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Myanmar Refugees Tell of Atrocities; ‘A Soldier Cut His Throat’

By Syed Zain Al-Mahmood
September 29, 2017

Witnesses describe military’s massacre of Rohingya Muslims, sparking a humanitarian crisis

TEKNAF, Bangladesh— Twelve-year-old Sukhutara said she watched her family’s final moments from a hiding place in the bushes.

She had just finished taking the cows to pasture that morning when soldiers in olive-green uniform stormed her village in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. She said her absence saved her life.

“The military shot my father, and then as he lay on the ground a soldier cut his throat,” she said.

In a refugee camp on the border, Sukhutara, who goes by one name, sobbed as she described how troops dragged her mother and several other women into a hut. She heard screams from inside. Then the soldiers came out and set the hut ablaze.

Sukhutara, a 12-year-old Rohingya girl, inside a makeshift camp in Teknaf, Bangladesh. She said the Myanmar army killed eight members of her family in an assault on their village in Rakhine on Aug. 30. PHOTO: SYED ZAIN AL-MAHMOOD FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

In recent weeks, Myanmar’s army has launched a counterinsurgency in Rakhine, clearing villages inhabited by the Rohingya Muslim minority and prompting at least 500,000 people to flee into Bangladesh, the United Nations said Thursday. The military and army-backed militias have killed about 3,000 people, according to Bangladesh’s government and rights groups. 

The U.N. Security Council met Thursday to debate the crisis as a bipartisan group of senators in Washington urged the Trump administration to help resolve it. “Despite international condemnation, the Burmese authorities incredibly continue to deny the atrocities,” they said in a letter.

Aung San Suu Kyi, who leads the government of Buddhist-majority Myanmar, says troops have been hunting militants of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army who attacked police posts and an army base Aug. 25.

Myanmar rejects survivors’ accounts that the military committed rape, murder, and torched villages. “We did not do any kind of their accusations,” Col. Phone Tint, Myanmar’s border affairs minister, said in an interview.

Reports of atrocities have pressured Ms. Suu Kyi, who in a speech last week defended Myanmar’s treatment of Rohingya.

Ms. Suu Kyi serves as state counselor but the military controls certain ministries, including defense.

A spokesman for Ms. Suu Kyi said the military had conducted “clearance operations” in accordance with its code of conduct and rules of engagement. Anyone who wished to file a case against the military could do so and it would be investigated in accordance with the law, he said.

Sukhutara’s account was verified by other survivors from her village who spoke to The Wall Street Journal. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International say there is evidence of such atrocities. The United Nations’ human-rights chief of has described the army’s clearances as “ethnic cleansing.”

Close observers of Myanmar say the army’s operation was modeled on the “Four Cuts” strategy former dictator Gen. Ne Win employed against rebels in the 1970s: targeting civilian areas to deny insurgents food, funds, recruits and information.

“The army didn’t want to be bogged down in a counterinsurgency in Rakhine, taking casualties over a number of years,” said Richard Horsey, an independent political analyst in Myanmar. “They were perfectly willing to destroy entire villages to deny safe haven to the fighters of ARSA.”

Tulatoli, the village where Sukhutara lived, was home to between 4,000 and 5,000 people before the massacre. It was victim to among the worst violence in the military’s campaign, with witnesses saying that at least several hundred people were killed. 

Sukhutara said she lost eight close relatives: her parents, grandparents and four brothers. Her uncle, Jahur Alam, with whom she now lives in the refugee camp, said there were no militants in Tulatoli when the army swept in on Aug. 30.

“If there were militants in the village, we would have fled as soon as the troops approached,” he said at a camp in Bangladesh, his arm in a sling after he was shot. “The military killed the men, raped the women, they threw little children into the water.”

The numbers of Rohingya pouring into Bangladesh have overwhelmed aid services. 

Bangladesh says the refugees won’t be allowed to integrate into the community and that Myanmar must take them back. Bangladesh police chief Shahidul Haque said any Rohingya trying to leave the camps would be detained.

Security forces and allied militias have burned down thousands of Rohingya homes in Rakhine, Myannar. Above, a house smolders in Gawdu Zara village in September. PHOTO: /ASSOCIATED PRESS

Political analysts and human-rights activists say the Rohingya face a bleak future in the overcrowded camps where there will be little prospect for employment or education.

“Desperate Rohingya men could fall prey to recruiters from transnational jihadist organizations,” said Shafqat Munir, a security analyst in Dhaka. “They could be exploited by criminal gangs.”

Many Rohingya have paid smugglers to take them to Muslim-majority countries like Malaysia over the years—a perilous voyage across the Bay of Bengal. With so many Rohingya languishing in camps, the boats are likely to sail for Malaysia again when the weather improves in a couple of months.

A 45-year-old boat owner in Teknaf said his men had stopped fishing and were ferrying Rohingya out of Rakhine into Bangladesh—for a price.

“Rohingya in Malaysia are sending money through informal channels to get their family members out of Rakhine,” he said, adding that the journey to Bangladesh cost $100 to $300 a head.

The boat owner said he is looking forward to the winter months when his boats will sail under cover of darkness to Thailand and Malaysia.

“What can these people do?” he said. “We will offer them a way out.”

Yusuf Ali, a 30-year-old Rohingya man in the Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh, said he had been sneaking out to work as a laborer in a nearby village to earn some cash for his family. He said he gets paid about $1.20 a day, a third of what local laborers earn. He wants to join his elder brother and two cousins in Malaysia once they send money to pay agents.

“There is no future for us here,” he said.


Top, boats of Rohingya refugees arrived from Myanmar along the shores of the Naf River in Bangladesh in late September. Above, rescue workers carried the bodies of Rohingya children who died after their boat capsized in the Bay of Bengal during such a journey. PHOTO: DAR YASIN/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Malaysia’s coast guard recently said it was ramping up patrols in preparation for an influx of Rohingya refugees.

“We will try to find a diplomatic solution for them to stay in Bangladesh or go back to Myanmar first,” Nur Jazlan Mohamed, Malaysia’s deputy home minister, said in an interview.

Rohingya families arriving in Bangladesh this week told of continuing military attacks.

Rizwana, 20 years old, said her village, Hasurata, was attacked by the army and Rakhine militia on Sept. 16. She said only a handful of villagers made it out. Her husband was among the dead.

“They seized him by the beard and cut his throat,” she said.

Rizwana said she crawled into the bushes with two of her children. After the soldiers left, they joined other villagers on a six-day trek to Bangladesh. Her youngest child, 6 years old, died on the way, she said.

—Myo Myo in Yangon and Yantoultra Ngui in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this article.

The Unchiprang Rohingya refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. PHOTO: ALLISON JOYCE/GETTY IMAGES

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