Friday, August 18, 2017

From a violent beginning to a tragic end: The story of a Rohingya woman called Raysuana

On August 30, Amnesty International called for an independent inquiry into the death and possible sexual assault of a young Rohingya woman who was found at a military compound in the Rakhine State capital Sittwe. In a two-part series that highlights the plight of Rohingya women and the lack of medical support and justice for gender-based violence available to them, The Myanmar Times asks: Who was Raysuana and why did she die?

Raysuana poses for a mobile phone picture to send to her brother in Malaysia.Raysuana poses for a mobile phone picture to send to her brother in Malaysia.

There's a patch of brown earth in the village of Let That Mar. It is surrounded by a bamboo fence and on top of the earth lays a sun-bleached palm branch. Under it lays the body of Raysuana, who was found naked and barely conscious at a military compound, and died after being denied access to hospital care under a system of institutionalised discrimination tantamount to ethnic apartheid.

“I need to tell you we tried to save her,” says Yasmin (not her real name), the clinic nurse who took care of Raysuana from the time she reached the clinic on the morning of August 18 until she died around 12 hours later.

“She couldn’t tell us what happened because she was not able to speak,” the nurse added, showing the public space where the young woman was treated at Thet Kya Pin Clinic.

The clinic is a small healthcare facility where people of the Rohingya Muslim minority living in IDP camps and villages outside the Rakhine State capital Sittwe can receive basic medical treatment under oppressive rules that deny them freedom of movement and many other rights, restricting their ability to receive proper hospital treatment.

“It was only with her final breathing that she could talk to us. She came round, then she called out for her mother. Maybe for a minute she was awake and she cried for her mother. ‘Ma’, she said. ‘Mother where are you?’ Then she died,” recalls Yasmin.

Like the other medical staff involved in Raysuana’s case, the nurse says the main reason the young woman was not sent to hospital was that nobody knew who she was so there was no one to go with her to the hospital as attendant, and she “could not be sent alone”.

That belief was critical to Raysuana’s story, but the case also highlights a whole series of failures in system and in practice that means Rohingya people – and particularly women – are having their lives put at risk.

The world will never know the exact details that led to Raysuana’s death. What we do know is that she was Rohingya – a member of the mainly stateless Muslim minority in Myanmar who are denied basic human rights under internationally condemned policies.

She had no close relatives in the area to support her or demand an inquiry into what would be a highly controversial case given potential army involvement. The Myanmar military have constitutionally enshrined impunity; and she was buried, with the approval of a local leader, without an autopsy or further investigation into possible sexual assault and cause of death having taken place.

It is not even clear how old she was. Those who knew her estimate her age to have been between 25 and 30.

Yet despite the disadvantages she faced in life, Raysuana was loved by those who knew her and considered a quiet, caring and notably intelligent young woman who was particularly thoughtful toward others and was fluent in three languages. She is missed.

A second mother and friend

“I am so sad. I loved her like she was my own daughter. I still cannot believe she has gone,” says So Ma Li Khatu, a homely woman who estimates her own age to be around 60.

She embraces a small naked child with one hand and uses the other to clutch at her heart behind the fabric of a tattered blouse as she recalls her lost “daughter”.

So Ma Li Khatu became Raysuana’s “second mother” in 2012, when the young woman appeared on her doorstep in Ohn Taw Shay village asking for food after communal violence broke out in Sittwe between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and the Muslim community, forcing tens of thousands, mainly Rohingya, to flee their homes.

The riots were brutal and bloody. Entire villages were razed and innocent victims were butchered as they fled.

“Raysuana came asking for something to eat after she had to run away from Aung Mingalar,” says So Ma Li Khatu, referring to a Muslim quarter in the centre of Sittwe that has since been turned into a ghetto and cut off from the outside world by armed guards.

Ohn Taw Shay lies outside the main Rohingya IDP camps and villages where access to outsiders is restricted by the government. It is isolated by paddy fields and streams, and fortuitously escaped the violence that hit so many communities in 2012.

