Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh: If you believe the Myanmar government, the military “clearance operation” in northern Rakhine state, which began after an attack on a police post in October, officially came to a halt on Thursday.
But for the region’s Rohingya inhabitants, the reign of terror shows no signs of ending.
Following an international outcry over allegations of widespread human rights abuses by Myanmar security forces and Buddhist tribal groups in the state, the government allowed selected Myanmar journalists to visit the area in December.
As the journalists toured Rohingya villages, where killings, rapes and arson had been reported, most Rohingya avoided interaction with them.
However a few, including 25-year-old Rohingya woman Jamalida Begum, took courage and shared their experiences.
“I told them how other Rohingya women there and I had been brutally raped by the military,” she told Fairfax Media.
Soon after the December visit, interviews with Begum and two other villagers – a man called Sona Mia and a woman called Noorjahan – were shown on Myanmar TV channels.
Sona Mia, a Rohingya from the village of Ngakura, was found murdered a day after he spoke to the journalists. For Begum, it was a clear message.
“I got extremely scared at the news of the beheading of Sona Mia and immediately I decided to flee,” she said.
Begum said that when she was speaking to the journalists, some soldiers took her picture, later returning to launch a house-to-house search for her in her hamlet of Pyoung Pyi in the Maungdaw area.
“I sneaked out of my village and spent several days in hiding in jungles and other places, before giving the border guards the slip and crossing over to Bangladesh” with her father and seven-year-old son.
At a refugee camp in Bangladesh, Begum and 31-year-old Noorjahan, who alleged on camera that five soldiers and Buddhist tribesmen had raped her, have become friends.
“The soldiers murdered my husband in November,” Noorjahan told Fairfax Media. “Weeks after, they raped me before my daughter. My mental pain was unbearable. I wanted the world to know of it. So, I took the risk to tell everything about the torture to the journalists.
“Many women around us had been raped by the Burmese soldiers, police and Mog [a Buddhist tribe] men. But, most were afraid of retaliation from the government and so they did not come forward,” she adds.
When the soldiers launched a search for her, hours after she spoke to the journalists, she slipped out of her village of Nirbil and hid in another, she said.
“After spending one week in hiding, one night I secretly took a boat, crossed the [Naf] river and reached Bangladesh, along with my six-year-old daughter,” Noorjahan said.
Soon after the TV interviews, the Myanmar government issued a statement saying that several neighbours of the two women had reported to the authorities that their rape allegations were “not true”.
The government also said that since Begum and Noorjahan had fled their villages, it could not investigate the rape charges.
But Begum and Noorjahan say they are still being pursued.
In January, a Myanmar official accompanied by foreigners – by which the women mean people who were not Burmese or Bangladeshi – reached the Rohingya refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar where Begum and Noorjahan have taken shelter.
Begum said she recognised this official, who had visited her village in December, when she said to him and other Myanmar officials how she had been raped by three soldiers in November.
“I was shocked to see that official at the refugee camp,” she said. “[He] asked me why I had fled Burma. I replied that the security agencies were hounding me … when he asked if I wanted to go back to [Myanmar], I replied in the negative,” she told Fairfax Media.
“Are [Myanmar officials] still tracking Noorjahan and me for some reason?”
As Begum and Noorjahan did not enter Bangladesh legally, the UN refugee agency cannot support them and they are forced to live on handouts provided by local charities.
Accusations of Rohingya villagers being hounded after daring to speak out have surfaced elsewhere.
Kofi Annan – who heads a commission investigating the conflict in Rakhine – visited Rohingya villages in the first week of December. Soon after, Myanmar police launched a hunt for those Rohingya who told the former UN secretary-general about abuses committed by the security forces. Two people who spoke out were arrested.
Yanghee Lee, the UN’s special rapporteur on Myanmar, visited northern Rakhine in January to investigate allegations of rights violations by security forces. Aung Aung, a Rakhine-based activist, said that military officials had threatened villagers with punishment if they sought to meet Ms Lee.
“It’s clear that the military authority does not want Rohingyas to tell the outside world how they are being killed and tortured in Myanmar,” Aung said.
Ms Lee will arrive in Bangladesh on Monday to resume her investigation. In Cox’s Bazar, she is scheduled to meet scores of Rohingya rape survivors and others who have fled Myanmar in recent weeks.
At least two other Rohingya men who met Mr Annan have fled to Bangladesh, Aung added.
Matthew Smith, chief executive officer of the group Fortify Rights, said that Myanmar is a “dangerous place to be a truth teller”.
“There is a practical effect to reprisals – they instil fear and terror among the population and discourage others from speaking out,” Smith said.
“We documented how state security forces hunted a Rohingya man who met with foreign ambassadors who in November visited Maungdaw. The authorities tracked him through multiple villages and at one point opened fire on him. He managed to escape to Bangladesh … The commissions appointed by the government have failed to account for this trend, as well as other grave violations,” he added.
“The time for a UN-mandated independent international investigation is now.”