For Rohingya, Years of Torture at the Hands of a Neighbor
THAINGKHALI REFUGEE CAMP, Bangladesh — Mohammad Hossain knows the man who led the attack on his village, joining with Myanmar soldiers to seize his Rohingya neighbors and, as he put it, “cut them into pieces.” Two years earlier, he said, the same person locked him in a dungeon and burned his legs with a hot metal rod and shoved needles under his fingernails.
It was the same man who Mostafa Khatun said raped her repeatedly over several days, then slit the throat of her husband during the soldiers’ attack on their village.
Nearly two dozen Rohingya Muslim refugees shared similar stories, detailing years of oppression and abuse that culminated in the mass slaughter of Rohingya in the village of Chut Pyin, Myanmar, on Aug. 27 last year. One man above all, they say, is responsible: They know where he lives, they know his cellphone number.
He is Aung Thein Mya, the administrator still in charge of several villages including Chut Pyin. There is little sign he will ever face punishment.
One year after Myanmar’s military began its broader campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya — burning villages, killing thousands and forcing hundreds of thousands to flee to Bangladesh after raids by Rohingya insurgents on several police checkpoints — there has been almost no progress in holding anyone accountable.
Efforts by the international community have largely faltered and have focused primarily on the country’s leadership: the generals who are widely accused of orchestrating the killing and ethnic cleansing, and Myanmar’s civilian leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel laureate whose failure to stop the violence has drawn condemnation abroad.
Aung Thein Mya is not a soldier at all. He is a civilian administrator, and part of an ethnic minority, the Rakhine, who have themselves long been persecuted by the military and the country’s Bamar Buddhist majority, but joined in the campaign against the Rohingya.
In a telephone interview, Aung Thein Mya denied the abuse accusations and said he was not even present during the massacre, contradicting more than a dozen witnesses.
The abuse described by the residents of Chut Pyin, which in the Rohingya’s language is named So Farang, is echoed in testimonies from villages across the region. And it bolsters concerns by human rights officials about the ability of Rohingya refugees, who now number over a million, to ever return peacefully to their homeland.
After decades of playing the Rakhine against the Rohingya, turning victims into conspirators, the Bamar Buddhist authorities have made ethnic hatred the defining reality of Rakhine State, a strip of land along the Bay of Bengal in western Myanmar that the Rohingya have inhabited for centuries.
“Both communities live in fear of each other,” said Dominik Stillhart, the director of operations for the International Committee of the Red Cross.
In Chut Pyin and other villages in the region, Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya villagers have long lived in uneasy segregation beside one another, competing for access to rice fields, fishing ponds and lands to graze their cattle. The distrust bloomed into hostility during World War II, when the Rakhine and Rohingya supported opposing sides in the war: The Buddhists supported Japan, while the Muslims helped Britain.
Under the political dominance of the country’s generals in recent decades, Rakhine Buddhists like Aung Thein Mya have had the upper hand in the state, filling most local administrative positions and lording over the Rohingya, who over the decades have been stripped of their citizenship and freedom of movement.
A report published in July by an advocacy group, Fortify Rights, describes how the military, with the help of local Buddhists, meticulously planned for genocide and other crimes against humanity in the year before the attacks. Sharp tools that could be used as weapons were confiscated; fences around Rohingya homes were torn down; and thousands of troops were deployed to Rakhine State.
Through that year, and for years before, Aung Thein Mya kept the Rohingya under his charge in a state of terror, Rohingya witnesses said. He stole their livestock and produce, charged exorbitant fees for everything from grazing rights to marriage proposals, and inflicted vicious punishment for even minor indiscretions, locals said.
Just the mention of his name provoked a scalding hatred. “He tortured us so much that I feel like I could eat him raw,” one refugee, Abdullah, said.
Investigators from human rights groups documented similar abuses in Chut Pyin. Amnesty International, in a June report, cited witnesses who said Aung Thein Mya “had long harassed them.”
Reached by telephone, Aung Thein Mya, who is still in office, was almost smug. He denied the accusations against him and insisted that he enjoyed a cordial relationship with his Rohingya neighbors, even as he referred to them using racial slurs or as “Bengali,” a term meant to convey, falsely, that they are not native to Myanmar, but rather illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
The Rohingya, he said, burned down their own houses and fled for reasons unknown to him. But now that they are gone, life for him and his neighbors has improved, he said.
“I don’t want them to come back here,” he said in the interview. “Our village is peaceful without the Bengali.”
About 90 miles from Chut Pyin, most of the village’s survivors are gathered in Block C-10, one of the more enviable sectors in the huge Thaingkhali refugee camp in Bangladesh. The block sits on a hilltop, benefiting from a gentle, if occasional, breeze that wards off the oppressive heat, sour aromas and swarms of black flies that make life in other parts of the camp more miserable.
Still, there is no running water or electricity, nor is there much prospect for jobs or lives beyond dull subsistence on the handouts of foreign aid groups.