So Ma Li Khatu, Rasuana’s “second mother”, sits with children in Ohn Taw Shay village, Rakhine State. Photo: Fiona MacGregor / The Myanmar TimesSo Ma Li Khatu, Rasuana’s “second mother”, sits with children in Ohn Taw Shay village, Rakhine State. Photo: Fiona MacGregor / The Myanmar Times

For three years, Raysuana found shelter, care and support there. But she missed her younger brother, who had left Rakhine State for Malaysia before the violence, and particularly her mother, who had fled to join him after the riots.

“I felt for her in my heart so I took her to live with me,” says So Ma Li Khatu. “She was a quiet girl; she helped me take care of my chickens and goats and lived with us. In the three years I knew her, she was always helpful and good but she always missed her family in Malaysia.”

“She didn’t care about getting married,” added one village leader. “She just wanted to be with her mother.”

As she went about her business tending the livestock and helping around the house, Raysuana was coming up with a plan to join her family in Malaysia. So began a series of events that meant Raysuana’s later disappearance would go unnoticed for days.

In late July, Raysuana went to stay with the family of a friend – a girl who was engaged to Raysuana’s brother in Malaysia – in Let That Mar village, which sits a short walk across the paddy fields on the outskirts of Thet Kya Pin village.

So Ma Li Khatu says she had not seen her foster daughter for almost three weeks and had no idea she was missing when news of the young woman’s death reached her.

An escape plan

The riots of 2012 occurred when long-running tensions erupted between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and the Muslim minority who self-identify as Rohingya with a long history in Myanmar, but are considered illegal “Bengali” immigrants by most of the rest of the population.

The violence left around 200 people dead and about 140,000 – mainly Rohingya – displaced. Four years on, around 120,000 Muslims are still confined to IDP camps, where they – like other Rohingya – face a brutal policy of discrimination. There are severe restrictions on their movements, they are denied other basic rights and face numerous abuses.

The intolerable conditions have driven thousands to flee Rakhine and seek a new life in Muslim-majority Malaysia, with many taking dangerous sea routes to do so. Raysuana and her young friend in Let That Mar village hoped to join this escape, though there is no indication they had become involved with people traffickers before Raysuana’s death.

Although she was considerably younger at just 17, the girl of the family in Let That Mar village and Raysuana had become close in recent months.

“She cared for [my daughter] so much. Like a younger sister. They would go out together to chat or have something to eat and they would always bring food back to us,” says the girl’s mother Su Ra Ka Tu. “She was a good person. Very loving.”

As the friendship developed, Su Ra Ka Tu decided to arrange a marriage between her daughter and Raysuana’s younger brother. Together the two friends arranged a plan: Raysuana would travel to Malaysia and the young bride-to-be hoped to join at some point.

“She used to come here to stay with us sometimes for short visits, but this time she was just waiting for the money to arrive from her brother so she could travel to Malaysia,” explains one village elder who knew Raysuana.

He shows a photograph of her that someone had taken on a mobile phone. It is displayed with a gaudy floral frame round it.

“Her brother liked her to send pictures of herself to the family in Malaysia,” he explains.

But days went by and the money from Malaysia did not arrive. Villagers said that, around two weeks after arriving in Let That Mar, Raysuana set off for another village, which locals refer to as La Ma Shi, in hopes of finding laundry work and raising some money herself.

It was a decision that would lead to her death.

A dangerous journey

“I didn’t know she had gone missing. I just thought she was at La Ma Shi doing laundry,” says Su Ra Ka Tu, who puts Raysuana’s departure from her home five days before her death.

She says her daughter has lost her dearest friend.

No one The Myanmar Times spoke to at La Ma Shi village saw Raysuana arrive there. “Maybe she did come and nobody had any work for her so she moved on,” suggested one community leader there, adding that it was not unusual for people in the camps and villages to go door-to-door in search of work.

What happened next remains a mystery, but the fact she was found at the adjacent military compound suggests whatever befell her occurred not so far from La Ma Shi.

At a teashop on the edge of La Ma Shi, customers said they had heard about the incident. One man suggested Raysuana may have gone to the military compound to ask whether anyone there needed laundry services, but most discussing the case suggested that was unlikely as the base was generally avoided by local women.

