have adequate food and shelter is ridiculous.

“It’s sort of like saying Jews should be returned from outside of Germany at the end of World War II if the Nazis were still in power. The people who committed these abuses, the people in the Burmese military are still there. They’re still armed. They’ve gone unpunished. There have been no serious investigations and the Burmese government is in complete denial. So it would be very, very dangerous to return the Rohingya to Burma right now.”

Fortify Rights put out a video titled, “No Man’s Land,” ahead of the repatriation. It is based on interviews with dozens of newly arrived Rohingya refugees and others in Bangladesh.

“You can throw us into the sea, but please don’t send us back,” said a Rohingya refugee woman featured in the video. “We will not go back to Myanmar.”

Co-founder & CEO of Fortify Rights Matthew Smith told CNN, “In our view, Myanmar authorities are essentially capitalizing on Bangladesh’s desire to rid itself of a very large refugee population.

“What Myanmar has effectively done in the last several weeks is they’ve managed to get the international community focused on the issue of repatriation and in doing so have diverted attention away from the heinous crimes that the Myanmar army committed just weeks and months ago.

“So from one perspective, it would appear as though Myanmar wants the world to believe they are doing the right thing without actually making any fundamental changes on the ground. The rights for Rohingya have not improved at all on the Myanmar side.”

On January 22, the repatriation process got off to a slow start. Smith said, “It appears that they were unable to get refugees on the Bangladesh side of the border to participate in the process at this stage and there may be some other logistical issues that they’re working through. Our concern right now is that they’re postponing it for the wrong reason. There are a lot of human rights concerns on both sides of the border — particularly in Myanmar that make this plan a problem.”

Without NGOs, monitoring groups or reporters in Rakhine state there are no boots on the ground to ensure the safe return of the Rohingya. To that point, Smith said, “Rohingya communities over the last year have really done amazing work to do what they can to document the human rights conditions at great personal risk. The security of average Rohingya civilians is certainly under threat.

“The fact that Aung San Suu Kyi is, to this day, denying U.N. fact finders access to  northern Rakhine — there is a tremendous fear that we haven’t seen the worst of the violence and the killings.”

Former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson pauses during an interview with Reuters as a member of an international advisory board on the crisis of Rakhine state in Yangon, Myanmar January 24, 2018. REUTERS/Ann Wang

Former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson pauses during an interview with Reuters as a member of an international advisory board on the crisis of Rakhine state in Yangon, Myanmar January 24, 2018. REUTERS/Ann Wang

Because of the government’s denials, former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson announced on January 24 that he was resigning from the Rakhine State advisory board — an international panel set up by Myanmar to advise on the Rohingya crisis saying it was conducting a “whitewash” and accusing the country’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi of lacking “moral leadership”.

In a written statement, Richardson said he was “taken aback” by the “vigor with which the media, the United Nations, human rights groups, and in general the international community were disparaged” during the board’s initial meetings.

Richardson wrote: “It appears that the Board is likely to become a cheerleading squad for government policy as opposed to proposing genuine policy changes that are desperately needed to assure peace, stability, and development in Rakhine State. Additionally, I was extremely upset at State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s reaction to my request that she address the situation of the two Reuters journalists both swiftly and fairly; freedom of the press to report the facts is a fundamental bedrock of democracy.”

Myanmar Government Spokesperson Zaw Htay released this statement to CNN: “We are very sorry about Mr. Richardson’s resignation from the Rakhine State Advisory Commission. It is extremely important that the mandate of Mr. Annan’s commission is upheld and that all the recommendations are followed through upon. In a meeting with the State Counsellor, Mr. Richardson raised the case of the Reuters journalists. This was not relevant to the agenda of the meeting. The meeting was only about the issue in Rakhine State. The State Counsellor told Mr. Richardson to keep to the correct agenda.”

CNN asked Zarni, a non-resident fellow with Cambodia Genocide Documentation Center, to join “Newsroom L.A.,” again, to talk about Richardson’s panel departure. He told Isha Sesay that “it’s a case of categorical leadership failure” and he places the entirety of the blame on Aung San Suu Kyi.

“The governor was quite generous,” Zarni said, “because after 15 years, I stopped supporting her. She wasn’t providing the public with intellectual guidance or strategic leadership — much less speaking out on issues morally when it is called for.

“She is the biggest whitewash for the military. She is not in power. The military is in control. She is providing the moral justification for something that is so heinous.”