Much of what has been built here this year — warrens of bamboo shelters piled on bald, treeless hills — is still at risk from late summer monsoons, while the scourge of deadly diseases like cholera and diphtheria is expected to continue.
But everyone here has a reason for choosing this version of hell over the one left behind.
About a month after the violence, one former resident of Chut Pyin, Ahmad Hossain, 25, surveyed his fellow survivors from the village, he said.
By his count, 94 people who had made it to the camp had been wounded by gunshot, and 19 women said they had been raped. And by his count, 358 people in Chut Pyin were killed in the attack on Aug. 27, including his father, a brother and a sister who survived long enough to tell rescuers that she had been raped before she was shot.
His data is close to estimates from international human rights groups.
But for many, the trauma began long before last summer’s violence.
The torture chamber that Aung Thein Mya kept near his house had a dirt floor and no windows, and it reeked of urine and feces, according to 12 people who described their experiences there. For days, sometimes weeks, they were confined in the dark, their hands and feet bound, they said. It was hot and infested with mosquitoes. They were given minimal food and water, constantly beaten or worse.
Five men described and drew a wooden device they called a “foot locker” that resembled a medieval stocks. There were two of them in the room, each with six holes, used to lock the feet in place during torture.
Two years ago, Aung Thein Mya’s people came for Mohammad Hossain, a 40-year-old father of seven, while he was at work in his shop. He said he was never told exactly why, though they seemed to be suggesting he was a Rohingya insurgent.
“They were asking me again and again: ‘Where is your weapon? Where did you hide them? Where is your gold? Where did you hide your money?’” Mr. Hossain said.
He was taken into the room, handcuffed, blindfolded and locked into the stocks. The torture began at 1 a.m., when Aung Thein Mya arrived.
Mr. Hossain said his wrist was sliced with a knife, and needles were shoved under his nails. Then Aung Thein Mya went to work with a red-hot iron rod, producing still-visible scars on both of Mr. Hossain’s hips, his inner left thigh and the backs of his legs.
This went on for 13 days, Mr. Hossain said. He was given almost no food and had to buy his own water.
“They used to give me a little bit of salt and old rice,” he said. “I was unable to eat it.”
I had sought out Mostafa Khatun, 25, because others had told me Aung Thein Mya had personally killed her husband, Abdul Hashem, that August day. She confirmed this.
“They slaughtered my husband in front of me and my kids,” she said. “Aung Thein Mya, himself, slit the throat.”
But that, she said, was just the culmination of the horror her family had endured. Four or five days before the attack on Chut Pyin, she said, Aung Thein Mya went to her house looking for her husband. He gave no reason.
“I assume he was doing this to other women also just to torture Muslims,” she said. “He and his fellows would arrest Muslim men and detain them at his place until a fair amount of money was paid.”
Ms. Khatun said she told him her husband was out working, but Aung Thein Mya refused to believe her. He accused her of hiding her husband and had her arrested and taken to his home, along with her four young children, she said.
She said he bound her arms and legs with rope, and beat her with a strap and an iron rod.
“He was asking me again and again: ‘Where is your husband? You will be detained here as long as your husband doesn’t show up,’” she said.
For three or four days, she said, she and her children were held in the room without food. “My kids were also starving with me.”
One night, she said, at around 1 or 2 in the morning, Aung Thein Mya went to her. “He beat me and shut my mouth and raped me,” she said. “My kids were screaming in fear. He did all this in the dark.”
She was released, she said, after her neighbors arrived with money to pay him off.
Pressed about why Aung Thein Mya was so interested in her husband, Ms. Khatun was evasive. According to Amnesty International, the disappearance of an ethnic Rakhine man weeks before the violence that August seems to have touched off a wave of arbitrary arrests.
Ms. Khatun suggested that her husband had intentionally stayed hidden during the days she and her children were held captive to avoid a worse fate.
“If he came, he would have been detained and he would have been killed by Aung Thein Mya,” she said.
Three other women in the camp described similar abuse as they tried to protect their husbands, including Sobia Khatun, 30, who is not related. In her shelter at the camp, Ms. Khatun demonstrated how Aung Thein Mya and a deputy had wrapped her head scarf around her face to prevent her from crying out.
“They hurt me so much that I was weeping and begging for their mercy,” she said.
Aung Thein Mya was on his way home from a meeting in Rathedaung, the administrative center of his region, when I reached him by phone using a number that one of the Rohingya refugees had given me in Bangladesh. We spoke with the help of an interpreter for about an hour. After that, he never again answered his phone.
He said that he was 57 and had lived in Chut Pyin for more than three decades.
He said he oversaw four other villages besides Chut Pyin. He claimed he was voted into office with significant support from what he termed the “kalar,” a common pejorative for the Rohingya.
His version of life in the villages was a mirror image of what the Rohingya had described. In Aung Thein Mya’s telling, his people, Rakhine Buddhists, had for years lived in fear of their Muslim neighbors, though he had difficulty explaining why.
