BALUKHALI CAMP, Bangladesh — When army helicopters fired on Rahim’s village in northwest Burma one day last November, the Rohingya schoolteacher told his pregnant wife to take their three young daughters and leave. He stayed behind with his 72-year-old mother.
At dawn the next morning soldiers encircled and then entered the village. Rahim and his mother crept into a rice field. Crouching, Rahim said they saw the soldiers set fire to homes and shoot fleeing villagers.
“I thought we were going to die that day,” said Rahim, who like many Rohingya identifies by a single name. “We kept hearing gunshots. I saw several people shot dead.”
His account, told in a Bangladesh refugee camp where thousands of Rohingya are sheltering, was corroborated by four people from his village.
The attack on Rahim’s village, Dar Gyi Zar, on Nov. 12-13, claimed dozens of lives, Rohingya elders said. The killings marked the start of a two-week military onslaught across about 10 Rohingya villages in northwest Arakan State, a Reuters reconstruction of events has found.
Rohingya elders estimate some 600 people were killed. A United Nations report from February said the likely toll was hundreds. At least 1,500 homes were destroyed, Human Rights Watch satellite imagery shows.
Countless women were raped, eyewitnesses and aid workers said. Doctors in Bangladesh told Reuters they treated women who had been raped.
It was the latest round of ethnic bloodletting in Burma, a majority Buddhist country where the roughly one million Muslim Rohingya are marginalized, often living in camps, denied access to healthcare and education and uprooted and killed in pogroms.
Burma’s march to democracy, beginning in 2011, uncorked long-suppressed ethnic and religious tensions between Rakhine’s Buddhists and the Rohingya. Clashes between the two communities in 2012 killed at least 192 people and displaced 140,000, mostly Rohingya.
This latest eruption of violence drove some 75,000 Rohingya across the border into Bangladesh, the United Nations said. Burma’s government has conceded some soldiers may have committed crimes but has rejected charges of “ethnic cleansing.” It has promised to prosecute any officers where there is evidence of wrongdoing.
The military assault involving a little under 2,000 soldiers has presented Daw Aung San Suu Kyi with the first major crisis since her party won elections in late 2015.
Many hoped Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, would bring a new era of tolerance after five decades of military rule. While generals remain in control of a significant part of the government, she now faces accusations of failing to oppose human rights abuses.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National Security Adviser Thaung Tun said some individuals may have committed abuses “in the heat of the confrontation.” But he stressed the government did not approve of such conduct. Burma’s State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi did not respond to detailed questions from Reuters about events in Arakan.
The army began its “clearance operation” in Arakan after Rohingya militants attacked border posts there on Oct. 9. For a month, it tried to pressure villagers to hand over the rebels, without success. That approach changed on Nov. 12-13 in Dar Gyi Zar and the neighboring village Yae Khat Chaung Gwa Son, marking a sharp escalation of the military operation.
This article pieces together how events unfolded, drawing on interviews with Rohingya refugees, diplomats, aid workers and Burma government officials. Reuters also gained rare access to Burma security officials and spoke with a Rohingya militant leader.
The reconstruction of the military operation contains previously unreported details about army negotiations with villagers over the insurgents, a shift in military strategy and the army units involved.
Reuters also learned new details about investigations into alleged atrocities that are being conducted by the Burma Army and by the home affairs ministry.
The violence was brutal. A 16-year-old girl assaulted in the village of Kyar Gaung Taung, said two soldiers raped her. Speaking in a Bangladesh refugee camp, she said she still suffers anxiety and trauma after the attack.
“I am angry with myself for being Rohingya,” said the teen, whose name Reuters is withholding. “If I had been Bangladeshi or American, I would never have been raped. But they did it to me because I was born Rohingya.”
The army has denied there were widespread abuses and said it was carrying out a legitimate counterinsurgency operation. The army and the ministry of home affairs did not respond to detailed questions from Reuters about events in Arakan.
“It is possible that individual security officers or individual policemen may have reacted in an excessive manner,” Thaung Tun, the security adviser, said. “But what we want to make clear is that it’s not the policy of the government to condone these excesses.”
After years of persecution, some Rohingya have begun to fight back. A militant group called Harakah al-Yaqin, or “Faith Movement,” was formed by Rohingya living in Saudi Arabia after the 2012 violence, according to the International Crisis Group.
Its leader, Ata Ullah, said hundreds of young Rohingya men have joined the ranks of the group, which now wants to be known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. Burma’s government estimates it has about 400 fighters.