Zarni suggested that every time Suu Kyi speaks out, she does so in-sync with the military. “Because this is widely considered both legally and sociologically a genocide — that is the Burmese military has institutionalized the killings and destruction of the Rohingya for the last 40 years.

“If you take that genocide in a legal framework, it becomes very clear that what she is doing is essentially denying, dismissing, rationalizing and justifying the military’s behavior when she frames it as a national security slash terrorist threat to a community that has been a sitting duck for 40 years.

“She stands accused by U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva as criminally responsible. She could face indictment at the International Criminal Court. There was no democratic transition under her leadership — the only transition has been towards a Nazi-like, Fascist society in Burma.”

Speaking to CNN’s Isha Sesay from Cox’s Bazar, Bandladesh, Justin Forsyth, UNICEF Deputy Executive Director/UN Assistant Secretary General, said, “I think the situation is very frustrating for everyone involved and very tragic.

“I’ve been in Rakhine in Myanmar as well as now here in Bangladesh and the stories you hear are just shocking. We were hoping that there would be action in Myanmar to improve the situation on the ground, to stop this killing, rape.

“I met two young women just yesterday who told me of terrible rape. One also had her seven year old boy’s throat cut in front of them. Nearly every girl and woman has been raped.

“Unless we get an improved situation on the ground, people can’t go home from Bangladesh. So I understand (Richardson’s) frustration. I think we’re all frustrated and deeply shocked by what we’re seeing and hearing from these refugees.”

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Forsyth has told the governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar that “until the safety and well-being of any child returning to Myanmar can be guaranteed, talk of repatriation is premature.” He told CNN about UNICEF’s concerns: “Firstly, we need humanitarian access. We’re on the ground in Rakhine state but we can’t go to the very Northeast. And even if we’re in some of the towns in the North, we can’t go out to the villages where much of this violence has happened.

“Secondly, we need not to return people to camps like these open prisons where people are controlled, where they don’t really have any freedom. They need to go back to their villages. They needs some guarantees of security from the military.

“We also need to ensure that we invest a lot. The villages have been burned down. People have no schools to go back to. They’re hungry and malnourished. So we’re going to need to provide aid when they get back to Myanmar.

“I talked to lots of children and their families here in Bangladesh and all of them want to go home — but they all believe it’s premature. Some of them have even been speaking to relatives in Rakhine and we know from reports from our own staff that the violence is continuing. People are still coming across the border. We can’t push people back into that level of violence.”

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CNN has witnessed refugees in camps protesting vowing not to return unless they are afforded the protections outlines by the U.N. and other aid groups. “I think people are very, very scared about going back,” Forsyth said. “They’re scared because almost every girl and woman has been raped.

“The children shake with fear. They wet their beds. They harm themselves. They’re scared. I was in a children’s learning center run by UNICEF and the pictures that they’re drawing — one eleven year old boy showed me his picture and it was men being hung from a tree.

“These were men being hung from a tree, when I asked him, because they had protested against their sisters and wives being raped. So the level of fear is palpable. It’s a toxic fear that these children have.

“So we do want them to go home but the Myanmar government needs to create safe conditions. We need access on the ground. And in the meantime, there’s a looming threat here in Bangladesh. The rains are coming. It’s a race against time.”

jolie nato

On January 31, U.N. refugee agency special envoy Angelina Jolie called on NATO to protect women’s rights around the world and to help stop the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war.

“There can be no lasting peace and security, without equal rights and participation for women in all societies. And those rights cannot be achieved in an environment where there is impunity for mass crimes against women and girls.

“Violence against women and children, particularly sexual violence, is an increasing feature of conflict and insecurity world-wide. Yet the use of rape as a weapon of war has been regarded an inevitable feature of conflict, as a lesser crime and a problem too difficult or too uncomfortable for societies to address.”

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Jolie singled out Rohingya refugees fleeing violence in Myanmar and what she said was the inadequate response of many governments around the world.

“I’m, I’m very concerned about the Rohingya,” Jolie said. “I’m very angry that the response internationally has been lacking, I’m very concerned about the stories of the ten-year old girls who are being raped and there’s, you know, there’s a lot of discussion, you know there’s maybe too much discussion and very, and very, very little action, and we see this is all too often the case these days.”

Rape is used as a weapon of war for a multitude of despicable reasons, according to Mayesha Alam, a fellow at Yale University and author of “Women and Transitional Justice.” She told CNN’s Isha Sesay, “Sexual violence in conflict is as old as war, itself.”

