NEW YORK – Myanmar security forces appear to have engaged in systematic rape of Rohingya Muslim women and girls, Human Rights Watch said Monday, while calling for an independent, international investigation into the alleged abuses.
In a report, the New York-based watchdog cited witness accounts that soldiers and border guards took part in rape, gang rape, invasive body searches, and sexual assaults in at least nine villages in Maungdaw district of the northern part of Rakhine State between October and December.
They said the perpetrators, who were identified as army and border police units by their uniforms, kerchiefs, armbands and patches, carried out attacks in groups, with some holding women down or threatening them at gunpoint while others raped them, sometimes while insulting their ethnicity and religion.
“These horrific attacks on Rohingya women and girls by security forces add a new and brutal chapter to the Burmese military’s long and sickening history of sexual violence against women,” said Priyanka Motaparthy, senior emergencies researcher.
“Military and police commanders should be held responsible for these crimes if they did not do everything in their power to stop them or punish those involved,” she said.
The allegations come just three days after the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a report that found that more than half of the 101 Rohingya women U.N. investigators interviewed said they were raped or suffered other forms of sexual violence.
That report, based on a total of 204 interviews, concluded that attacks including rape and other sexual violence “seem to have been widespread as well as systematic, indicating the very likely commission of crimes against humanity.”
Human Rights Watch said its own researchers in Bangladesh interviewed 18 Rohingya women, including 11 sexually assault victims, as well as 10 men, between December and January, and documented a total of 28 incidents of rape and other sexual assault, sometimes involving multiple victims.
Seventeen men and women witnessed sexual violence, including against their wives, sisters or daughters.
Several women described how before the sexual violence, soldiers surrounded their villages or homes, gathered the villagers in an outdoor area and separated men from women.
“Ayesha,” in her 20s from Pyaung Pyit village, was quoted as saying, “They gathered all the women and started beating us with bamboo sticks and kicking us with their boots. After beating us, the military took (me and) 15 women about my age and separated us … (The soldiers) raped me one by one, tearing my clothes.”
“Noor,” in her 40s, said that after 20 soldiers stormed her home in the border town of Shein Kar Li in early December, they gathered together more than 100 women, young boys and girls, beating them with bamboo sticks and kicking them with their boots.
“After beating us, the military took me and 15 women about my age and separated us,” she said. Two of them “put a rifle to my head, tore off my clothes and raped me. … They slaughtered (my husband) in front of me with a machete. Then three more men raped me.”
Amina, a woman in her 20s from Hpar Wut Chaung village, said soldiers raped and killed her 13-year-old sister during a raid on their home in early December, while also killing five other siblings.
Human Rights Watch said the sexual violence in northern Rakhine “did not appear to be random or opportunistic, but part of a coordinated and systematic attack against Rohingya, in part because of their ethnicity and religion.”
It noted that many women said soldiers threatened or insulted them with language focused on their status as Rohingya Muslims, calling them “you Bengali bitch” or “you Muslim bitch” while beating or raping them.
The watchdog accused the Myanmar government of ignoring such allegations and said its “failure to investigate rape and other crimes against the Rohingya should make it clear that an independent, international inquiry is desperately needed.”
Rohingya Muslims make up around 1 million of predominantly Buiddhist-Myanmar’s 50 million population.
The government does not regard them as one of the country’s 135 official ethnic groups and thus they are denied citizenship. Instead, the Bengali-speaking Rohingya are considered immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh, even those whose families have lived in Myanmar for generations.