Myanmar’s military crackdown on Rohingya Muslims has likely killed hundreds of people, with children slaughtered and women raped in a campaign that may amount to ethnic cleansing, the UN said on Friday.
A report from the United Nations Human Rights office, based on interviews with 204 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, found it was “very likely” that crimes against humanity had been committed in Myanmar, echoing previous UN accusations.
The so-called “area clearance operations” launched by the military in northwest Rakhine state on October 10 “have likely resulted in several hundred deaths”, the report said.
Witnesses had testified to “the killing of babies, toddlers, children, women and elderly; opening fire at people fleeing; burning of entire villages; massive detention; massive and systematic rape and sexual violence; deliberate destruction of food and sources of food”, the report said.
One woman told UN investigators how her eight-month baby boy had had his throat slit. Another was raped by soldiers and saw her five-year-old daughter killed as she tried to stop them.
Rohingya refugees also recounted gruesome violations allegedly perpetrated civilian fighters working in collaboration with the military and police.
Three children aged six or younger were “slaughtered with knives”, according to the report.
“What kind of hatred could make a man stab a baby crying out for his mother’s milk,” UN rights chief Zeid bin Ra’ad Zeid al-Hussein said in the statement.
“What kind of ‘clearance operation’ is this? What national security goals could possibly be served by this?”
A full 47% of those interviewed by the UN said they had a family member who had been killed in the operation, while 43% reported being raped.
Rights office spokesman Ravina Shamdasani told reporters in Geneva that “the kind of systematic and widespread violations that we have documented could be described as ethnic cleansing”, but noted that was not a legally defined offence provable in court.
The report said the violence was the result of “purposeful policy” designed by one group to remove another group from an area “through violent and terror-inspiring means”.
The Rohingya Muslims are loathed by many among Myanmar’s Buddhist majority.
Myanmar refuses to recognise the Rohingya as one of the country’s ethnic minorities, instead describing them as Bengalis – or illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh – even though many have lived in Myanmar for generations.
Witnesses told the UN they had been taunted while they were beaten and mocked over the failure of “Allah” to help.
The military crackdown in Rakhine, home to more than one million Rohingya, was triggered by October 9 attacks on border guard posts, which Myanmar and the International Crisis Group say were carried out by foreign-backed militants.
Nearly 70,000 Rohingya have fled the ensuing crisis to Bangladesh.
The Myanmar government’s own probe into the unrest denied that the security forces had carried out a genocidal campaign against the Rohingya.
The government, led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, has said the allegations are invented and has resisted mounting international pressure to protect the minority.
But the UN’s Zeid, who has previously urged Myanmar to act, hit back again on Friday demanding that impunity for such serious crimes had to stop.
“The government of Myanmar must immediately halt these grave human rights violations against its own people, instead of continuing to deny they have occurred,” he said.
Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay had no immediate comment as he had not seen the UN report.
Shamdasani, however, told reporters that the rights office had shared their findings with the government and was “engaged with them in Geneva as well as in Myanmar”.
Around 66,000 people have fled from the Muslim-majority northern part of Rakhine State to Bangladesh since Myanmar’s military launched the security operation. The UN humanitarian office recently put the figure at 69,000.
Four UN investigators gathered testimony last month from 220 Rohingya victims and witnesses who fled the “lockdown area” in Maungdaw in Rakhine for Cox’s Bazar district in Bangladesh.
The investigators took evidence, including photographs of bullet and knife wounds, burns, and injuries resulting from beatings with rifle butts or bamboo sticks.
Bangladesh is determined to relocate Rohingya Muslims fleeing violence in Myanmar to an island in the Bay of Bengal, a Bangladeshi minister said on Wednesday. Critics say the island is uninhabitable. The minister said the move was temporary and Myanmar would ultimately have to take the Rohingya back.