Updated 8:05 p.m. ET
By the latest estimates, roughly 313,000 refugees have fled Myanmar across the border into Bangladesh in a span of just over two weeks. Hardship awaits the fleeing Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority in mostly Buddhist Myanmar: In Bangladesh, they find cramped, makeshift quarters built of bamboo and plastic sheeting, filled with humans and human misery, with few of their possessions.
The Rohingya say what they left behind was worse.
Reports of unbridled murder and arson, rape and persecution have followed them out of Myanmar’s western state of Rakhine, sketching a stark portrait of government violence. In an area largely barred from international observation, aid groups have been left to assemble a patchwork understanding of what’s unfolding — but by nearly all indications, it’s exceedingly grim.
“Because Myanmar has refused access to human rights investigators the current situation cannot yet be fully assessed,” Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, said in a statement Monday, “but the situation seems a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
Since a militant group associated with the Rohingya attacked a series of military outposts Aug. 25, killing about a dozen people, the military has retaliated with a violent operation that is “clearly disproportionate and without regard for basic principles of international law,” Hussein said.
He cited reports that Myanmar authorities been turning away all returning refugees unless they can provide “proof of nationality” — “a cynical ploy to forcibly transfer large numbers of people,” in Hussein’s words, given the fact that Myanmar denies the Rohingya citizenship, even those who were born there.
“I am further appalled by reports that the Myanmar authorities have now begun to lay landmines along the border with Bangladesh” targeting Rohingya who might return, Hussein said.
According to Amnesty International, which said Saturday it has confirmed these reports, the mines have killed at least one man in the past week and seriously injured another three civilians, two of whom were children. Among those injured, Amnesty said, was a woman hospitalized “after her leg was blown off from the knee down.”
The fires in Rakhine
Rashida, a Rohingya refugee who crossed into Bangladesh on a boat about a week ago, said she owned some paddy fields in Rakhine state with her husband and three children.
“We have left all that behind now. Our house and fields have been burned so we can not earn our living there any more,” she wrote in Al Jazeera on Monday.
“When the military started shooting in our village, we quickly took my children into the jungle and hid them; they were scared from the dangers in the wild. But, when I went back to check on the house, I saw right in front of my eyes, that many people had been killed.”
Her report mirrors many that have come out of the Bangladeshi camps in recent days, telling of brutal attacks on villages by security forces working in tandem with armed Buddhist locals.
The government denies these accounts, calling them the propaganda of stateless dissidents. The Muslim villages have been torched by Muslim militants, the Myanmar military says — retribution against civilians unwilling to submit to the insurgent cause.
When the militant group responsible for last month’s attack, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, declared a unilateral one-month truce “in order to enable humanitarian actors to assess and respond to the humanitarian crisis,” the Myanmar military dismissed the proposal immediately.
“We have no policy to negotiate with terrorists,” spokesman Zaw Htay said Sunday.
The BBC’s Jonathan Head visited Rakhine recently, allowed a rare government-sponsored tour in an area otherwise inaccessible to journalists, and his account of that visit belied the Myanmar line. He wrote of being supplied faked photographs of Muslims “caught in the act” of torching their homes and seeing Rakhine Buddhists looting the scorched rubble of Muslim villages, just off the approved path of the tour.
When asked about the alleged atrocities carried out by the Myanmar military, Col. Phone Tint, a border security minister, denied the violence.
“Where is the proof?” Tint told the BBC reporter. “Look at those women [Rohingya refugees] who are making these claims — would anyone want to rape them?”
The Nobel Peace Prize laureate
For more than a week, the silence of Myanmar’s de facto civilian leader resonated loudly. Aung San Suu Kyi, the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner for her long struggle for democracy in Myanmar, does not control the military apparatus of the country. But many in the international community expected her to speak out publicly against the violence that had captured the world’s attention.
Then, last week, her office released a statement on Facebook, decrying the “huge iceberg of misinformation” by the Rohingya “terrorists.”
This fake news was “calculated to create a lot of problems between different communities and with the aim of promoting the interest of the terrorists,” the statement said, according to a translation by The Guardian.
These comments did little to stem a rising tide of criticism, however — including pressure from some of her fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureates.
As The New York Times reports, the Dalai Lama said the Buddha would “would definitely give help to those poor Muslims,” calling on his fellow Buddhists to end the persecution of the Rohingya.
And Archbishop Desmond Tutu called out Aung San Suu Kyi by name, addressing her in a Facebook post as “a dearly beloved younger sister”:
“Your emergence into public life allayed our concerns about violence being perpetrated against members of the Rohingya. But what some have called ‘ethnic cleansing’ and others ‘a slow genocide’ has persisted — and recently accelerated. The images we are seeing of the suffering of the Rohingya fill us with pain and dread.”
“My dear sister,” he added. “If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep.”
The White House released a statement on Monday evening calling on Myanmar authorities to “respect the rule of law, stop the violence, and end the displacement of civilians from all communities.”
Where can the Rohingya go?
That question remains unanswered — and more pressing by the day.
The U.N.’s migration agency says migrants continue to cross the border at a staggering rate of 20,000 a day. Spread across seven sites in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district, the refugees are straining the capacities of settlements unprepared for such an influx, leaving new arrivals in “urgent need of life-saving assistance, including food, water and sanitation, health and protection.”
Beginning to bow beneath this newfound weight, Bangladesh is floating the idea of resettling the Rohingya on an island of their own in the Bay of Bengal.
Reuters reports Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali suggested the Rohingya be transported to remote Thengar Char, which the wire service says “emerged from the silt off Bangladesh’s delta coast 11 years ago and is two hours by boat from the nearest settlement.”
But critics of the plan are already skeptical, pointing to its susceptibility to major floods and pirate attacks.
Still, for now it is unclear where else they will be welcome. Even as hundreds of thousands of Rohingya are displaced to Bangladesh, Hussein says neighboring India has a proposal in the works to deport its own population of some 40,000 Rohingya.
But “India cannot carry out collective expulsions,” the UN. human rights chief warns, “or return people to a place where they risk torture or other serious violations.”