Almost a year after hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims were forced to flee their home country into Bangladesh, the challenges of providing assistance to refugees and of addressing violations in Myanmar remain. During the peak of migration out of Myanmar, a key tactic used to drive the Rohingya out of their homes and villages was sexual violence against women and girls. This year’s report of Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on sexual violence in conflict includes the Myanmar military for the first time.
Earlier this month, representatives of the UN Security Council visited Bangladesh and the Rakhine state of Myanmar to survey the scale of the crisis. In preparation, the Council held an open debate session in April on preventing sexual violence in conflict. Razia Sultana, a human rights activist and lawyer, addressed the Council on the Rohingya situation on behalf of the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security. During her time in New York, she spoke with the International Peace Institute’s Sarah Taylor about her work in the region, relating vivid stories of the brutality suffered by the Rohingya.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Warning: this interview contains graphic descriptions of physical and sexual violence.
Could you explain your work with the Rohingya population? What is important to know about the current situation?
I am a member of the Free Rohingya Coalition, a volunteer researcher at Kalandan Press, and the director of the Women’s Section in the Arakan Rohingya National Organization. I also recently started an NGO called Rohingya Women [Welfare] Organization. All during the violence against the Rohingya that began in 2016, the most deeply affected people have been women. They are mutilated, raped, they lose their husbands, and lose their children. Eighty percent of women who have left Rakhine state do so without any protection and live in Bangladesh in the street. Given this reality, we decided to start the women’s organization, because the issue is ignored and also very complicated.
Nearly every Rohingya women has experienced some form of harassment or abuse at the hands of the army. The army does “checks” in villages, which began as early as 2012. These consist of invasive and dehumanizing physical checks, especially of women, including vaginal searches. The military goes to villages, sometimes to each house, or other times they call out everyone to come to a large field and have them sit all day without food or water and one by one they “check” residents. First everyone is gathered together; then they separate men and women. The army harasses the people in this way, and in 2016 began also attacking villages suddenly at night or at other unexpected times. In these situations people would hear sounds late at night, then early in the morning the military would come to their house and burn it down. Some people would be killed, others caught. Other villages would be “checked” and maybe the women would be singled out. The military would also take all the peoples’ belongings.
To be very specific, you are describing what the Tatmadaw did in Rakhine State?
Yes. In addition to these searches, confiscations, and destruction of villages, the Tatmadaw raped women and even children, and used rape to instill fear, especially if someone tried to stop them.
I remember the story of one witness who tried to save her cousin and was raped because of it. She also lost her husband and her daughter of six months or so. When the army came in the village she thought, “Maybe because my daughter is small, they will not touch her.” She kept her in the car and went to the field for the checks. When she came back after being raped, she saw her daughter’s body in two parts.
She told this story, crying, and said, “How is this possible? I am a person. They are also people. They are the army by name, but they are people too. I thought maybe they would not touch my daughter, but they cut my daughter in two parts.”
This sort of violence is not new. Violence against young children is very common. In 2016, there was the Tula Toli massacre, during which children were taken from the laps of their mothers. The military made them lie in a line and raped their children. They then threw the children in the field, and if anyone moved? They would step on them with their boot.
One of the witnesses who had a daughter a few months old told me how she would see the military throwing children, and she tried to stop it from happening to her daughter. But the military grabbed her daughter from her and threw her to the ground. Then they raped her. She said she saw similar things happen to others around her, like a war field.
Clearly this sort of violence is not about satisfaction, it is the military doing whatever they want. It is to create fear. It is done to all women, old and young. Do you think this is about affection? No. It is an attitude of, “We are doing this, and if you stay here we will do it again and you should fear that it will happen.”
What women have told you happened to them is tremendously heartbreaking and nearly beyond comprehension. How have you handled hearing these stories?
Sometimes it is very difficult, I just lie down and cry. Some say I am so strong, but I am not. Many times I have had to go to the doctor, and in 2016 I wanted to give up this work. Then my close friend, who is also my doctor, told me that it is my duty. I think my friends are the main ones who encourage me to do this, and also my family.
As you mention, it is imperative that the violence against the Rohingya community is continually reported. Another aspect is, given what they are experiencing, what needs to change? What are your recommendations, for example, to the Bangladeshi government?
