Razia Sultana Speaks
by Andy Heintz, CounterVortex
Razia Sultana has seen and heard things that have once again revealed human beings’ disturbing capacity for sadism and cruelty that mere words fail to describe. While much of the world has read and heard reports of the brutal repression of the Rohingya Muslim ethnic minority in Burma, Sultana has heard these stories first-hand while working with female survivors in Kutupalong, the world’s largest refugee camp.
“I try to overcome the memories I have from when I talked with rape victims,” she tells CounterVortex via telephone from Bangladesh. “I see their bodies and marks with my eyes. I provide psycho-social programs of resiliency for women, and some of them have started to talk with me after three years. This is good, that they are trusting me so we can give them more support. It’s not about the financial benefits, it’s only about mental therapy to help them overcome their situation. They are now openly sharing their stories and their experiences. This helps them have confidence and talk with other people about their problems. They initially were not talking to anyone.”
Born in Maungadaw, Burma (also known as Myanmar), Sultana moved to Bangladesh with her parents when she was a child. She has worked as an educator, campaigner, lawyer and interpreter. However, since the Burmese military—known as the Tatamadaw—carried out a genocidal assault in 2017 that forced more than 700,000 Muslims to flee to Bangladesh, Sultana has turned into a full-time activist. First, she translated interviews for the Kaladan Press, an English-language Rohingya media organization. In this work, it became clear to her that most of the women she talked with had been the victim of some type of sexual violence.
“They were sharing with me their experiences of being raped, being mutilated and watching their loved ones killed or beaten because they were not comfortable speaking with the men,” Sultana told Time magazine.
She encouraged her editor to do a report on the widespread sexual violence that was inflicted on Rohingya women by the army. He agreed, and assigned Sultana to do the report. She produced “Rape on Command” and “Witness to Horror,” which both documented the Tatmadaw’s many atrocities.
Neither report is for the weak of heart. The former documents how government troops raped well over 300 women and girls in or near at least seventeen villages. Sultana gathered this information by interviewing 36 refugees, eight of whom were rape survivors. She reports: “[W]ith over 350 villages attacked and burned at this time, this number is likely only a fraction of the actual total of women raped.” In the report, Sultana provides evidence establishing that rape and sexual violence occurred before the army launched what it called “clearance operations” in response to attacks on 30 police posts by Rohingya militants in August 2017. For example, in two villages alone in northern Buthidaung township, six women and one six-year-old girl were gang-raped by government troops weeks before the attack. However, the attacks increased in number and brutality when the operations began. Sultana writes:
Women and girls were caught and raped in their houses, as they were running away or after being rounded up in large groups or near the villages; some were horribly mutilated. In the village of Tula Toli (Min Gyi) in northern Maungdaw, survivors estimate that well over one hundred women and girls were raped during the attack; many were also killed.
Sultana provides other grisly details of systematic and brutal violence unleashed upon the Rohingya, including women and girls being forcibly detained and raped in military camps, for periods of up to two weeks. She documents women who reported how groups of soldiers “jointly beat, held down, or tied up women and young girls and took turns to rape them.” Sultana writes that most of the rape incidents involved “other forms of brutal torture, including biting, beating, cutting with knives and burning.” Furthermore, she notes how the “pattern of mutilation of women’s breasts and genitals after rape” reported by the female refugees suggests a specific directive “not just to sexually possess the women of their ‘enemy,’ but also destroy their very means of reproduction.”
Her reporting and documentation in “Witness to Horror” is no less shocking for its graphic nature and the utter remorselessness of the army. In the report, Sultana interviews 21 Rohingya women from nine villages who fled to Bangladesh to escape the army’s “clearance operations” in Maungdaw in 2016. The women came from different social backgrounds, with husbands who were laborers, farmers, shopkeepers, traders and fishermen. All but one of the women’s husbands had been killed or were missing. They shared similar experiences of the army, border police and local paramilitary troops entering villages and indiscriminately killing and torturing men, women and children and burning down houses. Eight of the women had been personally injured or assaulted.
The stories Sultana translated were chilling and heartbreaking. One woman from the Dar Gyi Zar village reported:
They shot the men and the boys. They threw some of the bodies into the houses and then set fire to the houses. And some bodies were burned in the field. My husband was shot in that group. Also my two sons, aged eleven and seven, who were clinging to him so they went to the men’s group. They were shot too. My two younger sons were in my group, so they were saved.
A 25-year-old woman from the Khat Chaung Gwa Son village recounted how she was running from a burning house when soldiers took her one-year-old daughter from her arms and threw her into the fire, killing her. A woman from Kyar Goung Taung described how soldiers sacking her house picked up her two-year-old son and threw him to the ground, causing an apparent brain injury.
