A Journalist Looks Back as Myanmar’s Government Faces Genocide Charges

By Steve Sandford December 10, 2019

A Maungda hut burning in Western Myanmar. (Photo: Steve Sandford / VOA)

BANGKOK – The sight of more than a dozen young men armed with machetes walking out of a burning village in Western Myanmar is the moment I realized that I was witnessing a genocide in progress.

In the eight years I spent documenting a campaign of oppression against the country’s ethnic minority Rohingya Muslims, I had heard countless tales from victims who had endured or witnessed atrocities committed by Myanmar’s security forces.

Now, I was witnessing it in real time during the tail end of a government-approved press tour to Rakhine state’s conflict zone in September of 2017.

Two men, barefoot and wearing traditional longyis, stopped briefly on a dirt footpath in front of me as I filmed the destruction.

A journalist asked what they were doing. Speaking a local dialect, one replied that they had been ordered by Myanmar’s Border Guard Forces (BGF) to burn the village.

At their feet lay plastic jugs with diesel fuel. Behind them, orange flames devoured the bamboo huts in the now-empty hamlet of Gaw du Thara.

Jugs of diesel fuel are seen on a path in the town of Maungdaw, Western Myanmar. (Photo: Steve Sandford / VOA)
Jugs of diesel fuel are seen on a path in the town of Maungdaw, Western Myanmar. (Photo: Steve Sandford / VOA)

Reliable sources later told me that BGF and local militia had forced the Muslim residents out of their village that morning.

It was a mix of bad timing and miscommunications by the media tour organizers that led to our press vans stopping on the stretch of road to witness the carnage first-hand.

But journalists had been exposing details of the campaign of oppression against Rohingya since the start. Two Reuters journalists spent more than 500 days in prison for reporting on the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslim men and boys in Rakhine, in a case that drew international headlines. Still, the crackdown continued.

Today, an estimated three-quarters of a million Rohingya have been forced across the border into Bangladesh, living in squalid camps.

Decades of discrimination

This exodus to Bangladesh began after an armed group calling itself the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) staged a series of attacks on government security posts in the region in August of 2017.

In the weeks that followed, the government carried out a massive campaign of collective punishment. The U.N.’s Independent International Fact-Finding Mission called it “grossly disproportionate to actual security threats” and said that “military necessity would never justify killing indiscriminately, gang raping women, assaulting children and burning entire villages.”

The stateless Rohingya Muslim people in Myanmar’s Rakhine State were stripped of their citizenship under the 1982 Myanmar nationality law.

Since then, they have faced decades of discrimination and abuse from the country’s regime.

But it’s certainly not the first time that the Myanmar military’s been accused of crimes against humanity, directed against ethnic minority groups within the country.

Rights groups have long documented how ‘Tatmadaw,’ as they are called locally, have carried out atrocities inside the country for more than five decades.

Men seen burning huts in the town of Maungdaw, Myanmar. (Photo: Steve Sandford / VOA)
Men seen burning huts in the town of Maungdaw, Myanmar. (Photo: Steve Sandford / VOA)

The military’s use of rape as a weapon of war has been well documented in other ethnic regions.

A Myanmar rights group published ‘License to Rape,’ a 2002 report that included details from 173 incidents of rape and other forms of sexual violence, involving 625 girls and women, allegedly committed by army troops in Shan state between 1996 and 2001.

The rapes involved extreme brutality and often torture, such as mutilation and suffocation.

Zipporah Sein, a prominent leader of the Karen Women’s Organization compiled her group’s report documenting systematic rape being committed by Myanmar’s against ethnic-Karen women. Sein told me in 2011 that she herself witnessed when a good friend was captured by soldiers, had her eyes gouged out in the village square, then was tied up and left to die.

The pattern is disturbingly similar in other regions of the country.

I recall in 2016 unable to hold back tears as I filmed interviews with dozens of young Rohingya women who had survived rape attacks by security forces. They also had been pushed to Bangladesh from Rakhine State in what many observers say was a smaller “trial balloon” military operation ahead of the massive 2017 campaign.

There was not a dry eye in the room as human rights translators, interviewers and victims alike, broke down in the midst of the horrific accounts being recounted.

Myanmar's leader Aung San Suu Kyi at International Court of Justice
Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi, center, and Gambia’s Justice Minister Aboubacarr Tambadou, left, listen to judges in the court room of the International Court of Justice, in The Hague, Netherlands, Dec. 9, 2019.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s track record

In a recorded video address to a group of Nobel laureates in Canada in 2011, the Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi (ASSK) said Myanmar’s armed forces use rape to intimidate ethnic minorities and keep the Burmese people divided.  

This week (starting Tuesday) Aung San Suu Kyi will appear at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to defend the very same army in the first of three international lawsuits that have been filed against Myanmar over brutal atrocities in 2016 and 2017.

In 2017 more than 700,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar during a military operation.

Although the UN has described it as “textbook ethnic cleansing”, Myanmar has denied large-scale killings by its forces.

The case at the United Nations’ top court was brought by Gambia, with the support of the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and accuses Myanmar of violating the 1948 Convention on Genocide. A judgement is expected to take years and will likely do little for the many people whose lives have already been destroyed by violence.

But Gambia’s attorney general says this case is worth pursuing, even if justice moves slowly.

“The case is to send a clear message to Myanmar and the rest of the international community that the world must not stand by and do nothing in the face of the terrible atrocities that are occurring around us,” said Abubacarr M. Tambadou.

“It is a shame for our generation that we do nothing while genocide is unfolding before our own eyes.”

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