Beyond the crackdown: Rohingya living under apartheid in Myanmar’s ‘open-air prison’

New Amnesty International report focuses on the chilling details of the Muslim minority's brutally restricted daily lives.

A Rohingya Muslim man, Muhammed Yunus, 28, who has not eaten for the past three days grimaces in pain as he along with others wait along the border for permission to proceed to refugee camps near Palong Khali, Bangladesh. (CREDIT: Bernat Armangue/AP Photo.
A Rohingya Muslim man, Muhammed Yunus, 28, who has not eaten for the past three days grimaces in pain as he along with others wait along the border for permission to proceed to refugee camps near Palong Khali, Bangladesh. (CREDIT: Bernat Armangue/AP Photo.

With over 600,000 Rohingya fleeing Myanmar for neighboring Bangladesh since late August, after a deadly attack on police posts in the Rakhine State prompted a violent crackdown against them, the humanitarian crisis described as an “ethnic cleansing” by the United Nations is deepening.

The international community is struggling with how to hold Myanmar accountable for the unknown number of deaths, the mass displacement, starvation, and the burning of hundreds of villages. The United States has been reluctant to even use the term “ethnic cleansing,” opting instead for the more general “atrocities” in asking the government of Myanmar to end its campaign against the Rohingya.

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But in a report released on Monday, Amnesty International (AI) calls what’s happening to the Rohingya an “apartheid.” In a painfully detailed 2-year-long investigation of what life is like for the Rohingya Muslim minority in a the Buddhist majority country of roughly 53 million, the rights group has collected information on the almost impossible hoops the Rohingya must jump through in virtually every aspect of daily life to get access to basic services.

And these restrictions, says AI, amount to “crimes against humanity” that require international response.

“The idea of being in an open-air prison or being caged, caged like a bird, is such a powerful image that just comes up over and over…”

“If you look at the campaign of violence that the Myanmar security forces have unleashed on the Rohingya in the last three months, it very clearly, for us, rises to the level of ‘crimes against humanity’ — it is ethnic cleansing, and we describe it as ethnic cleansing, but that’s not really a legal term,” said Laura Haigh, AI’s Myanmar researcher, who, as a lead researcher on the recent report, traveled to interview Rohingya villagers in northern and central Rakhine State, as well as in camps for the internally displaced (IDPs).

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“But ‘crimes against humanity’ are crimes under international law and that’s definitely what we’ve documented in northern Rakhine State,” Haigh told ThinkProgress.

Crimes against humanity, she explained, are a “widespread, systematic attack on a population. And one of the crimes against humanity in international law is the crime of apartheid. So when we looked not just at the current situation, the recent violence, but just the day-to-day existence of the Rohingya, we do think that [as] an attack on a population, and it’s an attack on them because of who they are, because they are a specific ethnic, racial group.”

The targeting of a group for ethnic or religious reasons is the definition of apartheid.

The trouble with holding Myanmar accountable so far as been the slow response of the international community, which seems to value investment and development in Myanmar over human rights, as well the unwillingness of China, which has key investments in Myanmar, to back sanctions against the government.

“What’s clear is these are international crimes. They do need to be investigated, and those responsible need to be brought to justice,” said Haigh. AI is calling for several measures, including a comprehensive, global arms embargo, as well as asking individual states to halt all military cooperation with Myanmar. And any investment in redevelopment, or financial assistance, should come with conditions that prohibit rights violations.

In Myanmar, the Rohingya are seen as outsiders, “Bengalis” without citizenship rights. In order for a Rohingya to live a somewhat functional life, he or she would need to be somehow registered with the authorities. One way is to get a National Verification Card (NVC), which grants no citizenship rights but might allow the holder to apply for citizenship. Owing to the distrust many in the Rohingya community have towards the authorities, few apply for the cards, although the Amnesty report indicates that in Rakhine State, where most of the Rohinga live, some feel coerced to register for the NVC.

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This is hardly surprising, because, while the international community fumbles with what to call the situation, the Rohingya know exactly what’s happening to them.

“This is so clearly a system that is designed to target the Rohingya, and to exclude them from every aspect of social life. They can’t move around within their areas, they can’t move around within their state, and they find it very difficult to leave Rakhine State — officially — full stop,” said Haigh. “I’ve not seen any other community in Myanmar targeted in this way and restricted in this way purely because of who they are, their ethnic identity and their religious identity.”

The extent of the segregation, statewide, is what surprised even Haigh.