Alam spent time in the refugee camps in Bangladesh. After talking with multiple victims, she explained the atrocities committed against Rohingya females. “Gang rapes are prevalent,” Alam said. “This is a very particular type of sexual violence. Countless stories of women and girls being brutalized by groups of uniformed military personnel in their homes, as well as elsewhere — being taken away. It really seems to be part of the military clearance operation — where 85% of Rohingya villages have been cleared of people. This is going to be one the most difficult, but important, parts of this crisis to address.”

Alam says the women and girls she met in the camps are traumatized. “They left with little more than the clothes on their backs. They have suffered brutality, indignity and disenfranchisement for generations. So this is not new. It’s been going on for a long time. But the escalation, the nature, the pace, the scale of the brutality since August is unprecedented.

The way in which sexual violence is being perpetrated in Myanmar is evocative of Kosovo, Bosnia and Croatia during the breakdown of Yugoslavia, according to Alam. “So in terms of what their lives are like now in the camps, there are a host of new insecurities and risks that they’re facing. These include trafficking — both in terms of sex trafficking as well as indentured servitude and labor trafficking.”

Kutupalong Refugee Camp

Kutupalong Refugee Camp in Bangladesh is now the most densely populated place on Earth — so that gives you a sense of the enormity of the crisis. That’s where Alam met a young woman who she described as fragile. This is her story as told by Alam:

“A few weeks after she arrived at the camp, she was approached by an individual who lured her away from the camps with the promise of a good job. This young woman was naive. She was desperate. Of course, she wanted to improve the condition of her family and herself.

“Instead of actually being taken away and offered a good job, she was forced into prostitution. For a week, she was raped and held against her will. In fact, it was one of the men who had paid for sex with her who, because she was so manic and so distressed, somehow managed to get her out of that situation and returned to the camps.

“So you can imagine, not just what she experienced back in Rakhine, but then in the camps. This is just one of many, many stories and organizations as well as the government and security personnel are aware of this — they’re trying to address it, but it’s difficult. There are criminal networks that are operating in these camps.”

So what does the future hold for the hundreds of thousands of refugees? Alam said, “We have to make sure that these people who’ve had their dignity stripped, who’ve been disenfranchised, who’ve been dehumanized are not forced to return under precarious conditions. They need guarantees of security. They need to be recognized as they wish and they need citizenship. Without that it’s difficult to even begin to think about repatriation.

“This arrangement between Bangladesh and Myanmar that was negotiated bi-laterally without a monitoring system is not really victim-centric. It doesn’t have protection at the center of it. I think that’s a huge problem. So when we think about, ‘What does the future hold for the Rohingya people,’ first and foremost, we need to find out what they want.”

rohingya women

And what they want is security and equality. Not the statelessness they’ve been subject to for four decades. As for that change happening, Alam said, “Unfortunately, at this time, there aren’t too many signs for optimism. There has been international condemnation, rightfully so, and in terms of repatriation, there are these so-called camps where they’ll be held — but these are almost apartheid-like conditions with completely restricted mobility.

“Then there’s the question, ‘What do they return to?’ Most of their villages have been burned down. In the local Myanmar press, the chief minister of Rakhine state talked about them being able to return to their villages but, at some point, they’d have to re-build their own homes on a cash-for-work basis. It’s unclear if this will, in fact, be the case. Let alone this is completely a violation of their human rights.

“That said, I think the international community, countries in the region, the United States, Canada, Europe and the U.N. need to keep the pressure up on the Myanmar government. First and foremost, we need moral leadership from Aung San Suu Kyi. We need acknowledgment from the military that abuses have been committed and participation in some kind of independent inquiry needs to happen to bring to light exactly how bad the devastation is. Those will be paramount in terms of looking to how this gets better.”

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After spending several days with refugees in Bangladesh, U.N. Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, said the military crackdown has the hallmarks of genocide.

“What the Myanmar government claims to be the conduct of military or security operations is actually an established pattern of domination, aggression, and violations against ethnic groups,” Lee told reporters in Seoul.

She was denied access into Myanmar and called on Aung San Suu Kyi to open up Rakhine state to aid groups and journalists. “Her moral voice is a responsibility for her to preserve, and she hasn’t shown any indication of exercising that moral leadership. And I have repeatedly stated that she really should step up now, before the situation becomes irreversible,” Lee said.

ap mass grave

On February 1, the Associated Press said it had uncovered the existence of more than five previously unreported mass graves in the Myanmar village of Gu Dar Pyin, through interviews of survivors in refugee camps in Bangladesh and through time-stamped cellphone videos.

