Noor Jaan lifted her black Islamic veil and recalled the last time she saw her husband. He was among more than 600 Rohingya Muslim men thrown in jail in this remote corner of Burma during a ruthless security crackdown that followed sectarian violence, and among the one in 10 who didn’t make it out alive.
Jaan said that when she visited the jail, the cells were crammed with men, hands chained behind their backs, several stripped naked. Many showed signs of torture. Her husband, Mohammad Yasim, was doubled over, vomiting blood, his hip bone shattered.
“We were all crying so loudly the walls of the prison could have collapsed,” the 40-year-old widow said.
“They killed him soon after that,” she said of her husband. Her account was corroborated by her father, her 10-year-old son and a neighbor. “Other prisoners told us soldiers took his corpse and threw it in the forest.”
“We didn’t even have a chance to see his body,” she said.
The sectarian violence that has gripped this predominantly Buddhist nation of 60 million in the past 16 months has been most intense in the western state of Rakhine, where 200 people have been killed in rioting and another 140,000 have been forced to flee their homes. Three-quarters of the victims have been Muslims – most of them members of the minority Rohingya community – and it is they who have suffered most at the hands of security forces.
For every Buddhist arrested, jailed and convicted in connection with mob violence across Rakhine state, roughly four Rohingya went to prison, according to data compiled by the Associated Press.
Members of the ethnic minority often have been severely punished, even when there is little or no evidence of wrongdoing. For example, Amnesty International says Dr. Tun Aung was summoned by authorities to try to help ease tensions but could not quiet the agitated crowd. He was arrested a week later, labeled an agitator and is serving nine years in prison. The human rights group calls the doctor a prisoner of conscience.
Nowhere have Rohingya – described by the U.N. as one of the most persecuted religious minorities in the world – been more zealously pursued than in northern Rakhine, which sits along the coast of the Bay of Bengal and is cut off from the rest of the country by a parallel running mountain range.
It’s home to 80 percent of Burma’s 1 million Rohingya. Some descend from families that have been there for generations. Others arrived more recently from neighboring Bangladesh. All have been denied citizenship, rendering them stateless. For decades, they have been unable to travel freely, practice their religion, or work as teachers or doctors. They need special approval to marry and are the only people in the country barred from having more than two children.
A half-century of brutal military rule in Burma, also known as Myanmar, ended when President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government took power in 2011. But in northern Rakhine, where Buddhist security forces have been allowed to operate with impunity, many say life has only gotten worse for Rohingya.
“As far as I know, not a single member of the security forces has even been questioned,” said Tomas Ojea Quintana, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, calling on the state to investigate allegations of official brutality.
“This government needs to understand it has a responsibility toward its people, that there has to be some accountability.”
Despite more than a half-dozen inquiries by phone and email, presidential spokesman Ye Htut refused to comment about allegations of abuse by soldiers, police and security forces linked to sectarian violence.
The AP in September became the first foreign media organization to be granted access to northern Rakhine, which has been under a government crackdown since ethnic violence erupted there on June 8, 2012.