Myanmar’s Killing Fields

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[Tonight’s program contains extremely graphic and violent imagery. Viewer discretion is advised.]

NARRATOR: Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. This is the largest refugee camp in the world. Reporter Evan Williams has come here to investigate a campaign by the Myanmar military that has driven hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims from their homes.

EVAN WILLIAMS, Correspondent: [on camera] So arriving in the camps, it’s really hard to convey the sheer scale of this crisis. We’ve been walking through this main camp for about 10 minutes. It seems to go on and on. And everywhere you look, there are more tents, more families, just ridge after ridge of shelters for these refugees.

NARRATOR: The mass exodus of the Rohingyas became world news in August 2017, but the military’s campaign against them, in fact, began years earlier. Since 2012, a small network of citizen activists has been secretly filming the reality of life for the Rohingyas in Myanmar. We’ve been given hundreds of their videos, some by an international human rights group that helped train them. No one from the network has ever been interviewed on camera, but one agreed if we protected his identity. He uses the code name Sabo.

SABO: [subtitles] The world doesn’t see how we’re being persecuted. But if we can get these videos out, the world will come to know about us. They don’t allow the media to enter and get the information out. If they’d found the videos on my phone, they would have killed me immediately.

WOMAN: [subtitles] A daughter, a daughter-in-law, a grandchild and a son─ they were shot and burned with gasoline.

NARRATOR: FRONTLINE spent six months trying to corroborate the footage and other video we gathered─

EVAN WILLIAMS: [subtitles] Is this you? [woman nods]

NARRATOR: ─interviewing scores of witnesses─

AHMED HUSSEIN: [subtitles] This is our village, Chut Pyin. Some women were taken to the army outpost and raped. Some escaped, some were killed.

NARRATOR: ─comparing their accounts and cross-checking them with human rights investigators.

EVAN WILLIAMS: How many patches of blood like this did you see?

NARRATOR: The Myanmar military denies abuses and says it has been fighting Islamic terrorists.

OLD MAN: [subtitles] That’s my daughter, covered with the cloth.

NARRATOR: But the videos and eyewitness accounts depict an orchestrated effort to target civilians, systematic discrimination, state-sanctioned violence, and ultimately, mass murder.

EVAN WILLIAMS: [subtitles] You know him? [man nods]

SABO: [subtitles] As we are not getting justice in the country, even though it was risky to film, I did it for my people.

NARRATOR: Muslim Rohingyas have been living in Myanmar’s Rakhine state for generations, but the government views them as illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh. In 2012, violence erupted between the Muslim Rohingyas and the Buddhist Rakhines, the majority ethnic group in the region. In response, the government confined 120,000 Rohingyas to ghettos and camps, and then began to impose restrictions on all aspects of Rohingya life.

The videos we received from Sabo’s network show shuttered mosques and religious schools and police checkpoints, where Sabo says Rohingyas could not pass without written permission or payment.

SABO: [subtitles] They extort money from us and torture us with beatings. If we complain to the government, they don’t do anything. The authorities do not respect international law. It is not difficult for them to oppress us.

NARRATOR: For more than 50 years, Myanmar was ruled by a repressive military dictatorship notorious for human rights abuses and subject to sanctions by the United States and other Western countries.

But by 2015, that was changing. In the country’s first free elections for decades, long-time democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi won a landslide victory. Although she had limited power with no effective control of the army, it was seen as a new dawn for Myanmar.

ZEID RA’AD AL HUSSEIN, U.N. High Commissioner, Human Rights: There was a feeling of great anticipation and a feeling that she would be this transformative figure. We knew that there were constitutional limitations in terms of what she could do, but she had enormous international standing and good will on her side.

ARMED MAN: [subtitles] We will always be on jihad. I don’t fear death if I’m killed as a Muslim.

NARRATOR: Myanmar’s new leader soon faced a crisis, a Rohingya insurgency in Rakhine state. In October 2016, a previously unknown militant group calling itself the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, or ARSA, claimed responsibility for attacks on three police posts which killed nine border officers.

