RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
In the last six months, more than 70,000 Rohingya fled across the border into Bangladesh. A warning here - some listeners might find the content of this story disturbing. Reporter Michael Sullivan has been with the Rohingya in southern Bangladesh, and he joins us now on the line. Good morning, Michael.
MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.
MARTIN: Why is this happening at this point, Michael? Why have the Rohingya fled across the border?
SULLIVAN: Well, this was prompted by two separate incidents involving attacks against Myanmar security forces by Rohingya militants - the first in early October, the second in November - attacks which killed more than a dozen police and soldiers. And this completely shocked Myanmar's military because the Rohingya have been cowed for so long. This act of resistance not only caught the military by surprise, it embarrassed them, and their response was brutal. It was collective punishment against the civilian population they accused of harboring the militants. And that's why the people fled across the border.
MARTIN: Is this the first time the Rohingya have been targeted like this?
SULLIVAN: No. The Rohingya have been targeted for decades by Myanmar's military, and you have to remember, Rachel, that the Myanmar government, they don't really consider the Rohingya to be citizens. They're part of a Muslim minority. And Myanmar's Buddhist-majority government say they're basically illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, even though they've been in Myanmar's Rakhine State for centuries. They have - they're almost totally disenfranchised. They want to marry. They have to get permission from the authorities. They want to visit people in distant villages. They have to get permission for them. Living under the Buddhist-majority government, it's like being in one big internment camp.
MARTIN: You've been spending time with some of the Rohingya refugees on the other side of the border in Bangladesh. What kinds of stories have you been hearing?
SULLIVAN: Not very pretty ones, and we've heard lots of them. And you talk to enough of these refugees from enough different villages, and there's a clear pattern of what happened since October when thousands of Rohingya fled across the Naf River into Bangladesh. We went to a spot on that river. We were there at sunset when the crows came out.
(SOUNDBITE OF CROWS CAWING)
SULLIVAN: They sound ominous, my producer Ashley Westerman said, and it did feel a little creepy. Maybe it was the Myanmar military outpost clearly visible on the other side.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Unintelligible).
SULLIVAN: Not far from that spot we met Shajada. It's not her real name but the name she's chosen to protect her identity and those of family members left behind in Myanmar. She's from a village called Dagiza. When the military came there, she says, they ordered everyone out of their houses.
SHAJADA: (Through interpreter) Some of those who left their homes escaped and those who didn't were burned to death inside.
SULLIVAN: Her husband was killed trying to flee. She and some others managed to get away. They hid in a nearby swamp for five days before finally being discovered. The soldiers separated the men from the women, then, she says, picked four or five women, including her, and took them to a nearby field where they were raped, close enough so that the other villagers could watch.
SHAJADA: (Through interpreter) First, the soldier took off my clothes. Then, he took my money, and then, he raped me for about an hour.
SULLIVAN: After the military left, she and her parents set out through the jungle for the border. She's been treated twice for complications from the assault. Months later, she's not fully healed.
SULLIVAN: A few miles up the road at an informal camp, more women with nearly identical stories, this time from two sisters in their early 20s and their 17-year-old cousin. One of the sisters, Toslima - again, a name she's chosen to protect her identity and those of relatives left behind - says the military surrounded their village, Poyakhali, early on the morning of October 16.
TOSLIMA: (Through interpreter) Our brother tried to resist them to keep them from hurting us, but he was taken away. Then, our mother and father were killed, and they took us into the house and raped us repeatedly.
SULLIVAN: Not together but in separate rooms, the men taking turns, she says, with each of them. Their 17-year-old cousin Roshida was in her house two doors down, praying.
ROSHIDA: (Through interpreter) When my neighbors' houses were set on fire, my parents ran out of our house. I was left home alone. Then, four men entered my home and raped me.
SULLIVAN: The U.N. Human Rights Watch and others have documented dozens of stories like these, and there's a reason they sound so similar.
MATTHEW SMITH: It's very clear to us at this point that state security forces set out to systematically rape Rohingya women and girls.
SULLIVAN: Matthew Smith of Fortify Rights, which advocates for the Rohingya and other minorities in the region, he's here in Bangladesh collecting more stories. What the military's done to the Rohingya, he says, they've done before.
SMITH: The military has used rape against ethnic women, in particular, for many, many years. Rape is - as a weapon of war is still occurring in other parts of the country now. What sets recent events apart is that the scale of rape that occurred was unusual even by the Myanmar military's brutal standards.
SULLIVAN: The military continues to deny almost all of it, despite the testimony of hundreds of witnesses, despite satellite photos that show hundreds of homes burnt to the ground. NPR reached out to Myanmar's government for comment with no success. And Myanmar's de facto leader, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, she seems oddly indifferent to the situation. Here she is in a rare interview with Singapore's Channel NewsAsia.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
AUNG SAN SUU KYI: I'm not saying there are no difficulties, but it helps if people recognize the difficulty and are more focused on resolving these difficulties rather than exaggerating them so that everything seems worse than it really is.
SULLIVAN: The charitable explanation is that Suu Kyi has no control over the military. And that's true. The country's constitution cements the military's role and power indefinitely. But what really infuriates Matthew Smith are the things she could have done but hasn't.
SMITH: We've seen terrible language coming out of state-run media referring to Rohingya as thorns that need to be removed and referring to Rohingya as human fleas and things of that nature. This is a shameful discourse that she has failed to change.
SULLIVAN: Last month, the U.N.'s Human Rights Council said it would send a team to Myanmar to investigate the allegations of atrocities. Myanmar's ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva, U Htin Lynn, objected. He called the resolution not acceptable, and it's not clear if a team will be allowed into Myanmar. The country has set up its own commission of inquiry. It's led by Vice President Myint Swe, a former army general. For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.
(SOUNDBITE OF TALVIN SINGH AND NILADRI KUMAR'S "RIVER")
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