Myanmar authorities arrested and tortured Rohingya refugees who reentered Rakhine state from Bangladesh for livelihood purposes, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Tuesday in a report that cast doubt over promises by Naypyitaw for the safe repatriation of Rohingya.
The New York-based international rights watchdog interviewed six Rohingya refugees who had fled back to Bangladesh earlier this year after being held and allegedly tortured by security forces in Rakhine, after they returned to their home state to earn money.
“The torture of Rohingya returnees puts the lie to Myanmar government promises that refugees who return will be safe and protected,” Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy Asia director, said in a statement.
“Despite Myanmar’s rhetoric guaranteeing a safe and dignified return, the reality is that Rohingya who go back still face the persecution and abuses they were forced to flee.”
The six – three men and three boys –fled to neighboring southeastern Bangladesh last year as part of a massive exodus of Rohingya from Rakhine state amid a crackdown by Myanmar security forces following attacks in August 2017 by a Rohingya insurgent group, according to HRW.
Details of abuse
In interviews conducted with the six at camps in Bangladesh, the refugees told HRW they had been subjected to beatings with fists, sticks and rods, electrical shock as well as interrogations at gunpoint by Myanmar border police and other officials.
The guards tried to force them to confess about their suspected affiliation with the rebel group known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), HRW said.
“They burned a plastic bag and let the hot plastic drip onto my body. They also took a heated iron bar and branded my legs, pressed burning cigarettes to my skin, poured hot wax from a burning candle on my skin, scratched my body with blade, and hit me with rod and sticks,” a 17-year-old refugee identified as “Rahmat” told HRW.
“At first, they kicked me in my chest and thigh and then they used electric shock to make me tell them I was an ARSA member, but they could not make me give a false confession,” said another refugee, “Lokhman,” 24.
HRW said the six Rohingya were sentenced to four-year prison terms but were among dozens of returnees who received a pardon from Myanmar’s president on May 27.
The six interviewed by HRW were among two Rohingya groups that fled to Bangladesh after Myanmar authorities had presented them along with dozens of returnees to media organizations visiting Rakhine on June 1.
“The mistreatment reinforces the need for international protection, including United Nations monitors on the ground, before Rohingya will be able to return safely to Myanmar,” HRW said.
Efforts by Radio Free Asia (RFA), a sister entity of BenarNews, to reach a Myanmar government spokesman for a response to the allegations from HRW were unsuccessful.
Meanwhile in Singapore, Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi defended her government over international criticism of its policies and actions in Rakhine state.
“We who are living through the transition in Myanmar view it differently than those who observe it from the outside and who will remain untouched by its outcome,” she said during a lecture on Tuesday, according to the Associated Press.
Suu Kyi also blamed the ARSA rebels for causing the crisis in Rakhine.
“The danger of terrorist activities which was the initial cause of events leading to the humanitarian crisis in Rakhine remains real and present today,” she said.
“Unless this security challenge is addressed, the risk of intercommunal violence will remain. It is a threat that could have grave consequences, not just for Myanmar but also for other countries in our region and beyond.”
Aug. 25 marks the first anniversary of an unprecedented influx of Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh that saw more than 700,000 members of the stateless minority group seek shelter in Cox’s Bazar and neighboring districts.
Last November, the Bangladeshi and Myanmar governments signed a bilateral agreement for the voluntary repatriation to Rakhine of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees.
But last week, Habibul Kabir Chowdhury, a senior Bangladeshi government official who accompanied Foreign Minister A.H. Mahmood Ali during a visit to Rakhine, said conditions for the safe repatriation of the refugees had “yet to be created.”
Commenting on the report about the alleged torture of the six Rohingya, a former Bangladeshi ambassador and expert on international affairs said that “unless the Rohingya feel safe, they must not return to Rakhine.”
“The [U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees] and other international organizations have rightly pointed out that the situation in Rakhine is not conducive for Rohingya repatriation,” Humayun Kabir, vice president of a local think-tank, the Bangladesh Enterprise Institute, told BenarNews.
“Myanmar’s activities substantiate that the Rohingya people are not safe under the Myanmar government.”
Kamran Reza Chowdhury in Dhaka contributed to this report.