“He was knocked out,” she said. “When they left, I put water on his head. After that he woke up, but he was shaking. He used to be able to walk and speak, but now he can’t walk or speak anymore. He has suffered brain damage.”
Advocacy work in the refugee camps
Sultana’s determination to expose the army’s crimes against her people didn’t stop with her rigorous and detailed reporting. She has since become even more intensely involved in activism on behalf of the Rohingya. She founded the local Right for Women Welfare Society, a grassroots organization that focuses on female empowerment and prevention of gender-based violence. The organization works with Rohingya refugees who live in the sprawling Kutupalong camp, near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. She said being both a woman and a member of the Rohingya has made it easier for her to gain the trust of the refugees.
“I belong to the Rohingya community, and I never forgot my roots and my culture,” Sultana tells CounterVortex. “This makes me more flexible when dealing with this vulnerable community. I share my feelings with them and express solidarity for them getting justice. I always stay with them in difficult moments, which helps them maintain their trust in me.”
One key service Sultana’s organization provides is a resiliency program for women who have experienced sexual violence and other kinds of abuse and trauma. RWWS has set up a women’s center in Camp 14, one of the many within the Kutupalong complex. In the camp, RWWS and the Korean-based Asian Dignity Initiative are developing a joint project for outreach and prevention of gender-based violence.
“These volunteers will reach an estimated 1,000 people every month with education, psycho-social support, and referrals,” Sultana says. “The targeted people are women—adolescent girls, widows, disabled and female-headed households. Community leaders, mahjis, imams, teachers and parents will be targeted as well. Women’s livelihood activities are developing with the gender-based violence volunteers involved in design and implementation that is based on feasibility and acceptability from the community.”
Sultana says that not enough NGOs make an effort to convince Rohingya families—especially men—to allow them to work with survivors of sexual violence. The Rohingya have a very conservative and patriarchal culture, and adult males are not always comfortable with their wives and daughters talking with others about sexual violence. Sultana, however, said she has been able to make progress by talking directly with families about the purpose of her organization’s work.
“We have to convince them,” Sultana says. “Very few NGOs try to convince the community to let them work with Rohingya women. I’m able to convince them.”
Her motivation to start a foundation of her own was influenced by the failure of some international nongovernment organizations to let Rohingya women have a voice in creating the programs that are meant to benefit them in the camps.
“Rohingya women remain systematically excluded from decision-making, advocacy, program design, implementation, and service delivery at the field level in Cox’s Bazar,” Sultana notes. “One result is Rohingya adolescents and women who are survivors of sexual and gender-based violence do not utilize services available in the camp. The widespread use of rape as a weapon of war in the Rakhine State in Myanmar, the prevalence of intimate partner violence within the refugee setting exacerbated by forced migration, persistent post-traumatic stress, continuing loss of livelihoods and fragmenting of social relationships—this all creates a complex mosaic of layered trauma and barriers to accessing appropriate care. Structural exclusion, lack of community ownership, absense of trust, a culture of silence, restricted mobility, and absense of confidentiality results in most survivors remaining outside the current mechanisms for provision of care.”
Sultana believes one problem with the structure and design of programs created by some NGOs is that they were not modified to meet the needs of the high percentage of the Rohingya women who are illiterate.
“Those who are educated are involved in every program,” she says. “We didn’t see the normal woman involved in anything. The NGOs always targeted literate women.”
She adds that another mistake NGOs have made is not opening up any lines of communication with the local communities in Cox’s Bazar.
“The host communities don’t live in a rich country,” Sultana says. “They have their own problems. If the Rohingya get financial assistance, the host communities should as well. Any program being run by local or international NGOs must involve the host communities as well.”
Sultana says that the initial welcome the Rohingya received from the local communities has cooled, and tensions have increased as the Rohingyas have been blamed for an increase in drug use and human trafficking in the area.
Seeking inter-ethnic unity
The main impediment preventing the Rohingya from leaving Bangladesh and returning to their homeland continues to be the violent situation across the border. This is why the Bangladeshi government’s attempt to repatriate the Rohingyas has failed. The military coup in Burma that put in power the very same military that committed genocide against the Rohingya has only made things worse. Sultana describes the source of the army’s power and influence in the country as old-school divide-and-rule colonialism.
“Interethnic conflict is not new inside Burma,” she says. “It’s come from the colonial era, and our political groups use it for their own benefit.”
