Between Squalid Camps and Ethnic Cleansing, Rohingya Are Still Trapped

Published June 10th, 2019 - 11:33 GMT
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Rohingya men and boys stuck behind fences in the "no-man's land" (AFP/FILE)

“We cannot escape anywhere,” says Mohammed Salam, who is the chairman of a local Rohingya Welfare Committee in Rakhine, Myanmar.

“Even those who try to bribe guards at checkpoints are arrested and then disappear.”

The Rohingya, a stateless Muslim minority population hailing mostly from the Rakhine sate, are facing growing pressure in Bangladesh to resettle back into Myanmar.

A leaked report from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) predicted that the persecuted group would see a ‘smooth’ repatriation to Myanmar in the next few years in spite of reports that the Burmese military is attacking remaining Rohingya groups with forced disappearances and helicopter attacks. Meanwhile, the military has reportedly placed landmines along the border of Rakhine. 

Inside Bangladesh, an estimated 700,000 million Rohignya refugees face increasingly unlivable conditions in a camp near Cox’s Bazaar. Bangladesh's efforts to disperse the refugee population has also come under fire. One proposal includes relocating 100,000 refugees to Bhasan Char, a narrow island locals say is unlivable thanks to intense cyclones and regular flooding.

Despite a dearth of press coverage on the Rohingya population’s persecution, conditions continue to worsen.


A Slow Genocide 

“All Rohingya returnees will be put into these concentration camps."

Buddhist monks call for violent genocide against Rohingya (AFP/FILE)

Although an intense campaign of ethnic cleansing and genocide has driven over a million Rohingya from Myanmar, an estimated 200,000 remain inside the country. There, they survive in conditions one journalist deemed to a “genocide zone.” 

The Burmese military has been placing landmines along the border of the Rakhine state in addition to maintaining checkpoints targeting Rohingya. The ongoing military crackdown has functionally trapped thousands of Rohingya inside their villages, which could be marked for destruction as thousands of others were in 2016-17.

“Despite international condemnation of the Myanmar military’s atrocities, all evidence suggests that they are brazenly committing yet more serious abuses,” said Tirana Hassan the Director of Crisis Response at Amnesty International.

“Despite international condemnation of the Myanmar military’s atrocities, all evidence suggests that they are brazenly committing yet more serious abuses,” said Tirana Hassan the Director of Crisis Response at Amnesty International.

In April, Mohammed Salam of the Rohingya Welfare Committee said a “[Myanmar] gunship attacked Rohingya village in the township of Buthidaung,” killing six. “The injured were taking to the hospital in Buthidaung, which is running out of medicines and anaesthesia,” he added.

Though the military violence against the Rohingya continue, Myanmar continues to insist it is readying humanitarian shelters for returning Rohingya. In reality, the shelters look more like concentration camps.

“Myanmar has said that returning refugees will be kept in temporary shelters for proper verification. We are concerned that these will become military detention sites like elsewhere in Rakhine state,”  Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia Director for Human Rights Watch, told Al Bawaba.

In March 2018, satellite imagery surfaced of the Burmee military leveling Rohingya villages and replacing them with militarized detention centers complete with barbed wire. Those detention centers still appear to be waiting to take in refugees, who so far have refused to return.

Satellite images of burned Rohingya villages (IRIN/New Humanitarian)

“The authorities in Burma are yet to provide assurances that citizenship rights of the Rohingya will be protections, that there will [be] accountability for crimes against humanity by the Myanmar military, and that there will be proper rehabilitation and reparations,” Ganguly added.

For Rohingya pondering a return back to Rakhine, a palatable climate of fear and prejudice remains inside Myanmar, leaving little hope for accountability or reconciliation.

“All Rohingya returnees will be put into these concentration camps,” Nay San Lwin, a prominent Rohingya activist who fled Myanmar when he was 23, told Al bawaba.

“Myanmar has no intention to restore full citizenship of Rohingyas. Myanmar has no intention to allow Rohingyas to return their original villages. As the genocidal government and military are ruling the country you cannot expect any good things.”

