Rohingya still fleeing violence, persecution in Myanmar

Muslim Rohingya continue to flee Myanmar's Rakhine state, many testifying about violence, persecution, killings and burning of their homes by soldiers and Buddhists, the United Nations human rights chief said on Wednesday.

Series of unexplained killings in Bangladesh refugee camps adds to fear and desperation

Rohingya refugees await the arrival of a UN Security Council team at the Kutupalong Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh on April 29. (A.M. Ahad/Associated Press)

Rohingya Muslims continue to flee Myanmar's Rakhine state, many testifying about violence, persecution, killings and burning of their homes by soldiers and Buddhists, the United Nations human rights chief said on Wednesday.

Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, in his final remarks to the Human Rights Council before stepping down on Aug. 31, questioned a top Myanmar official's assertion that the government was committed to defending the rights of all, not those of any one community.

"In my four years as high commissioner I have heard many preposterous claims. That claim is almost in its own category of absurdity," Zeid said. "Have you no shame, sir, have you no shame? We are not fools."

No amount of rhetoric can whitewash these facts.—  Zeid   Ra'ad  al-Hussein, UN Human Rights Chief

The Myanmar official, Kyaw Moe Tun, director-general of its foreign ministry, did not reply to Zeid's comments, which closed the two-hour debate. After the session he could not be reached for comment.

Earlier, Kyaw said during the debate that Zeid's report contained information that was "distorted or exaggerated". He blamed the violence on militants who attacked Myanmar government forces.

"The root cause of the tragedy was terrorism and terrorism cannot be condoned under any circumstance," Kyaw said.

So far this year, 11,432 Rohingya have reached Bangladesh, where more than 700,000 have fled since an August military crackdown in Myanmar's northern Rakhine state, Zeid said.

"No amount of rhetoric can whitewash these facts. People are still fleeing persecution in Rakhine — and are even willing to risk dying at sea to escape," he said.

Many Rohingya refugees also report being pressured by Myanmar authorities to accept a national verification card that says they need to apply for citizenship, he added.

Refugees look out from their camp near a fence during a government-organized media tour to a no-man's land between Myanmar and Bangladesh, on June 29. (Min Kyi Thein/Associated Press)

The citizenship issue

The citizenship issue is at the core of discussions on their status, Zeid said, adding that the cards "mark the Rohingya as non-citizens, in keeping with the government's characterization of them as foreigners in their own homeland."

Authorities in mainly Buddhist Myanmar deny carrying out large-scale human rights abuses, which the United Nations has described as ethnic cleansing.

Rohingya come out of their homes on Jan. 28, after a visit by Indonesian President Joko Widodo at Jamtoli refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. (Manish Swarup/Associated Press)

Authorities say a crackdown in Rakhine is a necessary response to violence by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) militant group, which attacked Myanmar security posts.

Kyaw said a top priority for his government was to find a "sustainable solution" in Rakhine. It had agreed with Bangladesh in January 2018 that repatriation of refugees would be completed within two years, he said.

Killings sow fear

Meanwhile, Bangladesh is deploying thousands of extra police to Rohingya refugee camps in the south, officials said, after a series of mostly unexplained killings that have sown fear among hundreds of thousands of people who have fled from Myanmar.

Since August, when a military crackdown in Myanmar forced many to cross the border and seek shelter in the crowded camps, 19 people, some of them community leaders, have been killed.

Police have made a number of arrests in connection with some of the killings, but say the motives often remain unclear.

Conducted after dark and often by groups of men wielding pistols, knives and sticks, the killings have sent a chill through the camps, which are guarded by the Bangladesh army during the day but manned by fewer police officers at night.

A.K.M. Iqbal Hossain, police superintendent of the coastal town of Cox's Bazar under whose jurisdiction the camps fall, said a special force of roughly 2,400 men was being formed to guard the refugees.

A second senior officer, Superintendent Afrujul Haque Tutul, said police numbers were already being increased.

A Rohingya refugee girl holds an infant in Cox's Bazar, on June 2. (The Associated Press)

"We have 1,000 police officers right now for a million people, so you can imagine," he said.

More than 700,000 Rohingya have taken shelter in Cox's Bazar since August, joining thousands who were already living there, making it the world's largest and fastest growing refugee camp.

Even before the August exodus, there had been violence in the camps, which Bangladesh police and aid workers have previously blamed on a struggle for control of supplies to the camps.

Stabbed 25 times

The latest killing, of 35-year-old Arifullah, took place last month on a busy road outside the Balukhali camp, where he had been appointed a leader of thousands of refugees.

A group of men surrounded him on the evening of June 18, stabbing him at least 25 times, police said. A pool of blood stained the spot the next morning, and a crowd of refugees could be seen gathered around.

[Security] is a big challenge when you have big numbers, poor conditions, cramped situations.— Peter Maurer, International Committee of the Red Cross president

Police said three Rohingya men had been arrested over the killing of Arifullah, who spoke English, had worked for international agencies in Myanmar, and often met foreign delegates who visited the camps.

His wife, who did not want to be named and asked Reuters not to disclose the location where she was interviewed because she feared attack, said Arifullah was a critic of ARSA.

The group says it is fighting for the rights of the Rohingya.

Police said investigations into the killing were ongoing and they had not found links to ARSA. A spokesman for ARSA referred Reuters to its Jan. 31 statement that said other armed groups were responsible for "activities" at refugee camps and were using its name to malign its image.

I'm scared for my children.- Jamila, widow of slain community leader Yusuf

The group said it did not attack civilians and would never carry out killings in the camps because its was thankful for Bangladesh's generosity in sheltering the refugees. That statement was issued after the Jan. 19 killing of Yusuf, another English-speaking camp leader.

Sitting on the mud floor of her shelter, Yusuf's wife, Jamila, said her husband had been watching a football match on his phone with his two sons when around a dozen men barged into their shelter in the Taingkhali camp carrying knives and pistols, shooting him twice.

She said police had urged her to file a case and name suspects, but she had refused, fearing retaliation, and because she did not want to leave her shelter for hours to go to court. "I'm scared for my children," she said.

Details of Yusuf's killing were confirmed by police superintendent Tutul at the Cox's Bazar police station. He said the police investigation was hampered because the refugees were afraid to name suspects.

He said intelligence received so far suggested several of the killings, including those of Yusuf and Arifullah, were due to personal disputes refugees had brought from Myanmar.

Police have arrested about 300 Rohingya in cases involving killings, robberies and abductions in the camps since the August influx, Tutul said.

International Committee of the Red Cross President Peter Maurer talks about the humanitarian crisis in the Rakhine state during a June 29 news conference in Naypyitaw, Myanmar. (Aung Shine Oo/Associated Press)

Camp leaders at Balukhali and Taingkhali said the army had appointed Rohingya volunteers to keep guard at night, but most had stopped working because they were not being paid.

Foreign officials said security inside the teeming camps was a worry.

"What I hear from my colleagues is that is obviously a big concern," Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said on a visit to the camps on Sunday. "It is obvious that it is a big challenge when you have big numbers, poor conditions, cramped situations."