“We are deeply, deeply troubled by those reports of mass graves,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told a regular news briefing. “We are watching this very carefully. We remain focused on helping to ensure the accountability for those responsible for human rights abuses and violations.”

In response to the AP’s mass grave reporting, the UN spokesperson for the Secretary-General, Stephane Dujarric, told reporters. “We’re very concerned about these reports. I think this type of information coming forward from Rakhine state just underscores the need for the UN to have access to Rakhine state – to have open access for both humanitarian – for existing human rights mechanism as well for humanitarian actors for the media. We do not have the access we would like to have and its very important for us to have access to verify these reports.”

On February 7, Amnesty International published a new report suggesting the Burmese military is still pushing the Rohingya out of their homes through forced starvation, the fear of abduction, and the looting of their property.

Interviews conducted by Amnesty with new arrivals to the Kutupalong camp from Buthidaung township revealed that most had fled their homes out of hunger, after being denied access to their rice fields and markets.

As one of the poorest states in Burma, Rakhine was already suffering from high malnutrition rates even before the military launched a savage campaign of arson, rape and killing.

Reuters uncovers details of Rohingya massacre

Then, on February 8, the story that the government did not want told — the reason two Reuters journalists are behind bars facing 14 years in jail.

The journalists were arrested before they could publish reports of a mass grave in Rakhine state’s Inn Din village. But now Reuters has that story. And it’s chilling.

The news organization obtained exclusive photos of ten men… held captive on their knees. Shortly after the image was taken, they were killed, their bodies stacked on top of each other in a shallow grave.

Eyewitnesses told Reuters that at least two of the men were hacked to death by Buddhist villagers. The others were shot by the military.

Reuters uncovers details of Rohingya massacre EDIT 4001

Reuters uncovers details of Rohingya massacre

Reuters published the names of the ten men and all the information they could gather about their lives. They also interviewed family members in Bangladeshi refugee camps.

Rashid Ahmed’s son Abdu Shakur was one of the men killed in Inn Din. Rashid told Reuters, “When they were taking them away, they said ‘Do not worry. We will send your sons back soon. We are taking them for a meeting.'”

Rehana Khatun’s husband, Nur Mohammed, was murdered. She told Reuters that she’s still in the dark about what happened. “They (the security forces) took my husband away with them,” she said. “I don’t know exactly what happened, but people say they were killed. I heard this from media reports as well, but I have not seen anything (to prove they are dead).”

Myanmar’s government responded to the Reuters report. “We are not denying the allegations about violations of human rights. And we are not giving blanket denials. If there was strong and reliable primary evidence of abuses, the government would investigate,” government spokesman Zaw Htay wrote to CNN.

“And then if we found the evidence is true and the violations are there, we will take the necessary action according to the law.”

Photographer and filmmaker Thomas Nybo has spent months at the refugee camps in Bangladesh. He joined Isha Sesay from Cox’s Bazar to recount some of the countless stories of atrocities that the refugees have shared with him. And the horrors are far from over…

“I think the most important thing to remember is that the suffering continues,” Nybo said. Moments before the live broadcast he received a text that another 120 refugees had just entered the camps after crossing the Myanmar border. He says that the Rohingya are terrified that the Bangladeshi government will send them back where the torture and killings would, most certainly, continue.

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© Thomas Nybo

“I spoke to one man, in particular, a 45 year old and father of five children who told me that the behavior of the Myanmar soldiers is actually evolving. He said you won’t see burning villages because where there’s smoke, there’s fire. So they’re a little more clever about it.

“He told me horrific tales of soldiers going through the village and systematically torturing men — removing their finger nails, burning and pulling out their beards. And I asked him, ‘Show me somebody with these injuries.’ And he said, ‘They’re too smart for that. If they injure you, they will take you away. Once you’re taken away and the (surviving) men run for safety to the jungles, the soldiers come at night and systematically rape the women.'”

Mohammad Hossein

© Thomas Nybo

Nybo has captured portraits of the Rohingya refugees. Among the most haunting, a profile picture of Mohammad Hossein. He escaped Myanmar with his family but, sadly, lost his wife in the camp. “36 hours before she died, she started vomiting blood. Now Mohammad is left raising his ten children in a plastic and bamboo hut by himself,” Nybo said.