“The Muslim communities, the Rohingya communities, were just confined to their own villages. You can’t go to your nearest town; and for a lot of people, that’s where your market is, that’s where your hospital is, that’s where your local government and police station is — all of it is just completely off-limits to them,” she said. “It’s essentially like they just don’t exist in the rest of Rakhine State society.”

Another means of state control comes via the “household list” — which sounds innocuous, but is actually nothing short of material torment for the Rohingya. Every person — including infants — in a Rohingya household must be registered to that family’s household list.

For instance, authorities do random checks on households. According to an account by one Rohingya elder to Amnesty researchers, “If someone is not here [during the population checks], you have to prove that they are away for a reason. If you can’t, [when] they come back [to Myanmar], they will be illegal. The BGP [Myanmar Border Guard Police] crosses their name off the list and they write ‘deserter’ next to it.”

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Some can manage to avoid this fate by bribing local authorities — as much as $500, which is a staggering sum — to put them back on the household list to maybe hold off on deleting them from the list to start with.

Not being a list means no access to healthcare and education — the latter being a top concern for people Haigh and her team interviewed. Extortion, said Haigh, is commonplace in the impoverished state, but people will pay whatever they can to stay on the list, especially given that for young Rohingya, being deleted from the household list can mean losing the few opportunities available to them.

“One of the things that really struck me was how often education came up … especially from young people and students, the idea that they were being robbed of a future, that they wouldn’t be able to educate themselves, that they wouldn’t be able to support themselves and their families,” said Haigh. “It’s really heartbreaking. It’s human potential that’s just not being allowed to flourish.”

For the Rohingya, there are different levels of restriction when it comes to their access to education. For example, they are not allowed to attend “mixed” schools with ethnic Rakhine students (who are not Rohingya). There are schools in Muslim villages that they can attend, but there’s also a shortage of teachers for these schools, as they fear working there due to security concerns. Muslim students are not allowed to attend the university in Sittwe, the state capital, and Rohingya are not allowed to leave Rakhine State.

In addition to NVCs and household lists, Rohingya must also get permission in order to go anywhere — there’s no movement without a permit, even within Rakhine state, which is a tiny sliver of the country on the Bay of Bengal. The process for getting a travel permit — usually valid for only two weeks — is onerous:

Interviewees explained that to obtain the travel authorisation, they need to submit an application, including details of where they are travelling to, along with two passport photographs, a letter of recommendation from their Village or Ward Administrator, a copy of their household list and two letters of recommendation from relatives or neighbours and a payment of between 1-2,000 kyat (approx. US$0.75-1.5) to their Township Immigration Office (located in either Buthidaung or Maungdaw town). Assuming their documents are in order, they receive the Form 4, and must surrender their white card receipts to the Township Immigration Office, which they collect on their return.

A traveler caught without having a valid travel permit on his or her person, has to register at their destination and must deal with curfews, checkpoints, and other random, unforgiving security checkpoints along the way.

While there has been significant coverage of how hard it is for even UN and humanitarian groups to gain access to Rakhine during this crackdown, Haigh told ThinkProgress that access for to the Rohingya villages and camps was hard even before this latest round of violence.

“When you arrive in Sittwe airport there’s a very big sign that makes it clear that foreigners need special permission to go to certain areas, and those areas are mainly the Rohingya areas … it’s listed as “Bengali quarters,”‘ she said. Even AI researchers, who were granted permission to go to Rakhine, were subject constant checkpoints confirming their documentation and questioning.

This institutionalized control and restriction of the Rohingya population makes their future in the country — beyond the current crackdown — uncertain.

“This is the really big question: What does the future of Rakhine State look like? The security response and the authorities’ response to 2012 [when another major round of crackdowns occurred] was to segregate communities — [putting] Rohingya in camps, in villages that may as well be camps, because they can’t leave them … this is not a solution, this is an open-air prison,” said Haigh.

This is largely how the Rohingya describe their lives, she said. “The idea of being in an open-air prison or being caged, caged like a bird, is such a powerful image that just comes up over and over, and this is what’s going to be replicated if there isn’t serious acknowledgement of what has happened in Rakhine State over the last five years.”

But the consequences of inaction will go beyond Rakhine State and Myanmar.

“Anything that allows the current status quo to continue is going send a very alarming message … the global inaction at the moment, the reluctance to take any kind of concrete action to reign [the Myanmar military] in is just sending the message that these abuses can continue unchecked, and that they can go unpunished. And I think that the worry [is] that this [scenario] could replicate elsewhere,” said Haigh.