Govt Urged to Open Access to Arakan Conflict Zone

By The Irrawaddy & Reuters 28 October 2016

Yanghee Lee, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Burma has called for “complete access” to areas undergoing conflict in northern Arakan State.

Referring to the growing reports of human rights violations in the area by members of the security forces on Muslim communities who self-identify as Rohingya, the Special Rapporteur on Thursday called for “an impartial investigation” and said the UN was currently “in the dark.”

Lee said that they had heard reports of extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention, many cases of rape, and the killing of civilians.

“These are unverified as of yet but we do have some credible sources that [add] support to these ongoing human rights violations,” she said.

Access to the area for aid agencies and the media has been severely restricted since Oct. 9, after coordinated attacks on a series of border guard outposts were launched by groups the government believes has links to Islamists overseas.

The militants, who Reuters reported have identified themselves as the previously unknown Al-Yakin Mujahidin in videos posted online, are accused of killing nine police officers and five soldiers, and of stealing a cache of weapons.

In an interview with The Irrawaddy on Wednesday, President’s Office spokesman U Zaw Htay said that “false reports” on alleged human rights abuses were being circulated by individuals and organizations that “support terrorism.” The information could “confuse” the UN, he said.

“If they have strong evidence, they can submit it to the appropriate [branch of] the UN. We will take them seriously. One of our foreign policy principles is to cooperate with the UN,” he said.

On Friday, Reuters reported that eight Rohingya women from U Shey Kya village in Arakan State described in detail how soldiers last week raided their homes, looted property and raped them at gun point.

Reuters interviewed three of the women in person and five by telephone, and spoke to human rights groups and community leaders. Not all the claims could be independently verified, Reuters said, including the total number of women assaulted.

A forty-year-old woman from U Shey Kya told Reuters that four soldiers raped her and assaulted her 15-year-old daughter, while stealing jewelry and cash from the family.

“They took me inside the house. They tore my clothes and they took my head scarf off,” the mother of seven told Reuters in an interview outside her home, a cramped bamboo hut.  “Two men held me, one holding each arm, and another one held me by my hair from the back and they raped me,” she said.

U Zaw Htay, the government spokesman, denied the allegations.

“There’s no logical way of committing rape in the middle of a big village of 800 homes, where insurgents are hiding,” U Zaw Htay said.

U Zaw Htay telephoned a military commander in Maungdaw, whose name he did not disclose, during an interview with Reuters earlier this week. The commander said troops conducted a sweep of U Shey Kya village on Oct. 19, but left without committing abuses.

The military did not respond to an emailed request from Reuters for comment about the accusations in the area it has declared an ‘operation zone.’

U Shey Kya village’s official administrator, Armah Harkim, said he was working to verify the latest accounts, adding most residents believed them to be true.

U Zaw Htay accused residents of fabricating the allegations as part of a disinformation campaign led by the insurgents, which he compared to the tactics of Islamist groups Islamic State and al-Qaeda.

Colonel Sein Lwin, the police chief for Arakan State, dismissed the claims as “propaganda for Muslim groups.”

Reuters’ reporters traveled to U Shey Kya village on Thursday—passing nearby villages where dozens of houses were recently burned down—and interviewed three women who said they were raped by soldiers.

Five other women from U Shey Kya also detailed in a series of telephone interviews with Reuters how Myanmar soldiers raped them. The accounts are backed up by at least three male residents of the village and a Rohingya community leader in Maungdaw who has gathered reports about the incident, according to the Reuters report.

The residents said some 150 soldiers arrived near U Shey Kya on Oct. 19.

Most male residents left the village as they believed they would be suspected as insurgents. The women said they stayed behind in the belief the military would burn down empty homes. Soldiers dismantled the fences around homes, residents said, removing possible hiding places as part of what authorities called a “clearance operation.”

A 30-year-old woman described being knocked off her feet by soldiers and repeatedly raped. The women said soldiers took gold, money and other property, and spoiled rice stores with sand.

“We can’t move to another village to find medical care,” said a 32-year-old survivor. “I don’t have clothes now or food to eat. It was all destroyed. I’m feeling ashamed and scared.”

Meanwhile, according to local sources, the situation in Maungdaw Township has stabilized. Local government reported that 50 out of 402 schools had now reopened and government workers have returned to offices.

There were a total of 3,000 internally displaced Buddhist Arakanese in Maungdaw, Buthidaung, and Sittwe townships but many have now returned to their villages, according to the Arakan National Party.

Ultra-nationalist Buddhist monk group Ma Ba Tha visited the region this week to donate a total of 1,000 bags of rice to displaced persons. Senior monk Ashin Thaw Parka told The Irrawaddy, “we encourage people to go back to their villages, if not, other people will take it [the villages].”

The European Commission reported last week that an estimated 10,000 Rohingya remain displaced and that they are in “desperate need of protection, food, shelter, and sanitation.”

On Friday Human Rights Watch echoed the growing calls to the government to allow humanitarian agencies and international agencies into the area, and to launch an independent investigation into alleged abuses.