Despite the lack of support the Rohingya have typically received from not just the majority Burman population, but also the country’s other ethnic groups, Sultana has been more than willing to work with and unite for a common cause with other ethnic minorities who also have suffered decades of brutal repression at the hands of the army. This willingness was evident when she testified in front of the UN Security Council.
“Many of Myanmar’s other ethnic minorities including the Karen, Kachin, Chin, Mon, and Shan have also faced decades of entrenched discrimination, rape, and other human rights violations by the military operating with impunity,” she told the Council. “Other ethnic women’s groups in Myanmar have been documenting these patterns for decades. In 2002, Shan groups released a report with the same patterns of gang-rape, killing, and mutilation. In 2014, the Women’s League of Burma released a report documenting the rape of over 100 ethnic women by the Myanmar army. This showed how even after elections in 2010, the Myanmar army was still raping ethnic women with impunity. What is happening now is only on a much larger scale.”
Sultana called for the Security Council to refer the situation in Burma to the International Criminal Court for war crimes committed against not just the Rohingya, but also the Karen, Shan, Kachin and other peoples.
“My statement today is not only for Rohingya women but for my other ethnic sisters who are also facing atrocities,” she said. “Women community leaders from different ethnicities across Myanmar are working together to build inter-ethnic peace and community relations. We believe in a peaceful and united Myanmar for all ethnicities.”
The National Unity Government and the Rohingya question
Sultana tells CounterVortex she has been heartened by promising statements from the National Unity Government about the Rohingya. The NUG was established April 16 by elected legislators and others who were ousted by the February military coup. It’s comprised of 26 ministers and four executives, including State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint, who both remain imprisoned by the military junta. Aung San Suu Kyi, while maintaining strong support from many of the majority Burman population, went from being a human rights icon to being seen as complicit in crimes against humanity when she denied that genocide against the Rohingya took place and continued the ugly tradition of not recognizing the Rohingya as citizens of the country.
However, the NUG has broken from the positions of the National League of Democracy party that was overthrown in the coup, by recognizing the Rohingya as citizens of Burma. The NUG has also have promised to bring justice and accountability to those responsible for crimes against the Rohingya.
“We will actively seek justice and accountability for all crimes committed by the military against the Rohingyas and all other people of Myanmar throughout our history,” a NUG statement reads. “We intend if necessary to initiate processes to grant [the] International Criminal Court jurisdiction over crimes committed within Myanmar against the Rohingyas and other communities.”
The NUG also has committed to abolishing Burma’s National Verification Card Process, which requires the Rohingya to identify as foreigners. In addition, it promises to ensure citizenship rights based “on birth in Myanmar or birth anywhere as a child of Myanmar citizens,” as well as affirming its commitment to a “voluntary, safe, and dignified repatriation” of Rohingya refugees.
The group Fortify Rights has recommended the NUG appoint an ethnic Rohingya representative to help it implement and expand upon its new policy on the rights of the Rohingya people.
Angshuman Choudhury of The Diplomat notes that while NUG’s three-page statement does represent a welcome contrast with statements by past governments about the Rohingya, there is still reason for concern about the non-specific language used and a lack of clarity regarding whether the Rohingya will be accepted as citizens. The statement asserts “all ethnic groups who are native to the Union have full enjoyment of individual rights held by individual people and collective rights held by ethnic groups.” This seems to imply the Rohingya will be included in Burma’s list of “national races.” The country currently recognizes 135 national races. However, in a June 5 press conference, the NUG’s Minister of Human Rights Aung Myo Min said the issue of whether the Rohingya will be recognized as a national race will be “discussed later.” Additionally, the NUG statement doesn’t use the term genocide, which contrasts with the language used by the United Nations Fact-Finding Mission in its September 2018 report. Choudhury writes that the reluctance to use the term genocide may stem from not wanting to upset the Buddhist majority. It may also be because the International Court of Justice is yet to decide whether the Tatamadaw committed genocide, in a case brought on behalf of the Rohingya by the government of Gambia.
Another possible obstacle that the NUG statement doesn’t address is hostility to the Rohingya by the ethnic Rakhine and Buddhist majority in Rakhine State. For example, a body of Rakhine politicians rejected both the NUG statement and the recommendations made by the Kofi Annan-led Advisory Commission on Rakhine State. The ACRS recommended more representation of underrepresented and stateless people, intercommunal dialogue, and more training for security forces in human rights, civilian protections, community policing and local languages. The commission also recommended revising the 1982 law that initially stripped the Rohingyas of citizenship. The ACRS statement reads:
The Commission also notes the need to revisit the law itself and calls on the government to set in motion a process to review the law. Such a review should consider—amongst other issues—aligning the law with international standards, re-examining the current linkage between citizenship and ethnicity, and considering provisions to allow for the possibility of acquiring citizenship by naturalisation, particularly for those who are stateless. The Commission calls for the rights of non-citizens who live in Myanmar to be regulated, and for the clarification of residency rights.