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© Thomas Nybo

Another image shows three crying children. The backstory, according to Nybo, “This is the group that I spent a day with… 134 people on two boats. They were terrified. They were despondent. The children, the women, the men — that they were going to be forced back to Myanmar.

“Across the board, I’ve talked to dozens of refugees, especially the new arrivals, and they tell me over and over, ‘I will never return. Kill me here, if you must, but don’t send me back to that horrific place.”

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© Thomas Nybo

Nybo closed the interview with this chilling report. “I was with a group of women at a UNICEF space. A lot of them had been attacked. A lot of them had been raped. There was a woman who was wearing a veil. After she became comfortable with me, she removed the veil and she had dark circles under her eyes. Blood vessels had burst in her eyes, and she said, ‘I want to tell you my story.’

“She was fleeing with her four children. Soldiers grabbed her four year old boy, threw him in the air, stabbed him with machetes until he died. She ran to them despondent, crying, she said, ‘Just kill me. Kill me.’

“They beat her with the butts of their rifles. This was just two months ago and the horseshoe shaped bruises are still beneath her eyes. She still can’t see properly. Her eyes are so red from the burst blood vessels. And she talked about being beaten. Before she lost consciousness, four or five soldiers were gang raping her.

“She said, ‘The world needs to hear about this so it doesn’t happen again.'”

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© Thomas Nybo

Amnesty International echoed Nybo’s accounts in a new report claiming that the Myanmar military is now resorting to the new “quieter” weapon of food against the Rohingya.

“Instead of terrorizing the population through killings, rapes, and the widespread burning of Rohingya villages, security forces are today using mainly quieter and more subtle measures to squeeze people out by making life so intolerable that they have little option other than to leave,” Amnesty said.

The military is blocking Rohingyas from gaining access to their rice fields, markets and humanitarian aid, according the report. Amnesty concluded, “Deliberate actions by the Myanmar authorities… are in effect starving out many Rohingya who have tried to remain in their villages.”

Matthew Wells, Sr. Crisis Adviser for Amnesty International, just returned from the camps in Bangladesh where Rohingya continue to arrive more than five months into the ethnic cleansing campaign. “What the recent arrivals tell me is that this is overwhelmingly because they’ve been driven to the point of starvation by the Myanmar military,” Wells told CNN.

In addition to being unable to harvest their rice fields, many of their markets have been burned and their livestock stolen. For Rohingya pushed to the extreme who find the courage to leave, the Amnesty report found that “Myanmar security forces have set up checkpoints along these paths where they are often deal a final blow: the systematic theft of money and other valuables from each person who passes through.

“When groups of families arrive, soldiers and Border Guard Police descend from a security force outpost on a hillside and surround them, separating men from women. Rohingya women, particularly young women, attempting to flee also told Amnesty International that Myanmar soldiers subjected them to sexual violence during searches at checkpoints.”

As Wells explained, “The military has operated with complete impunity for a long time in Myanmar and that has manifested itself during this current crisis in terms of its ruthless campaign against the Rohingya being met with no real action, no real consequences — both inside and outside of Myanmar.

“There have been condemnations, statements of concern from countries around the world, but no real consequences to date. That’s left the Myanmar military to continue squeezing the Rohingya population through starvation and now this really nasty theft at checkpoints.”

Wells says its time for global rhetoric to turn into real action. “We need to see an arms embargo on Myanmar and we need to see targeted financial sanctions against the senior officials in the military who have led this campaign for months.”

On February 10, U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson visited refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar. He met Rohingya families and community leaders to learn about the persecution they have suffered, and hear first-hand about the challenges that life in the camps presents.

“I have seen for my own eyes the horrendous living conditions the Rohingya people are having to endure,” Johnson said. “And it has only further strengthened my commitment to working with international partners to improve the lives of these people in 2018.”


The following day, Johnson met with Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi for an hour. “I underlined the importance of the Burmese authorities carrying out a full and independent investigation into the violence in Rakhine, and to hold to account those responsible for human rights violations,” he said.

“There is no doubt when you fly over northern Rakhine and you look at the scale of the devastation – the industrial ethnic cleansing – that has gone on. There’s no doubt that the military must have been involved.

“And of course what we want to do now is to get those refugees back home in a way that is safe, voluntary, and dignified. And what Aung San Suu Kyi can do that’s most important is show the world that she’s willing to have an international body – preferably the UNHCR – oversee the repatriation of refugees.”

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 Ben Bamsey & Isha Sesay for “CNN Newsroom L.A.”

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