PHIL ROBERTSON, Human Rights Watch: What we know about ARSA is that they are not well armed. They were mobilizing villagers to attack police stations, checkpoints, I think they felt in part in response to the kinds of restrictions that made their daily lives such a misery that “We’re going to strike back.”

NARRATOR: Aung San Suu Kyi pledged that her government’s response to the attacks would be measured.

AUNG SAN SUU KYI: Adhering to principle of justice that everybody must be considered innocent until proven guilty, we have not accused any particular organization or group─

NARRATOR: But the military began a crackdown across northern Rakhine. Within days, the security services were sweeping through Rohingya villages, looking for fighters hiding among the population.

On November 5th, they entered the village of Koh Tan Kauk.

SOLDIER: [subtitles] Come here, you mother[deleted] black Indian. Come, mother[deleted], sit here.

NARRATOR: One of the officers filmed the operation on his phone as they rounded up dozens of men. In the refugee camps in Bangladesh, we found the man being beaten in the video, Nur Bashar.

EVAN WILLIAMS: That’s you they’re hitting?

NUR BASHAR: [subtitles] They punched and kicked. I had bruises and cuts here. There had been an attack on a checkpoint. Nobody knew who did it. The government caught someone, but nobody from our village knew them.

SOLDIER: [subtitles] Put your hands up or you will [deleted] die!

NARRATOR: Witnesses from Koh Tan Kauk told us that the police arrested four men from the village with no connection to the militants and they were never seen again. When this video later surfaced on the internet, three officers, including the one who filmed it, were sentenced to two months in jail. But the crackdown didn't end there. Days later, soldiers swept through the village of Dar Gyi Zar. The military says the village was harboring ARSA insurgents.

RAHMAN ULLAH: [subtitles] It was like a storm. They were slaughtering and shooting people.

NURUL ISLAM: [subtitles] They didn’t check who is good and who is bad.

NARRATOR: Rahman Ullah and Nurul Islam lived in the village.

NURUL ISLAM: : [subtitles] To them, we are all ARSA.

Only one thing matters to them─ we are Muslims and they are not. They just shot anyone they saw.

NARRATOR: A few days later, survivors returned to the village. One of them was filming.

MAN: [subtitles] Look how many bullet wounds she has on her body. Many, many. She’s been sprayed with bullets.

NARRATOR: We played this video to several survivors we found in the refugee camps. They said it shows the aftermath of the army’s attack on their village. Their accounts match reports by human rights groups who also investigated the killings.

The survivors told us more than 170 people were killed here. Many of the bodies were burned.

MAN: [subtitles] Ten bodies were burned here. These people were killed, and the military dragged them here and burned them. Some lost fathers, some lost sons, some lost wives, daughters-in-law. The one who is covered with cloth is my daughter. This is my grandchild, who was just 12 months old. [weeps]

NARRATOR: The massacre at Dar Gyi Zar took place in November 2016, almost a year before the Rohingya exodus became world news. Activists from northern Rakhine distributed video of residents fleeing multiple villages at this time.

FLEEING MAN: [subtitles] I think the military is getting closer.

NARRATOR: The activists say this video was filmed in the village of Sin Thay Pyin on November 25th.

[subtitles] Look, people are coming.

NARRATOR: Residents are warning each other to flee the army. And then gunfire is heard.

By December 2016, an estimated 90,000 Rohingyas were trying to escape the violence. When the refugees started to arrive in neighboring Bangladesh, investigators from the U.N. Human Rights office began collecting their testimony.

ZEID RA’AD AL HUSSEIN: Even by the standards that we’re used to seeing, this was absolutely shocking stuff, I mean, absolutely shocking. And I remember thinking how children were hunted down, aged five or six, and had their throats slit. And thinking─ this is ISIS-like stuff.

NARRATOR: He decided to call Aung San Suu Kyi.

ZEID RA’AD AL HUSSEIN: I said, “You have moral standing in the country. You know, We need to stop this right away. You have to stop this. Why don’t you let us in? Why don’t you let international journalists in? What are you hiding?” She said something along the lines of─ you know, that we need to share more evidence with her.