The NUG statement did declare that the ACRS’s final report “must play a crucial role in addressing the affairs in Rakhine State.” And Aung San Suu Kyi was the one who invited Annan into the country a month after she took office in 2016 to study the situation in Rakhine State and make recommendations to the government. Still, The ACRS was fiercely opposed by Rakhine politicians and outspoken members of Rakhine civil society.
The NUG statement also reads: “[O]ver the past four years, much has changed to make the situation worse in Rakhine State for all ethnic groups there. Using these recommendations as well as other relevant recommendations as inputs, we earnestly believe that we can work together with all the people in Rakhine State.” Choudhury notes that this could be part of the NUG’s strategy of taking steps to voice support for the Rohingya while not alienating the Rakhine Buddhist majority in the state. The tension between the Rakhine Buddhist majority and the Rohingya Muslim minority was illuminated when, on June 6, the All Arakanese Solidarity Committee—a body of Rakhine politicians—released a formal statement opposing the NUG’s statement on the Rohingya.
There have, however, been groups such as the Burma Rohingya Organization UK that have held meetings and found common cause with Rakhine and other minority communities. BROUK released a statement this January signed by leaders of both the Rakhine and Rohingya communities, who said, “[W}e are committed to peaceful coexistence and are determined to rebuild a just and equal society in a United Arakan based upon secularism, we wholeheartedly oppose any form of extremism and ideology that may harm our unity, prosperity and rule of law.”
BROUK also released a statement in October 2020 accusing the Tatmadaw of trying to instigate conflicts between the Rohingya and the Rakhine.
The NUG hasn’t been the only group to start to show sympathy for the Rohingya. Prior to the ICJ hearings at The Hague, several ethnic Karen, Karenni and Shan civil society groups put out a joint statement supporting Gambia’s lawsuit accusing the Tatamadaw of violating the Genocide Convention. The Worldwide Karen Community has also issued a statement supporting the suit. There also was a statement issued by seventeen Shan ethnic groups supporting the international legal cases being brought against the military. The Shan statement read:
The people of Shan State have suffered a similar pattern of systematic atrocities to the Rohingya for decades, particularly during the Burma Army’s scorched earth campaign of 1996-1998, when over 300,000 people in 1,400 villages in the central and southern Shan State were forced at gunpoint from their homes – most fled to Thailand and are unable to return till today. Hundreds of villagers were massacred, and many tortured, including Buddhist monks.
Sultana hopes that such support can lead to the formation of a unified front against a common enemy: the military.
“Burmese civil society has not been united enough on any ethnic conflicts,” she says. “Its collective voice has always been expressed at times of collective duress, such as in 1988 and 2007, when mass protests again took place to dismantle the military… Today’s Civil Disobedience Movement is as much for the Rohingya in a new Burma as it is for all ethnic groups and indeed all people in Burma. One of the key factors of this movement has been its all-inclusive approach—generationally, religiously, ethnically. Millions of people have participated in these protests.”
Sultana, however, hasn’t forgotten the role the NLD and Suu Kyi played in the persecution of the Rohingya.
“The Rohingya’s entire identity has been dehumanized, racialized, persecuted and simply denied by both the military and NLD party,” she says. “The out-casting of the Rohingya until now should not be forgotten. It should serve as both a memory and a starting point for collective reconciliation.”
Sultana also criticizes Aung San Suu Kyi’s speech before the International Court of Justice where she defended the military and denied that genocide against the Rohingya took place. “From the offset, it has been the military which has enacted crime after crime on the Rohingya,” Sultana says.
And she also criticized members of the UN Security Council who continue to do business with Burma.
Military-controlled business groups such as the Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC) and Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL) are an important source of wealth for the Tatmadaw, with stakes in banking, mining, tourism and tobacco. And they continue to receive outside investment. “It’s hypocritical to condemn the human rights violations and express horror at the new violence, while then also selling arms to Myanmar and seeking exploitative licenses to mine its natural resources,” Sultana says.
A 2017 UN report concluded business revenues enhanced the military’s ability to carry out human rights abuses with impunity. Efforts by members of the Security Council to condemn the Tatmadaw have been opposed by Russia and China. China and Russia also are the top two exporters of arms to Myanmar.
Photo: Rohingya Photography Competition/Kutupalong
From our Daily Report:
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ICJ: Burma must prevent Rohingya genocide
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Reprinting permissible with attribution