In the years leading up to the recent ethnic cleansing campaign, which began in 2016, Rohignya were systemically targeted by laws limiting their ability to practice Islam, move or organize. Even before 2016, analysts called Myanmar's treatment of the Rohingya to constitute a "slow genocide."

“Myanmar has genocidal intent and the genocide is still ongoing.”

The government refused to grant them citizenship. Once a small, violent Rohingya insurgency began to fight the Burmese military, a chorus of Buddhist monks and military officials began calling for the outright expulsion of all Rohingya from Myanmar.

“Buddha loves all people and teaches us to try to resolve suffering, but we have a duty to protect our country at the same time,” Myawady Sayadaw, a Buddhist monk said from his monastery outside Mandalay in 2017. 

“Most of the Muslims,” he added, “are extremists.”

“All these democratic activists, when they talk about human rights and citizens’ rights, they have a prejudice — the Rohingya are not included,” Thet Swe Win, director of the Center for Youth and Social Harmony in Myanmar argued at the time. 

“No one is on the Rohingyas’ side. That is the tragedy here.”

Two drowned Rohingya are mourned on the shore (AFP/FILE)

Rhetoric justifying the ethnic cleansing and genocide framed the violence as a act of self-defense against a subversive, insidious force.

Thousands of Rohingya villages were burned, every mosque was destroyed, damaged or closed and though an authoritative death count remains elusive, some estimate that over 25,000 were killed. The U.N. labeled the violence both a genocide and a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing." 

Myanmar’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, has stayed silent on the issue of genocide, but recently warned the world’s growing Muslim population poses serious challenges for the world in a joint statement with Hungary’s anti-immigrant strongman, Viktor Orban.

Nay San Lwin said it is clear “Myanmar has genocidal intent and the genocide is still ongoing.”

“To create a safe environment for the return of the Rohingyas,” he continued, “ international pressures are not enough. Serious action against Myanmar is very crucial. Myanmar is not changing the attitudes because of the impunity. The criminals must be brought to justice. International observers must be sent to the area. A coalition must be formed by all governments to work for Rohingya. The serious action against Myanmar will change the destiny of the Rohingyas.”


A Prison Island

Bhashan Char relocation efforts (AFP/FILE)

Though over a million Rohingya have sought refuge in neighboring Bangladesh, plans to relocate 100,000 to a small island could threaten yet more lives.

Bangladesh officials have, since 2017, touted the stilt island of Bhasan Char as a temporary home for the Rohingya. The island itself, located in the Bay of Bengal, is isolated and difficult to reach.

Local fishermen, who know the island well, insisted at the time the plan was unveiled that it could not sustain human life. “If the island is uninhabitable for the fishermen and the shepherds, how will other people settle here?" One fisherman asked journalists from the Dhaka Tribune.

“Part of the island is eroded by the monsoon every year...In that time, we never dare go to that island, so how will thousands of Rohingya live there?”

One anonymous Bangladesh Navy official sain in 2017 that “The island is remote, and lacks a good transportation system. During the monsoon,” added, “the communication with the mainland completely snaps. If enough food is not stored in the island, the Rohingya refugees would starve for days.”

Bangladesh insisted the island could support a large population of refugees and invited international officials to inspect the site itself. Yanghee Lee the U.N.’s special rapporteur on Myanmar, visited the island in Jan 2019 and still could not see evidence that it could host any population.

“There are a number of things that remain unknown to me even following my visit, chief among them being whether the island is truly habitable,” she said.

A local resident recently told Human Rights Watch that “part of the island is eroded by the monsoon every year...In that time, we never dare go to that island, so how will thousands of Rohingya live there?”

One local journalist asserted more bluntly that “Bhashan Char will be like a prison.”

Despite these warnings, Bangladesh is pressing on with relocation efforts. Meenakshi Ganguly of Human Rights Watch told Al Bawaba that Bangladesh authorities say they have readied the island for refugees and await their decision to move.

Trapped between squalid conditions in Bangladesh and violence in Myanmar, the Rohingya have no respite. 

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