After a brutal military campaign against Muslims in northern Myanmar, Rohingya Muslim women are coming forward with stories of sexual assault by the Burmese military.
The Rohingya people are a Muslim minority group in predominantly-Buddhist Myanmar (Burma). Myanmar does not recognize them as full citizens, making them effectively stateless. Although the group has long been persecuted, the current Rohingya crisis began in August, when a group of Rohingya insurgents attacked military posts in the country’s Rakhine province, the Burmese military started burning down Rohingya villages and killing civilians. More than 600,000 refugees have fled over the border into Bangladesh, and the United Nations describes the military’s assault as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
According to women who have fled Rakhine, the military is using rape ‘methodically,’ as a weapon of war. As foreign reporters are not allowed in the Rohingya area of Rakhine, reporters from the Associated Press recently spoke with 29 displaced Rohingya women and girls living in Bangladeshi refugee camps. The women, who ranged from 13 to 35 years old, all reported being raped by Burmese security forces in the last year. And, though there are differences in their stories, the underlying similarities give credibility to the UN’s claim that Burmese forces are using rape as a “calculated tool of terror” against Rohingya women.
Many of the women interviewed come from Tula Toli, where locals assisted the military in murdering Rohingya people and torching their homes with petrol bombs. The assault, which started on August 30th, is estimated to have claimed over 500 lives. Roshida Begum, one of the women interviewed, says she lost 17 relatives in the assault. “I can’t help but cry,” says Roshida, who was raped by Burmese soldiers along with other women in her village. “I want justice from the world, why did they kill my mother and father and sisters?”
The country’s civilian government continues to deny that the military is participating in ethnic cleansing. Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s civilian leader, said in September that the government had “already started defending all the people in Rakhine in the best way possible.” And when asked about rape allegations later that month, the province’s Minister for Border Affairs, Phone Tint, replied: “These women were claiming they were raped, but look at their appearances — do you think they are that attractive to be raped?”
Air workers on the ground tell another story. Medecins Sans Frontieres doctors have treated 113 sexual violence survivors since the current violence started in August. The Rohingya women and girls describe very similar assaults: men in Burmese army uniforms killing their families and neighbors before raping them.
Mumtaz Begum (below, with 7-year-old daughter), another refugee from Tula Toli, barely escaped from one of these assaults after being locked in a burning house. She was more than willing to speak to reporters if it meant a chance to contradict the government’s story and speak out on the atrocities committed in the Rohingya crisis. “I want justice and I want to tell the world all the things the military did,” she told reporters. “They raped and killed us. We want justice.”
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