Rohingya refugee crisis: Testimony of destruction
12:00 AM, October 19, 2017 / LAST MODIFIED: 02:43 AM, October 19, 2017

Testimony of destruction

UN official sees dozens of burned villages, asks Myanmar generals to carry out credible probe; US holds Myanmar army responsible

The UN Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs has viewed dozens of burned and destroyed villages in northern Rakhine during his recent tour by air, and called on Myanmar to investigate allegations of human rights abuses by security forces.

It was the first visit by a top UN official from its New York headquarters since the latest violence began in Rakhine in late August, forcing nearly 6,00,000 Rohingya to cross into Bangladesh in one of the worst and fastest growing humanitarian crisis in history.

Concluding his visit to Myanmar from October 13-17, Jeffrey Feltman underscored the importance of accountability and non-discriminatory rule of law and public safety as part of the comprehensive approach needed to address the fears and distrust among communities in Rakhine, according to a press note issued by the UN yesterday.

“He witnessed how, in addition to the documented endemic discrimination against the Rohingya population, socio-economic challenges adversely affect all communities,” read the note. 

During the visit, Feltman met with State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and army chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, diplomats, and representatives of aid agencies based in Myanmar.

In talks with leaders of the armed forces, including General Hlaing, Feltman noted that in the UN's experience, successful counterterrorism efforts do not rely exclusively on security measures and urged Myanmar's commanders to support “credible investigations into allegations of human rights abuses by security officials”.

 He also visited several communities affected by the recent violence and Internally Displaced Persons' camps outside Sittwe, set up in 2012.

Most of Feltman's discussions focused on the situation in Rakhine state and the plight of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have fled to Bangladesh.

Returning to New York, Feltman will report to the UN Secretary-General his experience and findings during the visit.

The UN press note comes a day after the Human Rights Watch released new satellite images showing at least 288 villages have been partially or fully destroyed by fire in Rakhine since August 25. At least 66 villages were burned after September 5, when security force operations supposedly ended.  

“These latest satellite images show why over half a million Rohingya fled to Bangladesh in just four weeks,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director.

“The destruction encompassed tens of thousands of structures, primarily homes inhabited by ethnic Rohingya Muslims,” the rights body said.

In another development yesterday, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said his country held Myanmar's military leadership responsible for its harsh crackdown on the Rohingya Muslim minority, but stopped short of saying whether the US would take any action against Myanmar's military leaders, reports Reuters.

“The world can't just stand idly by and be witness to the atrocities that are being reported in the area,” Tillerson told Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.

“We really hold the military leadership accountable for what's happening,” said Tillerson, who said the US was “extraordinarily concerned” by the situation.

Meanwhile, the Amnesty International has accused Myanmar's security forces of committing crimes against humanity.

In a report released yesterday, Amnesty cited testimony from more than 120 Rohingya men and women who have fled to Bangladesh in recent weeks to escape a bloody army campaign.

Thirty medical professionals, aid workers, journalists and Bangladeshi officials, were also interviewed for the research, titled “My World Is Finished”.

Witness accounts, satellite imagery and data, and photo and video evidence gathered by Amnesty all point to the same conclusion, it said.

“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, said, “In this orchestrated campaign, Myanmar's security forces have brutally meted out revenge on the entire Rohingya population of northern Rakhine State, in an apparent attempt to permanently drive them out of the country. These atrocities continue to fuel the region's worst refugee crisis in decades.

“Exposing these heinous crimes is the first step on the long road to justice. Those responsible must be held to account, Myanmar's military can't simply sweep serious violations under the carpet by announcing another sham internal investigation.”

She added General Hlaing must take immediate action to stop his troops from committing atrocities.

Amnesty said that it had consistently documented at least six crimes against humanity. They include murder, deportation and forcible displacement, torture, rape, persecution based on ethnic and religious grounds, including through burning of homes, and other inhumane acts such as denying food and other life-saving provisions.

Amnesty said dozens of eyewitnesses of the worst violence “consistently implicated specific units, including the Myanmar Army's Western Command, the 33rd Light Infantry Division, and the Border Guard Police” and that troops were sometimes joined by local vigilantes.

Amnesty International's own review of fire data from remote satellite sensing indicates at least 156 large fires in northern Rakhine State since 25 August. In the previous five years, no fires were detected during the same period, which is also the monsoon season, strongly indicating that the burning has been intentional.

“Given their ongoing denials, Myanmar's authorities may have thought they would literally get away with murder on a massive scale. But modern technology, coupled with rigorous human rights research, have tipped the scales against them,” said Tirana Hassan.

Also yesterday, the Unicef warned it would not be able to continue providing lifesaving aid and protection to Rohingya children without immediate additional funding. Almost 60 percent of the 582,000 refugees who have fled Myanmar since August 25 are children, as thousands more are crossing each week.

The growing needs are far outpacing resources. As of yesterday, the Unicef has received just 7 percent of the $76 million required to provide emergency support to children over the next six months, according to a press release issued yesterday.

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