NARRATOR: To get more evidence, the United Nations needed their investigators to visit northern Rakhine. But when the U.N. passed a resolution to send a fact-finding mission to Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi refused to give them access, arguing that outside scrutiny would worsen tensions.

AUNG SAN SUU KYI: We do not agree with it. We have dissociated ourselves from the resolution because we do not think that the resolution is in keeping with what is actually happening on the ground.

ZEID RA’AD AL HUSSEIN: It was disappointing, hugely disappointing. The impression that she was going to be this transformative figure sort of was slowly beginning to erode. Well, not slowly, but quite dramatically.

NARRATOR: Aung San Suu Kyi’s government had also prevented journalists from travelling freely in northern Rakhine, making it difficult for anyone to verify the allegations against the military. But using satellite images, human rights researchers concluded that dozens of Rohingya villages had been burned and more than 1,500 buildings destroyed. They tried to raise the alarm.

PHIL ROBERTSON, Human Rights Watch: I remember very clearly meeting with key ambassadors to talk about what is going on there, to say, “Look,” you know, “this is not only ethnic cleansing, but this is also crimes against humanity. There has to be international accountability.”

But the problem was it was almost like there was a group think that had taken over. And they’re all talking to each other and all persuading each other that Aung San Suu Kyi was a saint, and somehow, if she really knew the real situation, she would finally speak up, but you know, “We can’t really pressure her too much because if we do so, we’ll destabilize her government and the Myanmar military will take over.”

So as far as the Myanmar military is concerned, the lesson is that you can use violence against the Rohingya and get away with it.

NARRATOR: The army’s crackdown was popular among Myanmar’s powerful Buddhist nationalists, who have long seen the Rohingyas as illegal Muslim immigrants.

LOCAL OFFICIAL: [subtitles] As Myanmar has officially announced, there is no ethnic group named Rohingya!

NARRATOR: By June 2017, the authorities were stepping up a program forcing Rohingyas to register with the government. This footage shows villagers being ordered to apply for a new identity document called the NVC.

OFFICIAL: [subtitles] This is the government’s directive.

NARRATOR: The government said it was to help determine their citizenship. The Rohingyas feared it was a ploy to classify them as illegal Bengali immigrants. In the video, one villager speaks out.

ROHINGYA MAN: [subtitles] Why can’t you do the verification without calling us foreigners?

OFFICIAL: [subtitles] I can’t do it.

RASHAN ALI: [subtitles] The military and the police tried to make us take the NVC. We didn’t take it.

NARRATOR: Rashan Ali was from the village of Chut Pyin.

RASHAN ALI: [subtitles] We’ve got land, property and animals, our own homes. If we signed, we’d become refugees and lose everything.

NARRATOR: The Myanmar military now began amassing troops in northern Rakhine. In early August 2017, soldiers from two divisions were deployed to the region. One of them was the 33rd Light Infantry, assault troops notorious for human rights abuses.

Rohingya leaders from the village of Chut Pyin say a commander summoned them and delivered an ultimatum. Ahmed Hussain was one of those village leaders.

AHMED HUSSEIN: [subtitles] He told us, “You are not from this country. You came from Bangladesh.” He said, “If you don’t take the NVC card, we will kill you. We will wipe you out, starting with the children, then the men and women.”

NARRATOR: Rohingyas from many villages told us military commanders were delivering identical threats across northern Rakhine in early August 2017.

As tensions were rising that summer, the United Nations special rapporteur on Myanmar was given access to the country. She had already spoken out about the need to protect the Rohingyas from persecution, causing angry protests by Buddhist nationalists.

BUDDHIST MONK: [subtitles] If she likes the Rohingyas so much, she should take them home with her.

NARRATOR: In Rohingya villages, she was forced to travel with military and government minders.

YANGHEE LEE, U.N. Special Rapporteur, Myanmar: I talked to the villagers, but they were very scared. Many of them are scared to speak with foreigners or outside people because of fear of retaliation, of reprisal.

