Rohingya Muslim women lined up to tell reporters of missing husbands, mothers and sons on Saturday as international media were escorted for the first time to a village in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state affected by violence since October.
‘My son is not a terrorist. He was arrested while doing farm work,’ said one young mother, Sarbeda. She had bustled her way – an infant in her arms – through several other women telling reporters their husbands had been arrested on false grounds.
In November, Myanmar’s army swept through villages where stateless Rohingya Muslims live in the area of Maungdaw. Some 75,000 people fled across the nearby border to Bangladesh, according to the United Nations.
UN investigators who interviewed refugees said allegations of gang rape, torture, arson and killings by security forces in the operation were likely crimes against humanity.
Myanmar’s government, led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, has denied most of the claims, and is blocking entry to a UN fact-finding mission tasked with looking into the allegations. The government has also kept independent journalists and human rights monitors out of the area for the past nine months.
This week, the ministry of information escorted more than a dozen foreign and local journalists representing international media, including Reuters, to the area under a guard of officers from the paramilitary Border Guard Police.
The reporters spent nearly two days in Buthidaung, a township in Maungdaw district of Rakhine state, where they were taken to sites of alleged militant activity. They were taken to Kyar Gaung Taung, one of three settlements requested by the journalists. Officials cited time constraints for the limited access.
Reuters had previously gathered accounts from residents by phone and from former residents who have fled to Bangladesh, of brutal counterinsurgency tactics unleashed in Kyar Gaung Taung and several nearby villages in mid-November.
When a group of journalists insisted on speaking to villagers away from security forces, allegations of abuses by troops emerged almost immediately.
Kyar Gaung Taung resident Sarbeda, 30, had been able to visit her son, Nawsee Mullah, 14, at a police camp where he is being held separately from adult detainees. She was not sure if he had a lawyer, she said.
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