What is almost certain is that she would have had to pass the local checkpoint on her way in and out of the village. These checkpoints, operated by police and military personnel as part of the restricted-movement system, are notorious as posts where Rohingya women face sexual harassment and abuse.

While there is no evidence that Raysuana suffered such a fate, residents were clear that if she’d had to pass the checkpoint alone, particularly in the evening, she would have been at risk.

“It is not safe,” the teashop customers agreed.

The possibility has been raised that Raysuana could have fallen victim to someone from her own community. However, the discovery of her body in a military area in the early morning – a site which has restricted access at all times, and from which Muslims are “banned” from entering in the evening, according to locals – means any Rohingya person who chose to abandon an injured Raysuana there was taking a serious chance.

La Ma Shi lies next to the military compound. Three different military organisations – the A Myauk Tat, the Sittwe Army and the Kh La Ra 20 – have bases there laid out in a rough triangular shape with a shared grounds in the middle, explains U Hla Myint, the administrator of Thet Kya Pin village.

He was the first in the Rohingya community to hear news that Raysuana had been found.

A grim discovery

“On the morning of August 18, I got a phone call from a man who was an intermediary,” recalls U Hla Myint.

“He said the commander of the A Myauk Tat military needed to talk to me about an emergency.”

The village administrator learned that a young Rohingya woman had been found nearly naked in the bushes outside one of the military offices at the compound.

U Hla Myint rejected the idea that personnel from the base should bring the injured woman to Thet Kya Pin, imagining the potential for serious trouble were word to get out to the Rohingya community. Instead, U Hla Myint volunteered to go and retrieve her, he says.

When he got to the compound, U Hla Myint spoke to various senior military staff. “They showed me the body of the victim in the bushes. She was only wearing a bra and nothing else. Someone had covered her with a blanket.”

Throughout interviews for this article, several witnesses referred to Raysuana’s “body” while she was still alive. Medical staff who examined her later have downplayed claims that she was unconscious, saying she was conscious but not lucid.

But witnesses who saw her initially described her as unconscious. If that is the case, it is a clear indication that she should have been treated as an emergency case and referred immediately to hospital. She was not.

“When I saw her, she was unconscious but breathing,” recalls U Hla Myint.

“The three-bar [military officer] asked me, ‘Do you know this girl,’ and I told him no, and that she wasn’t from our village,” says U Hla Myint.

“Then the sergeant said to me, ‘She is your ethnic people, that’s why you have to take her body.”

“I told them again that I did not know her, but they said they would not go to the police, and for a second time they said she belonged to my ethnic group and so I should take her.”

U Hla Myint took the young woman to the clinic at Thet Kya Pin. He says he was not aware of her specific injuries, but that it was clear she was in a serious condition.

He found some clothes for her and then, leaving her with medical staff at the clinic, set off to try to find her relatives, asking around local villages whether anyone knew of a missing woman.

When Raysuana arrived at the clinic at around 8am there was no doctor there. She was attended to instead by a medical assistant, and a woman who helped care for the injured girl and who said she had observed bleeding around Raysuana’s vagina.

It was only around 9am that the state doctor arrived. After what was later acknowledged to be only a cursory examination – due in part to concerns over a male doctor examining a female patient – it was decided that she was not an emergency case. She was admitted to the clinic as an in-patient instead of being sent to hospital.

Less than 12 hours later, she was dead.

Despite a second doctor from an INGO attending at the clinic later that day, Raysuana was still not admitted to hospital. Despite clear indications that she may have been a victim of gender-based violence, no protocol in response to that was followed. Despite police having been informed of the incident, no criminal inquiry was launched.

“I have no idea what the police are doing about it,” says U Hla Myint.

As for the lack of medical treatment, he responds, “We Rohingya people are not allowed to go to the hospitals ourselves. If there were no restrictions on movement, we would have taken her to the hospital in Sittwe, but at this moment in time we cannot.”


On Monday, the second part of this series will look at what happened between Raysuana reaching the clinic and her death; why she did not receive the help she needed; and what, if anything, authorities and other agencies are doing to prevent such a case from happening again.