NARRATOR: She met with Aung San Suu Kyi and confronted her with accounts of Rohingyas being killed. Until now, Yanghee Lee has not spoken about what happened next.

YANGHEE LEE: She was becoming very defensive and she was saying that these were all made-up stories, “U.N. is so one-sided, they’re not helping the situation.” I said, “You know, that I need more access and I would really need your support in getting access.” And she looked at me and she said, “If you continue the narrative of the U.N., you know, you might not get that access.” And I stopped and I thought─ I couldn’t believe my ears and I thought to myself, “She must be kidding me!”

NARRATOR: Yanghee Lee was subsequently accused of bias by the Myanmar government and banned from the country.

YANGHEE LEE: It was a political decision she made. She’s a politician, and the general sentiment in Myanmar is not favorable to the Rohingyas.

ROHINGYA MILITANT: [subtitles] For years, Myanmar’s brutal military has oppressed us. As long as we live, we will fight them.

NARRATOR: On August 25th, 2017, Rohingya ARSA militants backed by villagers attacked 30 police posts and an army base in northern Rakhine. The Myanmar government said that 11 policemen and an immigration officer were killed. In the days that followed, soldiers swept into the villages nearest the attacks.

CAMERAMAN: Just 15 minutes ago, brutal military came and set fire to the village.

NARRATOR: It was the beginning of an operation that would eventually drive hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas from their homes. Operatives from Sabo’s network were filming.

CHIEN KAR LI: [subtitles] Look, our houses have been set on fire by the military. Our houses are burning.

NARRATOR: One of the first villages to be attacked was Monu Para.

MOHAMMAD AYAS: [subtitles] In the morning, soldiers came from the west side of our village. I heard gunfire, and I rushed outside and went to where people were gathering.

NARRATOR: Mohammad Ayas says over a hundred people fled to the village leader’s compound seeking safety. As the soldiers entered, he says he hid in the roof.

MOHAMMAD AYAS: [subtitles] I was watching through a hole. I saw everything clearly.

NARRATOR: Villagers say this is one of the soldiers who led the attack that day, Sergeant Ba Kyaw. We interviewed nine residents who identified him and said they knew him well. He was a member of the army’s Unit 564, based here, just south of the village.

MAN: [subtitles] I had known Ba Kyaw for six years. I used to deliver things for him.

NARRATOR: Witnesses say Ba Kyaw and other soldiers rounded up dozens of men and took them to the village leader’s compound.

Aisha Begum was at home with her sons.

AISHA BEGUM: [subtitles] As my child was being taken away, I grabbed his hand. He was crying, “Mom, they’re taking me.” I thought they might kill him, so I told him to pray to God.

NARRATOR: The men and boys taken to the compound were forced to lay face down. Mohamadul Hassan was among them. He says he had nothing to do with the militants.

MOHAMADUL HASSAN: [subtitles] They tied our hands and made us lie down in the courtyard. I thought I was going to die.

NARRATOR: He says the men were kept tied up in the courtyard for two hours. Then he says an officer took a phone call. Other survivors have given journalists and human rights investigators similar accounts of what happened next.

MOHAMADUL HASSAN: [subtitles] When he returned, he shouted, “OK, begin!” Then they started slitting people’s throats.

NARRATOR: This video of him was taken a few days after the attack. He says he was shot twice and left for dead. Hiding on the roof, Ayas says he watched as some of the men were killed in the courtyard.

MOHAMMAD AYAS: [subtitles] Ba Kyaw started slaughtering people. Some villagers said, “We are not your enemies.” But the soldiers said, “All Muslims must be wiped out from Myanmar. There’s no place for Muslims here.”

NARRATOR: In all, eight witnesses told us that Sergeant Ba Kyaw participated in the killings. He’s also been named in other news and human rights reports.

We weren’t able to speak to Ba Kyaw, and the Myanmar military wouldn’t respond to the allegations against him. They insist their troops did not harm civilians. But survivors estimate at least 80 people were executed in the courtyard alone.