First, the community who are living in Cox’s Bazar must be adequately cared for. Right now, there are serious problems including trafficking and drugs, which are getting worse. The government should monitor these crimes more closely and take action against those involved.
The real issue is that the trafficking and drug problem will spread and it is a broader question of security. The traffickers have become very careless because the government is not focusing on them. Maybe they thought the Rohingya are outsiders, who will care? The government of Bangladesh should put pressure on them, because if they are strict, it will stop immediately and no international pressure will be needed. And they can do this because Bangladesh has a strong security system, they just need to engage it.
Second, is that there are still atrocities going on inside Myanmar. There are many people who are detained, for example in Buthidaung jail, who haven’t committed any crime. There is also restriction of movement on people who remained, like in the Maungdaw area. They’re not even able to go collect food. If these people aren’t helped then there could be another influx into Bangladesh because of the pressure they are under. Many of these people left because of the violence and the attacks and then returned. The government is now trying to use other tactics to place pressure on the Rohingya.
A connected issue is that there needs to be protected land in Myanmar that is not monitored by the Tatmadaw. I have suggested that international NGOs could fill the role of doing this, and even the UN.
You mentioned that 80% of women who were forced out of Rakhine are living in the street in Bangladesh. The impression can often be that services are being provided to Rohingya refugees. What is the reality for these women? What do they need?
An important point is that things have gotten better, in 2016 the system was worse. At that time, these women didn’t have any shelter, and if they did it was in an old refugee camp. In 2017, at the peak of refugees into Bangladesh, people would be living on the street within a week. The pressure on the Bangladeshi government to open the border forced them to do so, and when they did, the huge amount of people just broke down whatever system was in place.
There was no place to put many of these people. They couldn’t be kept on roads because often the roads were highways, so the government moved them to the forested areas where they cut down the forest. Local people would give their land also, but small areas.
The recent refugees may be being put into temporary shelters by the UN. It is hard to know how adequate they are, but the maximum number of people are getting help because of international pressure. In the interim between then and now I saw many families not receive any support. Local NGOs and local people are also being very helpful.
In the host communities, then, refugees are being supported?
Yes, there is a lot of support, but I am very worried too. Tensions are rising between groups who feel that the trafficking and drugs that are happening are because of the Rohingya. There are people who feel they pose a danger and want to kill them or rob them, but this is totally made up. The refugees are traumatized, not criminals.
They are often depressed as well and become easy targets. Women who are raped and are depressed, their minds can be easily brainwashed. There are a small number of groups who focus on the Rohingya, especially the youth, and convert them into arms dealing, fighting, and even try to sell women.
A serious related issue is women, especially young girls, who are trying to commit suicide. They are desperate to leave camps because they are raped there and have a fear that anything can happen. These are girls and women from 12 to 35 years old, it is a huge population of women roaming around without any jobs or education. It’s easy to convince them to become a child soldier, or really anything.
You are in New York to speak before the UN Security Council. What did you ask the Security Council to do and what do you actually think will change with international attention?
My view, because I have met many ambassadors, is that they want to know what is really happening. They already have the evidence, and some might say this trip is a formality, but it means a lot. If the Security Council hears directly what is happening, they can write a report and use it, again, for a trial. This is a matter of justice. Because the government of Myanmar is still denying. Even after my statement they continued to deny what is being done and has been done to the Rohingya.
Up to recently the government of Myanmar had barred access to Rakhine state, but the Security Council recently went. Are you concerned that there was a false reality shown to them?
If they created a false image, this can be an opportunity for the international community to pressure the government more to tell the truth, to give the real picture.
Another way to pressure is economic sanctions. Sanctions will make the government of Myanmar change its behavior because money matters to them. The impact would be felt in tourism as well, and in terms of foreign investment. This is a particularly difficult topic because people are dying in Myanmar while investment in the country is rising. The Rohingya are human beings, and they are being killed. Investors should help to stop that first, and negotiate.
So investment in Myanmar, at the moment, basically legitimizes the efforts of the Myanmar government to completely eradicate a community that’s inconvenient to them.
Yes. A final point is why the government has targeted the Rohingya in the first place. A big reason is racism. Racism towards the Rohingya has been bred over many years. The government brainwashed the local community. They are saying Burma will be only for Burmans, not other religions. So, they are also targeting the Shan and Karen. Why else are they targeting them? Because their land is full of resources.