Rohingya trapped in open-air prison of apartheid

By Laura Haigh, Amnesty International’s Myanmar Researcher

This contribution was originally published here, accompanying Amnesty International’s report “Caged without a roof”.

Imagine that your son becomes critically ill, but he is not allowed into the nearest hospital for treatment. You need to travel to the market to earn enough money to put food on the table, but you cannot get the permit required to leave your village. You want to go to school to gain an education, but a government official tells you that people like you are not welcome there. These restrictions are not there for any other reason than because of who you are. Because of your race, your ethnicity and your religion.

This is the daily reality facing hundreds of thousands of people belonging to the Rohingya minority in Myanmar.

For months, the world has listened in horror to stories from the more than 600,000 mainly Rohingya who have fled into Bangladesh following the Myanmar security forces’ vicious campaign of ethnic cleansing. Soldiers have killed people at random, torched whole villages and committed rape and other acts of sexual violence.

But these violations have not happened in a vacuum. Today, Amnesty International is publishing a ground-breaking investigation into the root causes of the current crisis. It reveals the full extent of the state-sponsored and dehumanising system of discrimination facing Rohingya inside their own country.

We have spent the past two years gathering an extensive body of evidence and conducting a thorough legal analysis of the situation in Rakhine state, the western region of Myanmar which is home to the vast majority of Rohingya. Ultimately, we drew the obvious legal conclusion: what the Rohingya are subjected to is nothing short of the crime against humanity that is apartheid. This crime is clearly defined in international law, including in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

For the Rohingya still left in Myanmar, life inside Rakhine State resembles an open-air prison. They live under a system of repression that is upheld through an intricate web of laws, policies and practices, imposed by state officials at all levels – township, district, state and nation-wide.

At the heart of the discriminatory policies are extreme restrictions on the Rohingya’s’ freedom of movement. Across the entire state, Rohingya need official permission to travel between townships. In some areas, they need special permits even to move between villages.

In others, they are essentially under lockdown in their homes every night, and at risk of arrest if they try to leave villages or neighbourhoods without authorisation or outside of curfew hours. There are even areas where Rohingya are not allowed to use roads but can only travel by waterways, and then only to other Muslim villages. For those who do obtain permission to travel, a network of checkpoints is a source of endless harassment, extortion and sometimes violence at the hands of the notorious Border Guard Police in northern Rakhine State.

For Rohingya who need medical care, access to the main hospital in the state capital Sittwe is severely restricted, except in extreme emergency cases. Those who do get admitted are kept under police guard in separate “Muslim wards”. Rohingya children are largely banned from government schools, while government teachers often refuse to travel to Muslim areas. The restrictions also mean that accessing food or livelihood opportunities is an enormous struggle. Malnutrition and poverty are extremely widespread.

Underpinning this discrimination is the fact that Rohingya have essentially been denied citizenship – and the rights associated with it – since the early 1980s when authorities enacted a law to this effect. But the repression has intensified alarmingly recently – in particular since 2012 when waves of violence between Muslims and Buddhist, who were often supported security officials, swept the region.

I have spent the past two years travelling back and forth to Rakhine state and the stories I have heard have been deeply moving. Over and over again, Rohingya and other Muslim communities described their lives in Rakhine State in terms such as living in a cage. I spoke to a 16-year-old girl who, just hours after sitting her school physics exam, told me she had abandoned her dream of becoming a doctor because as a Rohingya she was not allowed to access higher education. Countless people said they were struggling to survive, not the least because the government continues to deny aid groups access to Rakhine state.

What unites almost everyone I spoke to is a profound sense of hopelessness and despair about the future. Many have been trapped in this reality for as long as they can remember, and cannot see a way out. “There is no rule of law here. It is a lawless land… There is no hope,” the father of a young man who was killed by border guard police told me.

The only way forward is for the Myanmar government to act immediately to dismantle this appalling regime. A very first step must be to develop a comprehensive action plan to dismantle the system of apartheid, which must include repealing or amending all discriminatory laws and radically changing policies and practices.

Crimes against humanity are being committed in Rakhine State on a daily basis. The evidence documented by Amnesty International indicates that these crimes are committed in the context of an institutionalised regime of systematic oppression and domination of a racial group and thus constitute the crime of apartheid.

This cannot be ignored and swept under the carpet. A climate of impunity where human rights violations and crimes go unpunished only serves to perpetuate the cycle of abuse. There must be accountability and those responsible – regardless of rank or position – must be brought to justice. If the government is unwilling and unable to take up this task, which it so far has been, the international community must step in.

States must use every diplomatic tool at their disposal to pressure the Myanmar authorities to act now. Donor countries, in particular, must be careful to ensure that development aid is not spent in a way that props up this nightmarish system. The world can no longer stand idle in the face of this 21st century apartheid.

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