'Mounting evidence' of Myanmar genocide: watchdogs; Pope advised not to use term 'Rohingya'

Rohingya refugees awaiting aid after crossing the Naf River into Bangladesh from Myanmar.
Rohingya refugees awaiting aid after crossing the Naf River into Bangladesh from Myanmar.PHOTO: NYTIMES

WASHINGTON/VATICAN CITY (AFP, REUTERS) - Myanmar security forces slit the throats of Muslim Rohingya and burned victims alive, watchdogs said in a report on Wednesday (Nov 15) that cited mounting evidence of genocide against the minority group.

The report by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Southeast Asia-based Fortify Rights documents "widespread and systematic attacks" on Rohingya civilians between October 9 and December of last year, and from August 25 of this year.

The 30-page report, entitled "They tried to kill us all", is based on more than 200 interviews with survivors and eyewitnesses, as well as international aid workers.

Some world leaders have already described as "ethnic cleansing" the scorched-earth military campaign against the Rohingya.

Evidence gathered by Fortify Rights and the Holocaust Museum demonstrates that "Myanmar state security forces and civilian perpetrators committed crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing" during two waves of attacks in the majority Buddhist nation, the report says.

"There is mounting evidence to suggest these acts represent a genocide of the Rohingya population," it says.

Almost 700,000 Rohingya, more than half of the population in northern Rakhine state, have been forcibly displaced since October last year when Myanmar's army began "clearance operations" after a previously unknown group attacked and killed security officers.

Those operations were, in practice, "a mechanism to commit mass atrocities," the report said.

"State security forces opened fire on Rohingya civilians from the land and sky. Soldiers and knife-wielding civilians hacked to death and slit the throats of Rohingya men, women, and children," it said.

"Rohingya civilians were burned alive. Soldiers raped and gang-raped Rohingya women and girls and arbitrarily arrested men and boys en masse." The report said investigators from Fortify Rights and the Holocaust Museum's Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide traveled to Rakhine and the Bangladesh-Myanmar border area, where Rohingya have fled.

It quoted eyewitness testimony of mass killings in three villages in late August.

"When the killing was complete, soldiers moved bodies into piles and set them alight," after soldiers reportedly murdered hundreds in one attack, the report said, adding to chilling and consistent accounts of widespread murder, rape and arson at the hands of security forces and Buddhist mobs.

Global outrage is building over the violence, while Myanmar's army insists it has only targeted Rohingya rebels.

The watchdogs' report came a day after Washington's top diplomat, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, said there were "credible reports of widespread atrocities committed by Myanmar's security forces and vigilantes." Speaking during a visit to Myanmar, he urged authorities there to accept an independent investigation into those allegations.

The army and administration of de facto civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi - a Nobel peace laureate - have dismissed reports of atrocities and refused to grant entry to UN investigators tasked with probing allegations of ethnic cleansing.

"Without urgent action, a risk of further outbreaks of mass atrocities exists in Rakhine state and possibly elsewhere in Myanmar," Fortify Rights and the Holocaust Museum wrote.

Meanwhile, leading figures in the Catholic Church and international politics have advised Pope Francis not to use the term Rohingya during a trip to Myanmar due to political sensitivities but human rights groups want him to uphold international law on self-identity.

In the run-up to the his Nov 27 to Dec 2 trip to Myanmar and Bangladesh, several high-profile figures including former US Secretary General Kofi Annan and Myanmar Cardinal Charles Maung Bo have indicated he should not use the term Rohingya.

The pope, a less predictable figure than his predecessor who has overruled advisors in the past, has used the term Rohingya before, and it is widely employed by international institutions such as the United Nations and governments including the United States.

The Vatican, which does not make comments on papal speeches ahead of trips, would not say if Francis might heed the advice and use a term like "Muslims in Rakhine State". Roman Catholics make up a tiny minority in Myanmar.

Francis, a strong defender of human rights and migrants, has spoken earlier this year of "the persecution of our Rohingya brothers and sisters" and has defended their right to "live their culture and Muslim faith".

This month Annan met the pope along with three other members of "The Elders" group of veteran statesmen and women and later hinted strongly that he believed the pope should not say Rohingya.

Annan, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and author of an advisory commission report on Rakhine State given to the Yangon government in August, met the pope on the evening of November 6.

The Vatican gave no details of the meeting but at a breakfast with a few reporters the next day, Annan was asked if he agreed with those who say the pope's use of the word Rohingya while he is in Myanmar could be "incendiary".

"They are right," Annan said.

Annan gave the pope a copy of his 63-page report, which does not use Rohingya but refers only to "Muslims in Rakhine State".

"(The word) is so emotional," he said. Asked if he believed that message had been conveyed to the Vatican, Annan nodded. Lakhdar Brahimi, a former Algerian foreign minister and UN conflict mediator called the report "quite substantial".

Human rights groups hope the pope does not pull his punches in Myanmar.

"The Rohingya have little left besides their group name after years of statelessness, discriminatory restrictions on movement and access to life-sustaining services, and being targeted by a military subjecting them to ethnic cleansing and atrocities," said Phil Robertson, deputy director for Human Rights Watch in Asia.

"The Pope absolutely should stand up for the Rohingya by using the name Rohingya," he said in an email.

Asked if the pope should say Rohingya, Laura Haigh, London-based Myanmar expert for Amnesty International, said: "International law recognises the right of a group to self-identify. It comes down to a principled stand." Father Bernardo Cervelera, head of the Catholic news agency AsiaNews, said the pope should follow the local Church's advice in the country, which has some 700,000 Catholics in a population of more than 51 million that is mostly Buddhist.

"Both the Church there and Aung San Suu Kyi are in a delicate position and I think the pope knows that," he said.

In 2015, Pope Francis angered Turkey when he used the word "genocide" to describe the World War I mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks.

The Turkish government, which denies that the deaths constituted a genocide, recalled its ambassador to the Vatican in protest.