“In 2012, they killed us and we understood at that time, they would not give us our rights,” said Ata Ullah, speaking by video link from an undisclosed location in Burma.
Before dawn on Oct. 9, Rohingya militants staged attacks on border police. The army set about trying to capture the rebels. For a month, it attempted to pressure villagers to give up the insurgents, according to Rohingya elders and villagers.
The village of Kyet Yoe Pyin, located on the main road north to Bangladesh in northwest Rakhine, was one of the first to draw the army’s attention on Oct. 13, according to a military intelligence source.
Insurgents had used logs to erect roadblocks near the settlement of 1,300 houses, blocking the way for military vehicles, residents and the military intelligence source said. In retaliation, about 400 soldiers burned down a part of Kyet Yoe Pyin and shot several people, according to four villagers.
Officials have blamed insurgents and villagers themselves for the burning of homes.
After a few days of trying unsuccessfully to capture the insurgents, the soldiers asked village elders to negotiate.
The meeting took place in western Kyet Yoe Pyin.
About 300 soldiers crowded the road while four commanders led the talks with five Rohingya men, according to a village elder who attended the meeting. The talks, confirmed by the military intelligence source, were an example of the army’s attempts in those early weeks to pressure the villagers to help identify the rebels.
“Their first question was: ‘Who cut the trees?’ We told them we didn’t know,” the village elder recounted. “They told us: ‘We will give you a chance: You can either give us the names of the insurgents, or we will kill you’.”
The officers visited Kyet Yoe Pyin on several further occasions, asking about insurgents and taking money in exchange for leaving the remaining houses untouched, the villagers said.
A variation of this scene was repeated in other villages in the weeks leading up to Nov. 12, residents said.
On Nov. 12, this low-grade violence escalated abruptly when the army clashed with rebels north of two villages in northwestern Arakan—Rahim’s village Dar Gyi Zar, a settlement of more than 400 houses, and Yae Khat Chaung Gwa Son, with some 600 houses.
Muhammad Ismail, another Rohingya teacher from Dar Gyi Zar, said the army spotted insurgents a few kilometers to the north of his village at around 4 a.m. After a two-hour shootout, the militants fled towards neighboring Yae Khat Chaung Gwa Son, where fighting resumed in the afternoon. The area is densely forested, and residents could not say how many militants there were.
The leader of the insurgents, Ata Ullah, said he and his men found themselves surrounded. “We had to fight,” he told Reuters. He did not say how many insurgents were involved in the clash.
During a day-long battle, some villagers joined the insurgents, fighting the security forces with knives and sticks, according to Ata Ullah and the military. A senior officer was killed and the army brought in two helicopters mounted with guns as back-up, according to official accounts, which described the incident as an ambush by the insurgents.
The helicopters swooped in around 4 p.m., hovering low over the road connecting Dar Gyi Zar and Yae Khat Chaung Gwa Son, according to eyewitnesses.
The villagers dispersed in panic as one of the helicopters sprayed the insurgents with bullets. The other helicopter fired indiscriminately on those fleeing, five eyewitnesses said. The military intelligence source confirmed that the helicopters dispersed the crowd but denied they shot at civilians.
It marked the start of an offensive across a section of northwest Arakan that lasted about two weeks, according to villagers, aid workers and human rights monitors and a review of satellite imagery from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
Security and administrative officials confirmed the scope of the sweep but said they were not aware of abuses.
Whole communities fled north towards larger villages and then west to Bangladesh, pursued by the army. Women who were raped said the soldiers shouted “go to Bangladesh.”
Three doctors from small clinics near refugee camps in Bangladesh have described treating some three dozen cases of Rohingya women whom they say were raped.
“I treated one woman. She was so badly raped she had lost sensation in her lower limbs,” said John Sarkar, 40, a Bangladeshi doctor who has worked with Rohingya refugees for eight years.
National Security Adviser Thaung Tun said a commission, set up by the State Counselor in December and chaired by vice president Myint Swe, a former head of military intelligence, needed time to investigate.
“We find it really difficult to believe that the Myanmar military would use (sexual violence) as a tool, sex slaves or rape as a weapon. In Myanmar this is repulsive, it’s not acceptable,” he said.
The Dw Aung San Suu Kyi appointed investigation is one of several. The army is conducting an internal probe and the ministry of home affairs, which is controlled by the army, is also carrying out an inquiry.
