For the first time ever, the UN secretary-general is including Myanmar Armed Forces on an annual blacklist of groups that are “credibly suspected” of carrying out sexual violence during conflict.
The report, presented Monday to the Security Council, says the acts were allegedly perpetrated during military “clearance” operations in October 2016 and August 2017, after a spate of insurgent attacks by members of the ethnic minority Rohingya community. The UN has since described the security operations as “ethnic cleansing.”
Although the Myanmar Armed Forces, known as the Tatmadaw, has been called out in previous UN reports for abuses against other ethnic minority groups, it now joins 51 other government and rebel groups on the conflict-related sexual violence “list of shame,” as Human Rights Watch called it.
For generations, Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state have struggled for citizenship and rights. But the Buddhist-majority population and government do not recognize Rohingya as an ethnic minority. Instead, they are called “Bengalis” and considered illegal migrants from neighboring Bangladesh. Tensions have flared into bloodbaths throughout the years.
Since the security operations began, nearly 700,000 Rohingya have fled across the border to Bangladesh. And according to the UN report, international medical staff and aid workers have reported that many of them “bear the physical and psychological scars of brutal sexual assault.”
“The widespread threat and use of sexual violence was integral to their strategy, humiliating, terrorizing and collectively punishing the Rohingya community and serving as a calculated tool to force them to flee their homelands and prevent their return,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres wrote.
The report describes what it calls “specific and indicative” cases of sexual violence against Rohingya women and girls.
The United Nations verified the following specific and indicative cases of conflict-related sexual violence perpetrated during the military “clearance” operations in northern Rakhine: seven rapes reportedly perpetr ated by Tatmadaw elements in Buthidaung on 4 and 5 May; the rape of 32 Rohingya women and one girl, allegedly by the Tatmadaw and border guard police, also in Buthidaung, as part of perceived “punitive operations”; the rape of a girl by a Tatmadaw soldier in Maungdaw in January; 30 girls subjected to sexual violence by Government forces during military operations; and one girl allegedly raped by a member of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. In early 2017, Tatmadaw soldiers allegedly raped a 16-year-old girl and her 20-year-old sister during operations in Maungdaw. After mentioning the incident to visiting journalists, she was arrested and forced to undergo a medical examination. On 30 August, a report was received of the alleged arbitrary detention and rape of several women in the village of Maung Nu in Buthidaung township. Three girls who reported sexual violence were provided with case management services in northern Rakhine, as well as four children who were victims of sexual assault, in central Rakhine. The prevailing security environment precludes more complete documentation, given the climate of impunity, intimidation, reprisals and access restrictions.
In November, UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict Pramila Patten visited Rohingya camps in Bangladesh, where she heard accounts from “almost every woman and girl” of rape, gang rape, invasive body searches, forced nudity, sexual harassment and abduction for sex slavery. As security forces looted and burned down their villages, many Rohingya women who were impregnated by their rapists then set off by foot on a long and dangerous journey across the border.
The report linked the acts of sexual violence to a circulating narrative that high fertility rates among the Rohingya posed an existential threat to the majority population. Therefore, violence was carried out against women – including pregnant women – in an attempt to extinguish the Rohingya ethnic identity, and on young children, who represent the group’s future.
So far, according to the report, 2,756 survivors of sexual and gender-based violence have received help in Bangladesh, but nearly half of the refugee settlement areas still lack basic sexual and reproductive health care and services for rape survivors.
Guterres also made note of alleged sexual violence against other ethnic minority groups amid escalating clashes that have not received as much international media attention in regions in such as Kachin, northern Shan and parts of the southeast.
Among many recommendations, he called on the Security Council to consider recognizing conflict-related sexual violence as grounds for refugee status and to address funding shortfalls for sexual and gender-based violence programs and for sexual and reproductive health care.
His report comes just as the Myanmar government announced it had repatriated the first group of Rohingya refugees – a family of five – according to a two-year deal signed by Bangladesh and Myanmar in November. But Bangladesh’s Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner Abul Kalam called the announcement “propaganda,” while the UN Refugee agency said it had no prior knowledge of the case.
On Monday, the Security Council also heard from Rohingya lawyer Razia Sultana, who urged the council to refer the situation in Myanmar to the International Criminal Court for crimes against the Rohingya and other minority groups.
“The listing of the Tatmadaw is an overdue and welcome step,” Joan Timoney, senior director of advocacy and external relations at the Women’s Refugee Commission, said in a statement. “Impunity, discrimination and denial of citizenship lie at the heart of this world’s fastest-growing refugee crisis.”