Security forces committed “widespread rape” of women and girls during the alleged persecution and “ethnic cleansing” of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar since August, the Human Rights Watch said in a report on Thursday.

“Rape has been a prominent and devastating feature of the Burmese military’s campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya,” said Skye Wheeler, author of the report, which was based on interviews with 52 Rohingya women and girls. Twenty-nine of those interviewed had been raped.

All but one were cases of gang rape, and eight of the women were raped by five or more soldiers. The women were raped inside their homes or as they fled villages set on fire by the security forces, the report said.

The human rights non-profit also found six cases of “mass rape” by the military. “In these instances, survivors said that soldiers gathered them together in groups and then gang raped or raped them,” the report said. Witnesses also reported seeing women raped and then being killed.

It said the actions of security forces against the Rohingya population since August 25 “amount to crimes against humanity under international law”.

The interviews also showed that those who fled had a difficult journey to Bangladesh after being raped:

“Gang-rape survivors reported days of agony walking with swollen and torn genitals through jungle to Bangladesh. Women in late stages of pregnancy described walking up and down steep hills slippery from monsoon rains, through rivers and dense vegetation, often with little to eat and on sore hips and swollen legs.”  

The Rohingya crisis

World leaders and human rights organisations have been critical of Myanmar for the “ethnic cleansing” of Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine. Lakhs of Rohingya Muslims, who have been denied citizenship in Myanmar and are classified as illegal immigrants, have fled to Bangladesh since August after violence broke out. The community has been subjected to violence by the Buddhist majority and the Army in Myanmar though the country has repeatedly denied this claim.