AISHA BEGUM: [showing picture] [subtitles] This is my eldest son, this is the middle one, and he’s the youngest. This is their father.

NARRATOR: Aisha says that her husband and three of her children were among them.

AISHA BEGUM: [subtitles] This is my 11-year-old who was killed.

NARRATOR: The Myanmar military says that it was conducting a clearance operation to rid Rakhine of terrorists. But video shot at the scene supports eyewitness claims that many civilians were killed.

MAN: [subtitles] There’s a hat laying there..

NARRATOR: Nurul Hakim went back to Monu Para with a camera once the soldiers had left, risking his life. His footage is dated August 28th, one day after the killings. This is the first time he’s been interviewed.

NURUL HAKIM: [subtitles] This is Monu Para village. This is the blood of the people who were slaughtered at the base of the trees. Look, it’s an ocean of blood. We found 66 patches of blood. People had been slaughtered, and the blood had flowed.

NARRATOR: Nurul and other witnesses told us more than 100 people were killed throughout the village, a number that is consistent with subsequent investigations by human rights groups.

NURUL HAKIM: [subtitles] They tied the men’s hands with the women’s scarves and made them lie face down on the ground. All the scarves they tied them with were still there.

NARRATOR: Nurul also found body parts.

NURUL HAKIM: [subtitles] This is a piece of scalp I found.

NARRATOR: Elsewhere in the village, he filmed the body of a boy who appears to have been shot in the head.

NURUL HAKIM: [weeping] [subtitles] I saw this myself, the blood of many people. I found their ID cards. I found the clothes of people I know. I saw it with my own eyes.

NARRATOR: In another part of Monu Para, a villager filmed a body being dug up. The wounds are still fresh.

EVAN WILLIAMS, Correspondent: The dead man─ do you know who this is?

MOHAMMAD AYAS: [subtitles] The dead man is Humayun. He was a street vendor. He sold fried rice.

NARRATOR: Ayas says he had seen this man alive in the courtyard before the army’s executions began.

EVAN WILLIAMS: How old was he?

MOHAMMAD AYAS: [subtitles] He was 22 years old. He was a good man. He prayed regularly and obeyed his parents.

NARRATOR: By now, the Myanmar military’s campaign had spread across the whole of northern Rakhine. Over the next few days, dozens of Rohingya villages were attacked and burned to the ground. On August 27th, members of 33rd Light Infantry Division moved into the village of Chut Pyin.

NEWSCASTER: [subtitles] Bengali terrorists started shooting in the village of Chut Pyin.

NARRATOR: A Myanmar TV network broadcast this report that same day.

NEWSCASTER: [subtitles] The 33rd Light Infantry Division fired back. There is now a fierce battle going on. The Bengali terrorists are also burning houses.

NARRATOR: But the footage filmed by Rohingya activists tells a different story. Sabo was filming in the nearby village of Ah Tet Nan Ya as survivors from Chut Pyin streamed in.

SABO: [subtitles] They were all in a terrible state. They were traumatized after seeing brothers and sisters killed. Only God knows how much they suffered.

[subtitles] Did the military shoot you?

WOUNDED MAN: Yes, they shot me while I was running away.

SABO: Did the bullet come out?

WOUNDED MAN: Yes, it went in here and came out.

NARRATOR: He filmed dozens of wounded men, women and children, many of them shot in the back as they fled. We tracked down some of the survivors seen in Sabo’s footage, who all independently recounted how the military attacked civilians.

MAN: [subtitles] Two of my relatives died and she was shot.

NARRATOR: The video shows a villager named Jahin Hussein and his niece, Jamila Khatun. She’s 16 years old and has been shot in the back.

JAHIN HUSSEIN: [subtitles] It’s been stitched. We were able to remove the bullet. She is in a lot of pain.

NARRATOR: We found them in the refugee camps in Bangladesh.

MAN: [subtitles] One of my brothers was shot dead. My baby daughter was shot in the head.

WOMAN: [subtitles] I was shot and fell in the rice field. I could not get up, I was in so much pain. Then four soldiers raped me. Women were raped and then they died.

