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Amid ‘mounting evidence of atrocities,’ UN calls for investigation into Rohingya crackdown

The U.N. is calling for an investigation into Myanmar’s violent crackdown last year against the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group. But Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh are finally receiving aid, and despite repatriation discussions, many are reluctant to return to the people who brutalized them. Nick Schifrin talks to special correspondent Tania Rashid and Refugees International's Dan Sullivan.

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  • John Yang:

    As we reported earlier, the U.N.'s top human rights body accuse Myanmar's military of genocidal intent and gross human rights violations against the Rohingya, a Muslim minority in Myanmar. Myanmar's military launched their crackdown exactly a year ago.

    As foreign affairs correspondent Nick Schifrin reports, the U.N. report calls for top military generals to be investigated and prosecuted for crimes against humanity.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    One year ago, along the Myanmar-Bangladesh border, the Myanmar military unleashed horror. The U.N. says soldiers torched Rohingya villages and, in the aftermath, tortured men, killed indiscriminately, and carried out systematic sexual violence, creating an untold number of victims of gang rape.

    The U.N. says, for years, the Rohingya have suffered institutionalized oppression from birth to death. In the past, they have been and targeted by Myanmar authorities, but never on this scale.

    Newly released satellite images show a Rohingya village full of houses last May and today cleared of life.

    Myanmar's military was responding to attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, or ARSA. One year ago, militants assaulted 30 Myanmar police posts. But today's U.N. report calls the subsequent crackdown wildly disproportionate, said U.N. fact-finding mission member Radhika Coomaraswamy.

  • Radhika Coomaraswamy:

    The scale, brutality and systematic nature of rape and violence indicate that they are part of a deliberate strategy to intimidate, terrorize or punish the civilian population.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The terror worked. Hundreds of thousands fled their homes. Shell-shocked, they trudged through the mud to cross from Myanmar into Bangladesh, where they set up sprawling, squalid refugee camps.

    Hasina Begum's story was all too common.

  • Hasina Begum (through translator):

    They burned my village to ash. They shot my father dead in front of me.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Special correspondent Tania Rashid has covered this story for us for the last year. And over the weekend, she saw how conditions have improved in the world's largest refugee camp.

  • Tania Rashid:

    Many have set up shop where they're selling belts and clothing for little children. Pharmacies have been set up, where they're selling an array of medication, like Paracetamol for headache. There are even cell phone shops where locals are purchasing phones, so that they can stay in touch with their families in Bangladesh and even Myanmar.

    More than half of the population are children. A year later, they continue to struggle, where they have taken an adult-like tasks such as manual labor and carrying heavy loads, all to support their family.

    Local doctors say that many of these children also continue to suffer from malnutrition.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And Tania Rashid joins me now from Kutopalong mega-camp in Cox's Bazar.

    Tania, how far have these refugees come one year later?

  • Tania Rashid:

    A year later, so much has changed.

    During the exodus, I have seen people sleeping on plastic sheets on the streets and openly defecating everywhere. Now it seems like, with the humanitarian agencies that have taken over, there is much more organization in place. There are toilets, women-friendly spaces for survivors of sexual violence in place.

    And I have also seen that many Rohingyas have set up home here. They have been doing everything they can, from setting up shops and grocery stores, so that they feel like they have a sense of place, unlike before.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And there's a question of repatriating these refugees. Would they want to go?

  • Tania Rashid:

    The reactions have been very mixed. I have been hearing from some Rohingyas who have told me that there's no way that they would go back to the people who burned their villages, raped them and murdered them in some instances.

    They believe that, now that they're in Bangladesh, they will make Bangladesh their homes. Other Rohingyas have told me that they do want to go back. There's a sense of nostalgia, of missing where they're from.

    But the only way they will go back as if their citizenship is guaranteed.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Tania Rashid, thank you very much.

    And I turn now to Dan Sullivan here with me in the studio. Dan Sullivan is the senior advocate for human rights at Refugees International.

    Thank you very much for being here.

  • Dan Sullivan:

    Happy to be here.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    We just heard Tania Rashid talk about improvements in some of these camps. And there are some improvements over the last year, but there's still a long way to go, especially on services, right?

  • Dan Sullivan:

    Yes, absolutely.

    I mean, there's — it's come a long way from the chaos of the initial influx of refugees, but there are a lot of problems, particularly with — the government of Bangladesh has refused to recognize the Rohingya as refugees. And one of the places we really see that coming across is with gender-based violence services and with the monsoon season.

    So there's still a long way to go.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Another place that there's perhaps long way to go is back in Myanmar. And we heard Tania Rashid talk about how there are some refugees who would want to go home.

    But have the root causes that led to the violence, that led to the exodus, have any of those been addressed?

  • Dan Sullivan:

    In a word, no.

    You still have — there's been no accountability. So the people who might go back, they have no guarantees for their safety. You have thousands of people who have continued come into Bangladesh in 2018. No guarantees of citizenship or basic human rights.

    So, no, the root causes have not been addressed in Myanmar.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The state counselor in Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate, was faulted by the U.N. fact-finding mission today, who said that — quote — "She contributed to the commission of atrocity crimes."

    Is she partially at fault?

  • Dan Sullivan:

    Yes, it's a — it's not a light kind of thing to say. But I think the fact-finding mission got it right.

    A lot of people have complained about Aung San Suu Kyi remaining silent, but it's worse than that. She hasn't just been silent. She's — she's talked about — her office has talked about fake rapes in the light of this overwhelming evidence of mass rapes.

    She's blocked the fact-finding mission from coming in to investigate. Yes, it's a tough thing to say. And it's important to remember that the greatest degree of responsibility is with the military. But, yes, she absolutely should be singled out, because she's effectively been an apologist for the military, in the face of these really grave crimes.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, quickly, in the time we have left, the military is, of course, the headline in the U.N. fact-finding mission today, and they recommend a half-dozen generals need to be prosecuted by the ICC, the International Criminal Court, or an ad hoc criminal court.

    Can these people, can the Myanmar military be held accountable?

  • Dan Sullivan:

    Yes, accountability is essential to get at those root causes.

    And there's a whole list of names, in addition to what they named publicly. And the U.S. and other countries have placed some limited, targeted sanctions, but there need to be more targeted sanctions, including on the senior general, Min Aung Hlaing.

    And I think what's — there's other measures, like global arms embargo. But what's really missing in — particularly from the U.S. is, you haven't heard much from the top levels about what's going on, other than some — some letters and secondary denunciations.

    There hasn't really been anything. So, in the light of these, some of the greatest crimes in our generation, the idea that the president of the United States would be virtually silent is just unthinkable.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But the U.S. government says that it's about to release its own fact-finding mission, right? So isn't the U.S. investigating this and doing something about it?

  • Dan Sullivan:

    Yes. It's very important. They have — they have surveyed over 1,000 different Rohingya refugees, and they have this evidence that's ready, but they haven't released it yet.

    So it's really important that the State Department report be released. In addition to the U.N. fact-finding mission and what other organizations have found, there's this mounting evidence of atrocities and a wave of momentum that needs to be used to take action.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Dan Sullivan with Refugees International, thank you very much.

  • Dan Sullivan:

    Thank you.

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