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UNION OF MYANMAR: Rohingya trapped in dehumanising apartheid regime

28 Nov 2017
[International Secretariat]
Topic: Indigenous people Minority group

The Rohingya people in Myanmar are trapped in a system of state-sponsored, institutionalised discrimination that amounts to apartheid.

The security forces killed Rohingya people, torched whole villages to the ground, and drove more than 600,000 to flee across the border into Bangladesh.

Rakhine State: An open-air prison

While Rohingya have faced systematic, government-sponsored discrimination in Myanmar for decades, Amnesty International’s investigation reveals how such repression has intensified dramatically since 2012, when violence between Buddhist and Muslim communities swept the state.

Rohingya in Rakhine State are essentially sealed off from the outside world and face severe restrictions on their freedom of movement that confine them to their villages and townships.

A regulation in effect across Rakhine State clearly states that “foreigners” and “Bengali races [a pejorative term for the Rohingya]” need special permits to travel between townships. In northern Rakhine State, even travel between villages is heavily restricted by a system of permissions. Arbitrary curfews have been harshly and continually imposed in predominantly Rohingya areas for the last five years.

In central Rakhine State, Rohingya are kept tightly locked down in their villages and displacement camps. In some areas they are not allowed to use roads and can only travel by waterways, and only to other Muslim villages.

For Rohingya who do manage to obtain permission to travel in northern Rakhine State, frequent checkpoints mostly staffed by Border Guard Police (BGP) are a constant menace, where they are regularly harassed, forced to pay bribes, physically assaulted or arrested.

While conducting research for the report, Amnesty International staff saw first-hand a border guard kicking a Rohingya man at a checkpoint, and documented at least one case of an extrajudicial execution, when BGP officers shot dead a 23-year-old man travelling during curfew hours.

During the violence in 2012, tens of thousands of Rohingya were driven out of urban areas in Rakhine State. Today some 4,000 remain in a town where they live in a ghetto-like area sealed off with barbed wire barricades and police checkpoints.

A life on the brink of survival

The restrictions on movement are having a devastating impact on the daily lives of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya.

While the quality of hospitals and clinics in Rakhine State is generally poor for all communities, Rohingya face serious and often life-threatening barriers in accessing health care.

Rohingya are denied access to Sittwe hospital, the highest-quality medical facility in Rakhine State, except for in extremely acute cases. Even then they require authorization from the Rakhine State authorities and travel under police escort. In northern Rakhine State, many see no choice but to travel to Bangladesh to access the health care they need, but this trip can often be prohibitively expensive for all but the wealthiest families.

Outside of northern Rakhine State, only a few medical facilities are accessible for Rohingyas. There, they are kept in separate “Muslim wards”. One aid worker compared one such ward to a “prison hospital”.

Several Rohingya described how they had to pay bribes to hospital staff and police guards if they wanted to call family members or purchase food from outside. Others avoided hospitals altogether – fearing abuses by doctors and nurses, or thinking they would not be offered care at all.

Since 2012, Myanmar authorities have tightened restrictions on Rohingyas’ access to education. In large parts of Rakhine State, Rohingya children are no longer allowed into previously mixed government schools at all, while government teachers often refuse to travel to Muslim areas.

With higher education largely off limits for Rohingya, many people Amnesty International spoke to expressed a sense of despair and hopelessness about the future.

Tightened restrictions on travel have also affected many Rohingyas’ ability to earn a living or to put enough food on the table. People selling produce have been cut off from trade routes and markets, while farmers are often prevented from working their fields. Malnutrition and poverty have become the norm among Rohingya in the affected areas, a situation the authorities have compounded by severely restricting humanitarian access.

A ban on gatherings of more than four people, applying specifically to Muslim-majority areas, also means that Rohingya – the overwhelming majority of whom are Muslim – are effectively banned from worshipping together. Authorities in Myanmar have also sealed off mosques, leaving Muslim places of worship to decay.

Denial of citizenship

Underpinning the discrimination against Rohingya is their lack of legal rights in Myanmar. At the heart of this are discriminatory laws and practices, in particular the 1982 Citizenship Act, which have effectively denied citizenship to Rohingya on the basis of their ethnicity.

Since 2016, the government has made it extremely cumbersome for Rohingya to register newborn babies on “household lists” – often Rohingya families’ only proof of residence in Myanmar. Meanwhile, in northern Rakhine State, those who are not home for annual “population checks” risk being deleted from official records altogether.

One consequence of this campaign is that it has become virtually impossible for Rohingya who have fled the country to return to their homes. This is particularly concerning since the military operations in 2016 and 2017 have driven close to 700,000 Rohingya to flee into Bangladesh.

“Restoring the rights and legal status of Rohingya, and amending the country’s discriminatory citizenship laws is urgently needed.

Dismantling the system of apartheid

Amnesty International has concluded that the Myanmar authorities’ treatment of the Rohingya amounts to apartheid, defined as a crime against humanity under the Convention against Apartheid and the Rome Statue of the International Criminal Court.

Myanmar is legally obliged to dismantle the apartheid system in Rakhine State, and must also ensure accountability for those responsible for committing acts.

“Rakhine State is a crime scene. This abhorrent system of discrimination and segregation permeates every aspect of Rohingyas’ lives and unless there are immediate steps to dismantle it, it will remain in place long after the military campaign ends,” said Anna Neistat.

21 November

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