Separately, the United Nations has ordered a fact-finding mission to examine allegations of human rights abuses.
A senior government source and a senior military source said the commander of the army division that led the operation, Maj-Gen Khin Maung Soe, had been questioned by investigators in the army probe.
The army did not respond to Reuters questions about Maj-Gen Khin Maung Soe’s role and Reuters was unable to contact him directly.
The ministry of home affairs, meanwhile, is examining 21 cases, including five suspected murders, six rapes, two cases of looting and one case of arson and seven unexplained deaths, according to police colonel Shwe Thaung. Investigators were seeking the army’s cooperation to interrogate soldiers.
When the sun went down on the villages of Dar Gyi Zar and Yae Khat Chaung Gwa Son on Nov. 12, the fighting stopped.
“The night was tense. Some people sneaked out to neighboring villages. Others were preparing to move first thing in the morning,” said Muhammad Ismail, the Rohingya teacher who witnessed fighting.
But at dawn the next day, soldiers encircled the two villages and set the houses on fire, five eyewitnesses said. Those who could, fled. But the elderly and the infirm stayed. From the rice field where he hid, Rahim said he saw soldiers shooting indiscriminately.
Police reports from the period confirm that security forces focused their attention on about 10 villages—Dar Gyi Zar, Yae Khat Chaung Gwa Son and other settlements nearby.
They detained nearly 400 people between Nov. 12 and 30, according to a senior administrator in the state capital of Sittwe who received the daily dispatches.
The administrator, who briefed Reuters on condition of anonymity, said the reports described a lawful counterinsurgency operation.
One of the villages that bore the brunt of the post-Nov. 12 crackdown was Kyar Gaung Taung, a settlement of about 300 houses in northwest Arakan.
Residents say that for five days starting around Nov. 16, security forces swooped in, searching for men. As in neighboring villages, they arrested or killed most working-age men, and gathered the women in groups, carrying out invasive body searches.
Reuters talked to 17 people from Kyar Gaung Taung from November through March by telephone and in person in Bangladeshi camps, including five rape victims, three close relatives of those raped and several village elders. They corroborated one another’s accounts.
Shamshida, a 30-year-old mother of six, was ordered to come out of her house.
“One of the soldiers put a machete to my chest and bit me on the back. Then, they started picking women from the group gathered on the road. I was selected and pulled inside the house. I knelt down thinking that may help and the last thing I remember was one of the soldiers kicking me in the head,” said Shamshida, who identifies with a single name.
When her husband and her sister found her several hours later, she was stripped naked, unconscious, covered in bruises and bleeding from her mouth and her vagina.
They carried her to the neighboring village of U Shey Kya several hundred meters away, where she regained consciousness, was showered and taken care of by a village doctor.
After eight days, she returned to her village, where there were no men left and many houses were burned down.
Doctors in Bangladesh said the Rohingya women they treated had torn vaginal tissue and scars inside their mouths from having guns inserted. In some cases, the women couldn’t walk and had to be carried by relatives to the clinics. Many were covered in bruises and bite marks.
Sarkar, the Bangladeshi doctor, and others administered abortion-inducing kits, painkillers and antibiotics. In cases where the kits didn’t work, they referred the women to regional hospitals for abortions.
Out of the Country
As thousands of Rohingya were fleeing across the river border to Bangladesh, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was not in the country. In early December she went to Singapore, attending meetings and a ceremony to have a purple orchid named after her in the city-state’s botanic gardens.
The State Counselor’s defenders, including some Western diplomats, say she is hamstrung by a military-drafted constitution that left the army in control of key security ministries and much of the apparatus of the state.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi may be playing a long game, these diplomats said—back the military for now and coax the generals into accepting a rewriting of the constitution to reduce their power.
During her trip, the State Counselor gave an interview to state broadcaster Channel News Asia, in which she accused the international community of “always drumming up cause for bigger fires of resentment,” adding it didn’t help “if everybody is just concentrating on the negative side of the situation.”
She appealed for understanding of her nation’s ethnic complexities, and said the world should not forget that the military operation was launched in response to the Rohingya insurgents’ attacks on border posts.
Rahim, the village schoolteacher, and his family were among thousands of Rohingya who made the 2-kilometer (1.2 mile) river crossing to Bangladesh.
On April 8, in a Bangladesh refugee camp, Rahim’s wife Rasheda gave birth to their first boy, Futu, or “little son.” Rahim doesn’t know whether Futu will ever see his homeland.