WOMAN: [subtitles] About seven of us women tried to run, but we were rounded up and taken into some bushes.

NARRATOR: Nur Begum says that when the women tried to fight back, a soldier shot one of them dead.

NUR BEGUM: [weeping] [subtitles] A soldier cut off her breast. He held it up like this and it was shaking. He said if we screamed, they would do the same to us. They did whatever they wanted. Four or five soldiers held me down and raped me.

NARRATOR: Multiple survivors from Chut Pyin told us the soldiers engaged in mass rape in the village. Among the survivors filmed by Sabo was village leader and medic Rashan Ali.

RASHAN ALI: [subtitles] We don’t have any medicine. We don’t have the money to buy it.

NARRATOR: He says he did what he could to treat the victims.

RASHAN ALI: [subtitles] I treated 92 people there. Many women were raped and killed. We stitched them up. They were lacerated. Their breasts were cut. I treated them with whatever I had.

NARRATOR: He said many of the rape victims were children.

RASHAN ALI: [subtitles] Most of them were 12 or 13 years old. Some of them could not bear it and they died.

NARRATOR: As the soldiers swept through Chut Pyin, 9-year-old Arefa Khatum was hiding at school.

AREFA KHATUM: [subtitles] People in the village were surrounded and could not escape. My father was killed and also one of my brothers. I was also shot.

NARRATOR: When the soldiers reached the school, Arefa says she was shot through the leg. The bullet shattered her bones.

AREFA KHATUM: [subtitles] I saw five dead people who’d been shot. I saw the blood flowing from the school.

NARRATOR: What happened next is horrific. Arefa’s mother, Rashida Khatum, says she and her son were rounded up by soldiers with a large group of women and children.

RASHIDA KHATUM: [subtitles] They took beautiful girls to the school compound. We older ladies were sitting with the children and the soldiers were surrounding us.

There were small children like him. They hadn’t done anything. Then they snatched the children from their mothers’ laps. If any mother cried out for their baby, they shot them. They killed 10 women for that. I saw it with my own eyes.

NARRATOR: Rashida says the soldiers dragged the children and babies to nearby burning houses. She says they then threw them into the flames alive.

RASHIDA KHATUM: [subtitles] When the children tried to get out of the fire, they pushed them back in with bamboo sticks. There were some older, some his age and some younger. Some were six months, some three months. Twenty to thirty were taken.

NARRATOR: Rashida says she saved her own son by hiding him under her shawl.

Sixty-year-old Umul Kulsum says her grandson and granddaughter were ripped from her arms.

UMUL KULSUM: [subtitles] Johora was three years old. Ilias was five. They were burned to death. They are not coming back. They were screaming as they burned.

NARRATOR: Ahmed Hussein, one of the village leaders, is compiling a record of everything that happened in Chut Pyin.

AHMED HUSSEIN: [subtitles] [with map] This is Chut Pyin. Some military came from this road. Some of came from that one. Some women were taken across this field to the army outpost. They raped the women there, then killed them. My sister was raped with seven other women. She was shot and died the next day.

NARRATOR: He showed us where the women were held with their children.

AHMED HUSSEIN: [subtitles] This is the big fallen tree where the women were being held. The soldiers snatched the small children from there and took them over here. They threw them into burning houses here. All the children were taken from here and thrown into the fire.

NARRATOR: Ahmed is collecting the names of all the missing. So far, he’s identified 358 people that he believes were killed in the attack. We asked him how many of the dead were children.

AHMED HUSSEIN: [subtitles] Ninety-nine were killed. There aren’t many older children because they could run away. Many of them were only babies.

NARRATOR: By early September 2017, an exodus was under way. In a single month, around half a million refugees crossed the border into Bangladesh. It was only now that the Rohingya crisis became world news.

Under international pressure, the Myanmar military would eventually conduct an internal investigation. It concluded there was no rape, no burning and no killing of civilians by its soldiers. They maintain that the campaign was a counter-insurgency clearance operation against Bengali terrorists.