He had never seen a Muslim carrying a weapon, nor had any Rohingya ever attacked the Buddhist section of Chut Pyin. He said his nephew had been killed by Rohingya, but could not provide details or contact information for the man’s immediate family. He did say that groups of Rohingya would occasionally go into the Buddhist section at night and make threats.
“Whenever they came we mostly didn’t hear clearly what they were saying, but we knew that they would harm us,” he said.
Never had he detained anyone in his house, he said.
He had a close working relationship with Ahmad Hossain, he said, the man from the Thaingkhali camp who had collected data on the dead and wounded. Mr. Hossain worked as the Rohingya’s administrative liaison to Aung Thein Mya, and in interviews described being subjected to daily verbal and physical abuse.
Aung Thein Mya saw their relationship differently.
“He called me ‘Uncle,’” Aung Thein Mya said, adding that he went to Mr. Hossain’s wedding. “I feel like we are very close.”
Mr. Hossain confirmed that he indeed used to call Aung Thein Mya ‘Uncle,’ but only, he said, because it seemed to annoy him. Other residents said Aung Thein Mya frequently attended Rohingya weddings, but only to confiscate the fattest chickens.
Though numerous accounts portray Aung Thein Mya as the architect of much of the Rohingya’s suffering in his district, he is also a cog in a much larger machine: the methodical oppression of ethnic minorities by the military, known as the Tatmadaw, and Myanmar’s Bamar Buddhist majority.
As a local administrator, Aung Thein Mya is beholden to the Tatmadaw and would have been expected to carry out the government’s oppressive policies against the Rohingya or suffer the wrath of the security forces, said Matthew Smith, the chief executive of Fortify Rights, which tracks violence against the Rohingya.
“They are extensions of the state, and they act as such and in some cases commit violent abuses against the local population,” Mr. Smith said.
The village of Chut Pyin is divided into two lobes, connected by a small road and a river that runs through them. The Rakhine Buddhists inhabit the northern lobe. The Rohingya live in the south.
On Aug. 27, Aung Thein Mya arrived in the Rohingya section of the village at around 9 a.m. accompanied by a group of soldiers, witnesses said, and stole a widow’s cow. What happened next was described by six witnesses, including Shom Khatun, the cow’s owner.
Aung Thein Mya had the cow slaughtered and the meat cooked in a large pan as a curry. Just hours before the violence began, Aung Thein Mya sat down with his comrades and ate the curry in view of the people he was about to massacre.
The killing started around 1 or 2 in the afternoon, witnesses said.
Abdul Hashem, a 73-year-old religious leader, said he was with a group of men at the mosque before afternoon prayers. Karima Khatun, 20, said she was cleaning the kitchen when she saw soldiers approaching her home. Roushon Ali, 48, said he heard someone give an order for everyone to come out of their houses.
Aung Thein Mya seemed to be helping soldiers identify targets, witnesses said. Mr. Hossain, the administrator’s former subordinate, said he saw Aung Thein Mya talking on his phone immediately before the shots rang out.
“We are ready on this side,” he said he heard Aung Thein Mya say. “Come and shoot soon. Kill. Kill them all.”
“After that they started shooting,” Mr. Hossain said. He watched the carnage, he said, while hiding in a pond with seven other people. “People were dying. Injured people were screaming in pain. They were being burned alive. Some people were hiding in the hills, some were in the ponds, some were in the bushes, some were in the toilets.”
Fir Mohammad, 16, said he bolted out the back door when soldiers rushed into his house. Almost immediately, he was hit by a bullet, which entered his back and burst from his chest.
“When I first opened my eyes, I saw the military was torching houses, shooting and killing people,” he said. He then lost consciousness and awoke days later in a nearby village where his mother had dragged him.
Karima Khatun hid with her two young sons in a rice field.
“There were bullets like raindrops from every side,” she said. One of them, she said, sliced through the small body of her 2-year-old son, Muhammad Anas. He lingered alive for a few hours while she tried futilely to find him medical care.
At the center of the carnage was Aung Thein Mya, though witness accounts varied, distorted by time and trauma. Some said he was carrying an assault rifle and joined soldiers in the shooting. Others said he carried only a long knife or sword.
Fatima Khatun said she saw him throw a toddler into a burning house.
“The baby was running away,” she said. “His mother was shot, so he was frightened. The chairman grabbed him and threw him into the fire.”
Human rights groups documented similar accounts. In a June report, Amnesty International, citing witnesses, described Aung Thein Mya as “leading the vigilantes who participated in the village’s burning.”
Chut Pyin residents told Fortify Rights that Buddhist civilians armed with swords beheaded people who had been shot by soldiers.
The killing lasted until the evening, witnesses said. Roushon Ali said the last time he saw Aung Thein Mya was at sunset.
“I saw him walking randomly, looking for survivors,” Mr. Ali said. “If he saw any alive, he made sure they were dead by cutting their throat.”
Follow Michael Schwirtz on Twitter: @mschwirtz