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Myanmar's democratic transition

Rohingya women say Myanmar soldiers raped them but government calls it propaganda

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 October, 2016, 4:13am
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 October, 2016, 2:32pm

Rohingya Muslims say Myanmar soldiers raped or sexually assaulted dozens of women in a remote village in the northwest of the country during the biggest upsurge in violence against the persecuted minority in four years.

Eight Rohingya women, all from U Shey Kya village in Rakhine State, described in detail how soldiers last week raided their homes, looted property and raped them at gun point.

Reuters interviewed three of the women in person and five by telephone, and spoke to human rights groups and community leaders. Not all the claims could be independently verified, including the total number of women assaulted.

A 40-year-old woman from U Shey Kya told Reuters that four soldiers raped her and assaulted her 15-year-old daughter, while stealing jewellery and cash from the family.

“They took me inside the house. They tore my clothes and they took my head scarf off,” the mother of seven told Reuters in an interview outside her home, a cramped bamboo hut.

“Two men held me, one holding each arm, and another one held me by my hair from the back and they raped me.”

Zaw Htay, the spokesman for Myanmar President Htin Kyaw, denied the allegations.

“There’s no logical way of committing rape in the middle of a big village of 800 homes, where insurgents are hiding,” Zaw Htay said.

Zaw Htay telephoned a military commander in Maungdaw, whose name he did not disclose, during an interview with Reuters this week. The commander said troops conducted a sweep of U Shey Kya village on October 19, but left without committing abuses.

The military did not respond to a n emailed request for comment about the accusations.

The president’s spokesman accused residents of fabricating the allegations as part of a disinformation campaign led by the insurgents, which he compared to the tactics of Islamist groups Islamic State and al Qaeda.

Colonel Sein Lwin, the police chief for Rakhine State, dismissed the claims as “propaganda for Muslim groups.”

UN envoys urge Myanmar to probe killings, arrests in Muslim-majority region

Soldiers have poured into the Maungdaw area since October 9, after an insurgent group of Rohingyas that the government believes has links to Islamists overseas launched coordinated attacks on several border guard posts.

Citing evidence garnered by interrogating suspected militants, the government blamed the attacks on an armed group it says is made up of some 400 Rohingya fighters.

The militants, who have identified themselves as the previously unknown Al-Yakin Mujahidin in videos posted online, are accused of killing nine police officers and five soldiers, and of stealing a cache of weapons.

The crisis in northern Rakhine marks the biggest challenge Myanmar’s six-month-old civilian government has faced, and raises questions over de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s ability to maintain control of the country’s military, observers and diplomats say.

The United States has raised the issue directly with Myanmar’s Foreign Ministry and would like to see authorities “investigate these allegations fully and take whatever actions against the perpetrators are warranted,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner told a briefing in Washington.

A State Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity said Scot Marciel, the US ambassador to Myanmar, “has been raising the issue consistently since the attack” and spoke to the Foreign Ministry about it on Thursday.

Suu Kyi’s relationship with the army remains strained because of the constitution, drafted by the military in 2008, which bars her from the presidency. It also guarantees the army key ministerial posts, including defence, border affairs and home affairs.

Diplomats and United Nations officials say privately that the October 9 attacks and subsequent crackdown have shattered years of work rebuilding trust between the Muslim and Buddhist communities in Rakhine after ethnic and religious violence broke out there in 2012.