- Following sectarian violence in the western Myanmar state of Rakhine in June, human rights researchers are now warning that the government appears to be attempting to permanently house parts of the stateless Muslim-minority Rohingya in "temporary" refugee camps, segregating them from the rest of the population.
"There has been no acknowledgement that people have to go home eventually – the solution appears to be that the Rohingya can simply live where they have come to be," John Sifton, with Human Rights Watch (which released a related report in August), said in Washington on Tuesday. "Segregation has become the status quo."
Myanmar, also known as Burma, is in the midst of a series of contested anti-authoritarian reforms following on decades of repression by the military government. Yet even as the country opens up bit by bit, socially ingrained ethnic and racial tensions are proving real impediments to the reforms process, with the Rohingya seen by many as an important test case.
Myanmar is dominated by state-backed Buddhism, which has traditionally allowed little room for other religions. This has been especially true of the long-persecuted Muslims of Rakhine, known as Rohingya, who had their citizenship revoked in the early 1980s on the suggestion that the community was made up of migrants from Bangladesh.
Muslim-majority Bangladesh, meanwhile, has allowed in tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees since that time. But in recent years the Dhaka government has moved to shut down its border to new asylum seekers from Myanmar, reportedly running afoul of international law in the process.
Although drawing on longstanding tensions, the immediate situation in Myanmar goes back to June, when a Rakhine woman was allegedly raped by three Rohingya youths. This incident led to two weeks of arson and communal violence that resulted in thousands of Rohingya homes being burned and close to 100,000 people, Rohingya and other Rakhine (also known as Arakan) communities, being forced to flee their communities.
In response, the government sent in troops to quell the violence – a highly charged move given the half-century of military oppression these communities have experienced. In the event, however, several reports have suggested that the soldiers acted relatively well, and since then many Rohingya have stated that they now feel safer in the presence of the military than with no protection at all.
The government has also created an investigative commission to look into what took place in Rakhine in June, which will soon be offering policy recommendations that could potentially include a path to citizenship for the Rohingya. While observers have praised the move, it is hard to overlook the fact that the commission includes no Rohingya members.
Re-integration and reconciliation
Following the June violence, the most significant move by the government has been to impose its writ on the situation.
First, it created separate refugee camps of dramatically differing quality, set up for Rohingya and for other Rakhine communities that have been rendered homeless. Second, it decisively took control over the northern section of Rakhine, refusing even to allow humanitarian access.
"For the Rohingya camps, there's really no discussion about what's next – everyone says it's temporary, but no one's talking about how to end it," Sarnata Reynolds, a researcher with Refugees International who recently completed a month-long investigation in Rakhine, said Tuesday in a talk at the Washington office of the Open Society Foundations.
"Neither the absolute closure of northern Rakhine state nor the segregation of the Rohingya population in Sittwe (the capital of Rakhine) supports re-integration or reconciliation. So any good-faith effort needs to renew access to northern Rakhine state and offer a timeline that measures efforts towards integration and reconciliation."
Meanwhile, the conditions in the Rohingya camps are "profoundly" different from those housing the Rakhine, Reynolds reports. First, there are infrastructural differences, with the Rohingya camps, estimated to be housing some 75,000, lacking adequate sanitation, humanitarian assistance and education facilities, unlike the Rakhine camps.
Second, while the government has situated the camps such that the Rakhine can continue to live in town while their homes are being rebuilt, the Rohingya have been moved outside of the city. Their homes are not being rebuilt, and the government has completely revoked their freedom of movement.
"That means they can't work. The kids aren't going to school; indeed, there's almost no talk of school," Reynolds says. "So there's this strange situation where you have shelters that are looking more and more like permanent situations, but there's a reluctance to build infrastructure – education or health care – for the Rohingya because there is the fear that will make it more permanent."
Indeed, over and above the constraints that the Myanmar government has placed on humanitarian assistance in Rakhine, the major international donors have been notably hesitant to commit funds to the Rohingya refugee situation for fear that doing so will give the government's "segregation" strategy a stamp of legitimacy.
This includes the United States, often one of the most significant funders in humanitarian emergencies.
"Right now there's a policy of segregation in order to quell the tension and violence," Kelly Clements, a deputy assistant secretary in the U.S. State Department who participated in a major U.S. investigation into the Rakhine situation earlier this year, said on Tuesday.
"We (have) said that, for security reasons, one has to do what's necessary. However, that should not be the medium- to longer-term solution to this particular problem."
Some are worried that there doesn't appear to be much planning taking place to help the Rohingya situation in the medium term either, and several groups are now calling on the United States to step up pressure on the Myanmar government to ensure that the focus will eventually move on to re-integration and reconciliation.
Perhaps most egregiously, recent events suggest that even the government's draconian "segregation" measures have failed to stem the sectarian violence. On Sunday, the main mosque in Sittwe was attacked and torched, with an official investigation pending.
The tension has also spread across the border to Bangladesh, in what some analysts have suggested are retaliatory actions that indicate a new regional component to the ethnic strife. At least four Buddhist temples, including one Rakhine monastery, have been attacked over the past two weeks, reportedly as a result of anger over the recent months of anti-Rohingya violence in Myanmar.