Our Voices

Reflections from Myanmar and Bangladesh

I’ve just returned from Myanmar and Bangladesh where the RFK Human Rights delegation joined Fortify Rights on a fact-finding mission focused on crimes against humanity and genocide perpetrated against the Rohingya in Myanmar. I wrote to my daughters Mariah and Michaela about the trip, and I wanted to share my letter.

Dear Mariah and Michaela,

We spent two days taking testimonies from survivors in the camps in Cox’s Bazar, the largest refugee camp on earth, hosting up to 900,000 Rohingya on the southern tip on Bangladesh. The camp is a spaghetti bowl of narrow alleys, dotted with rudimentary shelters precariously clinging to slippery slopes, ready to slide, only a few weeks into the rainy season.

Drenched and covered in mud, Cara and I carefully hung our umbrellas on the bamboo rafters outside one of the more stable huts, removed sludge-soaked sneakers and entered a pristine room, cleared of all furnishings save a few mats, the thatched walls protected by orange, fuchsia and blue tarps stamped “Made in So. Korea.” We sat on the floor along with five women dressed in burkas, their heads draped in hijabs. Two were our young Rohingya interpreters, both students aspiring for university degrees, their faces open and bright, their English, learned in the camp, flawless—a tribute to their thirst for knowledge in a place where most schooling ends after the fifth grade.

Three women, newly arrived to the camps, greeted us warmly, carefully unhitched their veils, and told us about their families, the homes they fled, their lives in the camps. We talked for hours, interrupted only when the monsoon pounded the tin roof with such force we could not hear one another. Children peeked through paneless windows. A curious but shy toddler wrapped himself in the colorful drape that served as a doorway to an adjoining room. When a tray of coffee and biscuits passed through the curtain, he carefully unfurled himself, and briefly joined our small circle, emboldened by the lure of a sweet treat.

A woman who I will call M is 36 years old. She said “My home is near a security outpost. On August 25th at 12 pm the security forces starting shooting. They shot all day and night, and finally stopped at 5 am. I saw them kill 12 people at the outpost alone. They burned our village, and when people ran from their burning homes they captured the beautiful women. I knew it was for rape. They didn’t rape me, I think because I speak Rakhine and work as a translator. I knew two women taken by the police. When I inquired about the women, I heard that the women were dead.”

T arrived on August 27th last year. She said when the military came to her village they burned all the homes. She saw them rape three women. As they left the village, she said, “Security forces just started shooting people–they killed two little children who were running away.”

She told us she was raped by multiple soldiers. She said she is always in pain and is still bleeding—then she lifted her dress and showed us the fresh blood on her slip. One after another, women told us the details of their terror, of soldiers and former neighbors who murdered men and boys, raped girls—5, 6, 7 years old, set flames to mosques, rounded people up and threw their bodies into mass graves.

Everything we heard from Rohingya women and men, both in the refugee camps in Bangladesh and the Internally Displaced Person camps (prisoner of war internments) in Rakhine State, Myanmar, as well as all the evidence we have seen, points to genocide. Myanmar government rebuttals that the Rohingya spontaneously decided to burn all their villages and flee to Bangladesh did nothing to credibly refute the overwhelming evidence.

The facts are clear, and meticulously documented in the new Fortify Rights Report which names 22 senior military offices. Starting in early 2017, the Myanmar military trained and armed local non-Rohingya citizens. In mid-August soldiers went door to door, confiscated weapons and sharp objects like knives, taking anything Rohingya might use to defend themselves. They tore down fences around Rohingya homes, providing better lines of sight to facilitate attacks. They ousted international humanitarian groups who provided needed food and health care for a desperately poor population, weakening the Rohingya. These actions were all taken in the first weeks of August.

Then, on August 25th, according to Fortify Rights, 27 Myanmar Army battalions, comprising up to 11,000 soldiers, along with at least three combat police battalions, comprising an estimated 900 police personnel, attacked. They burned villages, shot fleeing residents, gang raped women and girls—5, 6, 7 years old, hid bodies in mass graves, and forcibly exiled hundreds of thousands of people.

Thousands have already perished. For survivors, the failure to act now will have grave implications. Myanmar includes well over 100 indigenous ethnic peoples comprising at least 35 percent of the nation’s population. The military has a long history of targeting indigenous peoples with complete impunity and then profiting off of stealing their natural resources, including jade and silver from Kachin, minerals from Shan, and natural gas from Rakhine. License to slaughter one group is license to slaughter others. The failure to hold the perpetrators responsible and place the military under civilian control represents an ongoing peril to both the Rohingya and tens of thousands of other indigenous people of Myanmar and endangers every border country with influxes of innumerable refugees.

Accountability will not be easy. Countries of conscience will have to pressure China, which is playing a destructive role. ASEAN countries will have to abandon their failed policy of non-interference. The United States and other governments must apply targeted sanctions to perpetrators. The United Nations Security Council must refer cases of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity to the International Criminal Court. And for the Rohingya to safely and securely return to their homes, Myanmar must provide full citizenship to this indigenous ethnic group, rebuild Rakhine State, and expend considerable resources building trust between Rohingya and non-Rohingya local communities.

The good news is that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina told us Bangladesh will refer the crimes to the International Criminal Court.

The United States has a central role to play, yet when we inquired about U.S. intentions, we were dismayed by the response. A senior American diplomat told our delegation that the U.S. is taking a “small ball approach”. A “small ball approach” to genocide?

Experience told the Myanmar military that they could perpetrate mass atrocities with no consequences; it’s our job—all of us—to prove them wrong.

Below are photos I took in the camps, along with the list of the members of the delegation and the cities we visited.

All photos are available on my Facebook page HERE.

Please help bring the perpetrators to justice by donating HERE.

Read the full Fortify Rights Report HERE.

We travelled to Yangon, Sittwe, Nay Pyi Taw, Dhaka, Cox’s Bazar and Bangkok. We met with military, police and government officials, internally displaced persons and refugees, Rohingya and Rakhine activists, the diplomatic community, aid groups and human rights monitors.

Members of the delegation included:

Angelita Baeyens: Lead Attorney , RFK Human Rights

Monsieree De Castro: Program Associate, RFK Human Rights

Cara Kennedy Cuomo: fellow, U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network; Family, RFK Human Rights

Kerry Kennedy: President, RFK Human Rights

David McKean: Asia Program Officer, RFK Human Rights

Michael Posner: Professor, NYU Stern School of Business; Board of Directors, RFK Human Rights, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy Human Rights and Labor

Michael Schreiber: Chief Operating Officer, RFK Human Rights

Tom Andrews: former member of U.S. Congress, adviser, Fortify Rights

Christopher Nickelson: Global Citizen

Nadira Dossa: HUMAN

Gabriel Lifton-Zoline: HUMAN

Jonathan Olinger:HUMAN