ZEID RA’AD AL HUSSEIN, U.N. Hight Commissioner, Human Rights: Rubbish. I mean, this is not counter-insurgency. Counter-insurgency means you go after the specific units that are involved. But rounding up civilians, you know, burning their houses, slicing the throats of children, you know, raping pregnant women and then disemboweling them─ I mean, how on earth is that counter-insurgency?

These were not sporadic acts, these were well organized, well thought through. Clearly, it didn’t seem to be an operation that was put together at the last moment. There is some design to this. This was a textbook case of ethnic cleansing.

NARRATOR: As more survivors were reaching Bangladesh, the accounts of atrocities mounted. The worst known massacre of all happened in the village of Tula Toli. When soldiers attacked from the north, hundreds of Rohingyas fled eastward but were trapped by a bend in the river.

MAN: [subtitles] Peace be upon you. We are from Tula Toli. Look, the women are fleeing from the gunfire. They’re setting fires from the north side. They’re trying to burn us out. They’re running towards the beach.

NARRATOR: Survivors we interviewed told us this video was filmed downstream from Tula Toli. It shows the bodies of children and babies being recovered from the river.

MAN: [subtitles] Put him here. Put him here. Oh, God! He’s been shot. He’s been shot. His brains are falling out!

NARRATOR: The survivors from Tula Toli recognized some of the bodies in the video.

MUMTAZ BEGUM: [subtitles] They threw my 5-year-old into the river. I had my two-year-old baby on my hip. They grabbed the baby and threw him on the fire. My 11-year-old boy was lying half-dead with his throat cut.

NARRATOR: Mumtaz Begum says soldiers took her to a house with her only surviving daughter, Razeya.

MUMTAZ BEGUM: [subtitles] The house was so full of dead bodies, we had to walk over them. As they raped me, my daughter was screaming, so they macheted her three times.

NARRATOR: She says when the soldiers had finished, they locked the women inside the house.

RAZEYA: [subtitles] They poured gasoline and set it on fire. Some of the women were still half-alive.

MUMTAZ BEGUM: [subtitles] My daughter shook me and said, “Mom, get up. The house is on fire. You’re burning.”

MAN: [subtitles] That evening, you could hear the women screaming in the burning houses. We lost all hope. The area was entirely filled with the bodies of burned people. It was all black.

NARRATOR: Survivors from Tula Toli streamed across the river trying to escape. Witnesses told us that over a thousand people were killed in the village, a number consistent with reports from other journalists and human rights groups.

WOMAN: [weeping] A daughter, a daughter-in-law, a grandchild and a son. They were shot and burned with gasoline.

NARRATOR: Mumtaz says she managed to escape the burning house with her daughter. As she fled, she found her wounded son lying nearby.

MUMTAZ BEGUM: [subtitles] My daughter said, “Brother, get up. Get up.” He said, “I can’t get up. My head is gone, I can’t get up.” [weeps]

AUNG SAN SUU KYI: [September 19, 2017] The security forces have been instructed to exercise all due restraint and to take full measures to avoid collateral damage and the harming of innocent civilians.

NARRATOR: Three weeks after the campaign began, Aung San Suu Kyi defended the military and claimed that operations in northern Rakhine had finished.

AUNG SAN SUU KYI: There have been no conflicts since the 5th of September and no clearance operations.

NARRATOR: But even as she spoke, the destruction continued. Satellite imagery shows that in the weeks after September 5th, numerous Rohingya villages were burned to the ground. We tried to get access to northern Rakhine, but the Myanmar military refused our request.

EVAN WILLIAMS, Correspondent: For weeks, we’ve been trying to talk to somebody from the government or the army about they think is happening in Rakhine state. We’ve written to the home minister, the minister for border affairs, the three senior generals who’ve been appointed to liaise with the media, the state counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and even the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, General Min Aung Hlaing himself. None of the them will see us. Only one junior minister will grant us an interview.

NARRATOR: Win Myat Aye is the minister for social welfare, relief and resettlement. The interview was monitored by other officials.

