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Rohingya Muslims tell of gang rapes and secret killings in Myanmar's hidden region

PHOTO: Speaking out about the violence is risky for the people of Rakhine State. (ABC News: Liam Cochrane)

By Liam Cochrane
July 19, 2017

As the last of the foreign reporters walked over a bamboo bridge a young Rohingya woman dressed in black, with a black umbrella, raised her hand hesitantly.

Her demeanour was somewhere between blank and terrified.

But she wanted to tell us something.

"The Rakhinese entered and aimed the gun at my forehead. They held my hands strongly and did what they wanted to me," she said.

"Then I was told to go back. But I didn't. I was sitting there. Then they started beating me and they took off my clothes.

"They beat me too much and did what they wanted. The military did this."

PHOTO: A reporter talks to villagers in the Rakhine region of Myanmar on a government tour of the region, July 2017. (ABC News: Liam Cochrane)

She is 18 years old.

The Myanmar Government organised a trip for foreign journalists to go to northern Rakhine State, in Myanmar's west.

The region has been off limits ever since militants attacked several police posts in October, killing nine officers and stealing dozens of weapons.

That sparked reprisals from security forces against Rohingya Muslims that the United Nations called "possible ethnic cleansing".

Some of the 70,000 who fled to neighbouring Bangladesh told stories of atrocities at the hands of the army.

The township of Maundaw was allegedly the scene of some of the worst violence last year, at the hands of soldiers and police.

Where possible, reporters insisted our heavily-armed police escort stayed behind while we conducted interviews.

Each time, fresh allegations emerged.

"They came to this village and burned my father [alive] inside a house and jailed my mother [when she filed a complaint]," said a woman, who the ABC has chosen not to name, in case of retribution.

Speaking out is risky.

Two previous Government-run trips for local journalists have toured northern Rakhine State.

After each trip, someone who talked to the press was killed by unknown assailants.

Myanmar is a majority Buddhist country with more than 130 recognised ethnic groups.

But the 1 million Muslim Rohingyas are not among them.

Most in Myanmar consider Rohingyas to be illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh, calling them "Bengalis" or worse, "kalas".

Many have lived in Myanmar for generations, but they exist under a kind of apartheid — forbidden to leave their village without permission, get a formal job or attend university.

Against this backdrop, a new insurgency formed calling itself Harakah al-Yaqin … or Faith Movement.

It is thought to be led and funded from Saudi Arabia.

The army and the Border Guard Police deny almost all the allegations of human rights abuses.

Police Brigadier General Thura San Lwin said Rohingyas were killing each other and had burned down their own homes.

The Chief Minister of Rakhine State, U Nyi Bu, rejects the allegation from Malaysian's Prime Minister that Myanmar is conducting genocide.

"This isn't genocide, what we did just caused minor injuries," he said. "If people think it's a big deal, they're wrong."

The conflict between Buddhists and Rohingyas dates back decades, with sporadic flaring of communal violence.

In 2012, clashes caused thousands of Rohingyas to flee the state capital Sittwe and shelter in what they thought would be temporary camps.

Five years on, they still depend on food aid but malnutrition appears common, compounded by a lack of medical services.

There are no easy answers, with both sides entrenched in mistrust and prejudice.

After historic elections in 2015, Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi is the de facto leader of the country, but she has no control over the security forces, which continue to act as a law unto themselves.

She has been criticised for not speaking for the rights of the Rohingya, but doing so risks alienating her main constituency, the myriad of ethnic groups who are united in little else but their dislike of the "Bengalis".

Aung San Suu Kyi has tried to carve out space for dialogue, requesting that emotive terms like Bangali and Rohingyas be avoided, and "Muslim" be used instead.

A special commission headed by former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan has made interim recommendations, including a call for unimpeded access for aid workers and media.

A UN resolution to launch a fact finding mission to Rakhine State has been blocked by the Myanmar Government, saying it would be provocative.

With no end in sight, the secret killings and blanket denials continue, bringing with it the risk of a much more potent insurgency.

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