Myanmar: The Worsening Plight of the Rohingya
Image Credit: REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

Myanmar: The Worsening Plight of the Rohingya

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The ongoing plight of Myanmar’s persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority has seen some tragic developments this year.

In the early hours of January 14, a series of events spiralled into the deadliest atrocity against the Rohingya since sectarian violence swept the nation in 2012, when security forces and Rakhine Buddhists reportedly attacked Du Char Yar Tan village in northern Rakhine State, killing 40 Rohingya, including women and children.

The Myanmar government continues to deny that the massacre took place. But numerous reports conflict with the official narrative.

United Nations (UN) high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay said in a statement she had received “credible reports” of killings in Du Char Yar Tan village. Details later emerged that the massacre was discovered when a group of men found the severed heads of at least 10 Rohingya, including children, bobbing in a water tank.

Calls for an international investigation were promptly rejected, with presidential spokesperson Ye Htut later invoking the United States’ refusal of an international probe into Guantanamo to justify the decision. An internal inquiry by the Myanmar Human Rights Commission (MHRC) concluded there was no “solid evidence” to prove the attack took place, making the allegations “unverifiable and unconfirmed.”

UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Tomás Ojea Quintana, has questioned the independence of the MHRC and told Democratic Voice of Burma, that he “remains convinced that serious violent incidents took place.”

Associated Press (AP) was the first international media outlet to report on the attack in an article headed, “Myanmar mob kills more than a dozen Muslims.” This quickly drew government disapproval. AP journalists in Yangon were summoned by the Ministry of Information for reporting events that “differed from the real situation.”

Evidently, there is a disparity between what the international community is seeing and hearing and what the Myanmar Government wants the world to believe. In handling the January massacre, the government appears to have adopted two strategies — deny that it happened and discredit any conflicting versions of events.

Unfortunately, Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) is now discovering what happens when you report details that differ to accounts given by the government, while relying on its permission to carry out vital projects. Following the massacre in Du Char Yar Tan village – which “officially” did not happen – MSF reported treating 22 patients for injuries sustained during the violence. The government portrayed this as “wrong information” and last month, scores of protestors took to the streets hurling accusations of Rohingya bias and calling for the international non-government organisation (NGO) to be ousted from the country. Presidential spokesperson Ye Htut told media on February 28 that MSF had become less transparent. ‘‘They even hired Bengalis [Rohingya].’’ He said the government would not be extending its MoU with the medical charity and that it had been ordered to cease all operations in the country.

Past accusations of “bias” favouring the country’s Rohingya Muslims prompted Peter Paul de Groote, MSF’s head of mission in Myanmar, to write a piece for the Myanmar Times. ‘‘If providing medical care can ever be referred to as ‘biased’, it is a bias toward patients. It is a bias that is based on medical need, regardless of any other factor. MSF sees only patients, nothing else.’’

After negotiations, MSF was given permission to resume its projects – except in strife-torn Rakhine State, where about 80 percent of Myanmar’s estimated 1.33 million Rohingya live. In a March 2 statement MSF expressed concern for ‘‘tens of thousands of vulnerable people in Rakhine State who currently face a humanitarian medical crisis.’’

MSF was the major NGO provider of healthcare in the state. Along with supporting local Rakhine, the medical group offered a lifeline to the segregated Rohingya who have difficulty accessing medical services because of travel restrictions and discrimination that prevents them from being treated at public hospitals. Human Rights Watch has slammed the move as “simply deplorable.”

The latest news from the Myanmar Times indicates that the expulsion of MSF from Rakhine State will be temporary, but could last at least seven months. A state government official said that if MSF were allowed to stay in the state, the organization’s workers, and government staff, could be targeted by Rakhine community groups carrying grievances of bias. The article notes that a number of international NGOs and UN agencies have been subjected to online threats since the suspension of MSF’s operations.

Policies of Persecution

Damning revelations in a new report by independent human rights group, Fortify Rights, implicate government authorities in policies that discriminate against and repress its Rohingya minority.

The report, Policies of Persecution: Ending Abusive State Policies Against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, draws on leaked official documents to expose the government’s hand in human rights abuses. For two decades UN envoys have reported widespread rights violations against the Rohingya, describing the abuses as “systematic” and resulting from “state policy.” But Fortify Rights has gone a step further, providing evidence of the government’s complicity.
In response to the report, Ye Htut told the Myanmar Times that the government does not remark on “baseless accusations from Bengali lobby groups.”

The government vehemently denies the existence of a Rohingya ethnicity, referring to the group, even in official documents, as “Bengali.” This stems from a pervasive belief that all Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, a conviction widely held despite records of Rohingya families living in Myanmar for centuries. Rakhine State, where the Rohingya are concentrated, is a crescent of land sitting along the coast of the Bay of Bengal in Western Myanmar, bordering Bangladesh to the north. The 1982 Citizenship Law does not recognize the Rohingya as belonging to Myanmar and with this reform they were rendered stateless. An appeal by the UN last year, calling on the government to grant its Rohingya minority citizenship was rejected. This should not come as a surprise considering President Thein Sein has suggested that the solution to ethnic enmity in Rakhine State was to send the Rohingya to another country or have the UN refugee agency look after them.

Documents obtained by Fortify Rights detail restrictions on the Rohingya relating to: ‘‘movement, marriage, childbirth, home repairs and construction of houses of worship, and other aspects of everyday life.’’ These policies, created and implemented by Rakhine State and central government authorities, apply solely to the Rohingya and are reportedly framed as a response to an “illegal immigration” problem and threats to “national security.”

This notion of national security requires context on the volatile situation in Rakhine State.

Ongoing tension between Rohingya (as well as other Muslims, including Kaman) and Rakhine Buddhists reached tipping point in 2012. Bloody bouts of sectarian violence, including two major waves in June and October, resulted in the deaths of more than 200 people and displaced another 140,000 (the vast majority of those dead and displaced were Rohingya).

Conflict that began as tit-for-tat communal clashes soon escalated into what multiple human rights groups have condemned as ethnic cleansing.

June violence was reportedly sparked by the rape and murder of a Rakhine woman by three Muslim men. A few days later, a group of Rakhine stopped a bus and beat to death ten Muslims who were on board. A 2013 Human Rights Watch report explains that violence then escalated into mob assaults, with atrocities committed by both sides. However, according to the report, the attacks that occurred in October were more “orchestrated” and were organized, incited and committed by “political party operatives, the Buddhist Monkhood and ordinary Arakanese [Rakhine], at times directly supported by state security forces.” On October 23, “after months of meetings and public statements promoting ethnic cleansing,’ in apparently coordinated assaults, Rakhine men attacked Muslim villages in nine townships across the state, killing residents and razing homes ‘while security forces stood aside or assisted the assailants.”

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