RANGOON — Human Rights Watch on Monday called for Burma to punish army and police commanders if they allowed troops to rape and sexually assault women and girls of the Muslim minority in Arakan State.
The New York-based campaign group said it had documented rape, gang rape, and other sexual violence against girls as young as 13 in interviews with some of the 69,000 minority Muslims who have fled to Bangladesh since Burma security forces responded to attacks on border posts four months ago.
“The sexual violence 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,” a Human Rights Watch (HRW) news release said.
Reuters was unable to contact a Burma government spokesman to respond to the allegations from Human Rights Watch.
On Friday, State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi promised an investigation into similar allegations made by the UN human rights office, according to the top United Nations human rights official.
“I did speak to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi about an hour and a half ago. I called upon her to use every means available to exert pressure on the military and the security services to end this operation,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said in an interview with Reuters in Geneva.
“She informed me that an investigation will be launched. She said that they would require further information.”
In Rangoon, presidential spokesman U Zaw Htay said: “These are extremely serious allegations, and we are deeply concerned. We will be immediately investigating these allegations through the investigation commission led by Vice-President U Myint Swe.
“Where there is clear evidence of abuses and violations, we will take all necessary action.”
Independent journalists and observers have been barred from visiting the army’s operation zone in northern Arakan since the Oct. 9 attacks that killed nine border police.
The government has so far dismissed most claims that soldiers raped, beat, killed and arbitrarily detained civilians while burning down villages, insisting instead that a lawful operation is underway against a group of armed Rohingya insurgents.
The HRW report comes just days after United Nations investigators said Burma’s security forces had “very likely” committed crimes against humanity, posing a dilemma for de facto leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
The Nobel Peace Prize winner took charge of most civilian affairs in April after a historic transition from full military rule, but soldiers retain a quarter of seats in parliament and control ministries related to security.
HRW said it had gathered evidence on 28 separate sexual assaults, including interviews with nine women who said they were raped or gang raped at gunpoint by security forces during the army’s so-called “clearance operations” in northern Arakan.
The women and other witnesses said the perpetrators were Burma army troops or border police, who they identified by their uniforms, kerchiefs, arm bands, and patches, HRW said.
“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 HRW senior emergencies researcher Priyanka Motaparthy.
“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.”