EVAN WILLIAMS: Why did the Rohingyas leave Myanmar? Why did they─ why did so many Rohingya people leave? They say there was violent attacks by the military.

WIN MYAT AYE: No, it’s not true, the 100 percent. And I mean that 100 percent. Because of the conflict between the two communities and because of the terrorist attack, there is the cleansing operation. They fear for that─ cleansing operation for the terrorists.

EVAN WILLIAMS: They say that the army went into hundreds of villages, shooting men, women and children and raping women and burning the houses. Why do you think the army used such force in this way?

WIN MYAT AYE: So I─ I don’t think so. They are─ we are─ as I─ as you knew, I already have said about you, I don’t know─ I know only about my duty and my responsibility. It is beyond my capacity.

NARRATOR: He repeatedly said he was not familiar with the military operation, but state media shows the minister in Rakhine state with the army on August 27th, at the height of army’s campaign.

Myanmar’s commander-in-chief is senior General Min Aung Hlaing. He has stated publicly that the country has no Rohingya race and referred to the campaign in northern Rakhine as “unfinished business” against Bengali immigrants.

Gen. MIN AUNG HLAING: [subtitles] Our ethnic people must be able to control their own territory to maintain regional integrity. There are a lot of people watching us very closely, trying to create problems. Let’s proceed very cautiously, according to the law, so they can’t find fault.

YANGHEE LEE, U.N. Special Rapporteur, Myanmar: He said it was unfinished business, they were carrying out an unfinished business. It indicates the military had a plan to wipe out this whole population.

EVAN WILLIAMS: But in human rights language, what actually is it?

YANGHEE LEE: Hallmarks of genocide. Hallmarks of genocide.

ZEID RA’AD AL HUSSEIN: You don’t embark on something like this, knowing that on this scale there’s going to be an international response, without the orders coming from the top of the military chain of command. So I suspect that Min Aung Hlaing was very much in the know about this. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if a court subsequently were to make a determination that acts of genocide have been perpetrated. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least.

NARRATOR: The U.S. State Department has launched an investigation into alleged atrocities against the Rohingyas, collecting evidence that it says could one day be used to prosecute the military for crimes against humanity. But despite the death toll and humanitarian crisis, there have been no major efforts by the U.S. or other countries to sanction Myanmar.

Aung San Suu Kyi has continued to defend her country from international criticism. In January, she met with Bill Richardson, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. The two were old friends.

BILL RICHARDSON, Fmr. U.S. Ambassador to the U.N.: I said, “Look, friends are real friends if they give frank advice. Let the U.N. in. Don’t condemn human rights groups that don’t agree with you.” And I said, “Look, my own government, the secretary of state, says it’s ethnic cleansing.”

And she exploded. She said, “Bill, you’ve got an agenda. There’s terrorism with some of the Rohingyas.” That’s when we had a huge altercation. I thought if we were closer, she would hit me. I could see the anger in her face. It was obvious she saw the Rohingyas as not part of Myanmar.

That’s when I realized she had changed. She had gone from a human rights heroine, a beacon of democracy, to a politician wanting to cater to the military, wanting the military to support her. She wants to get reelected. She likes this seat of power. That’s not the Aung San Suu Kyi I remember. She is walling herself off from reality.

NARRATOR: Late last month, Aung San Suu Kyi invited a U.N. delegation to Rakhine state. Her government is now vowing to help refugees return to Myanmar.

But in the camps, the Rohingyas are wary. Fourteen-year-old Abdulsalam Ullah is from the village of Chut Pyin. He is haunted by what he saw there.

ABDULSALAM ULLAH: [subtitles] Sometimes I have these nightmares. I see dead and burned people. They have no flesh, only bones. I have no brothers, no sisters, no father, no mother. I have no relatives now. We were a family of nine. I’m the only survivor. They killed them all.

1h 54m
Lies, Politics and Democracy
Ahead of the 2022 midterms, a look at American political leaders and choices they've made that have undermined and threatened democracy in the U.S.
September 6, 2022