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Rohingya refugees ask for food at the Leda Rohingya refugee camp in Chittagong, Bangladesh. Photo: Getty Images

By Lindsay Murdoch
March 25, 2017

The Turnbull government has abruptly reversed its opposition to an international investigation into atrocities against Rohingya Muslims, including mass rapes, torture and the slaughter of babies. 

The government has co-sponsored a resolution at the United Nation's top human rights body in Geneva to send a fact-finding mission to Myanmar to investigate what the UN says could amount to ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

Human rights groups praised the 47-member forum for passing the resolution in Geneva on Friday without a vote and despite Myanmar saying it was "not acceptable."

Australia's late turn-around came after human rights groups condemned Canberra for calling on Myanmar to conduct its own investigation with international help into the atrocities in the country's Rakhine state, home to more than one million Rohingya. 

Investigations already underway in the Buddhist-majority country are considered a white-wash as the government lead by Aung San Suu Kyi has repeatedly denied widespread atrocities have taken place

Earlier in March, Australia told the Human Rights Council that despite evidence of serious human rights abuses, Canberra "considers a collaborative approach is the best way to help Myanmar address its human rights challenges."

The statement referred to the "scale and complexity of the transition that Myanmar is undergoing" and acknowledged "positive steps" taken by its government since taking office last year.

Australia's stand at that time ignored a motion passed unanimously in the Senate on February 16 urging the Turnbull government to consider pushing for a UN commission of inquiry. 

Greens Senator Scott Ludlam was last week denied leave to pass a motion in the Senate urging Australia to co-sponsor the resolution brought in the UN council by the European Union. 

"The mass murder and forced displacement of the Rohingya people in Myanmar is beyond belief and needs urgent international intervention," Senator Ludlam said.

"Instead the government even refused to contemplate a vote to this effect." 

Emily Howie, director of Legal Advocacy at Australia's Human Rights Law Centre, said that Australia, which is campaigning for a seat on the Human Rights Council, must show the world it has what it takes to protect victims of the world's most serious human rights abuses. 

"Support for international fact finding in Burma (Myanmar) is a step in the right direction," she said.

"However, true leadership requires more than hopping on other states' resolutions at the last minute." 

A devastating UN report last month based on interviews with 220 Rohingya who have fled to Bangladesh said Myanmar's security forces carried out a "calculated policy of terror" under the guise of a military lock-down of villages after attacks on police posts last October. 

The report described how soldiers stomped on the stomach of a woman in labour and slit the throat of an eight-month-old baby when he started crying because he wanted be breast-fed while his mother was being gang-raped. 

The Dalai Lama and Pope Francis were among world's leaders who called for Buddhists in Myanmar to end the violence. 

The council's motion calls for "ensuring full accountability for perpetrators and justice for victims." 

Australia's decision to co-sponsor the resolution is likely to deliver more support for its campaign for a two-year term on the council from 2018. 

"This decision is a credit to the Australian Government and sends a clear message that Australia can and will take a stand against human rights violations," said Marc Purcell, chief executive office of the Australian Council for International Development.

Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch, said establishing an independent, international fact finding mission was crucial for bringing justice and accountability for the protection of the Rohingya population, and could significantly contribute to preventing further atrocities.

"If Australia wins a seat on the council it will be even more important that Australia shows leadership on countries in crisis, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region," she said.

"It would be better if Australia came on board with co-sponsoring resolutions earlier in the process, investing diplomatic capital to help get other countries to also support resolutions."

A man carrying a portrait of Ko Ni clears a way for the arrival of the slain lawyer's grandson in Yangon, Myanmar, in January. (Thein Zaw / Associated Press)

By Shashank Bengali
March 25, 2017

U Ko Ni had just stepped off a plane and was standing curbside at the airport in Yangon, the largest city in Myanmar. The tall, gray-haired lawyer cradled his 3-year-old grandson while passengers around him spoke on their phones or climbed into taxis.

No one seemed to notice as a man in shorts and sandals sidled up behind Ko Ni, drew a 9-millimeter pistol inches from his head and pulled the trigger.

The fatal shooting not only silenced one of Myanmar’s most prominent legal experts, it exposed the dangers lurking below the surface of this former military dictatorship’s fitful transition to democracy.

In the old Myanmar — previously known as Burma and ruled by a junta for a half-century — political activists routinely disappeared into prisons or died in murky circumstances. Then in 2010, the military began ceding authority to civilians.

Pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi’s party won a parliamentary majority in 2015 elections, and last October the Obama administration lifted economic sanctions, formalizing Myanmar’s reentry into the global community.

But the military establishment still wields immense clout in this Southeast Asian nation of 53 million, authority enshrined in the constitution it passed in 2008 shortly before initiating reforms.

Ko Ni had spent the last several years drafting a new constitution that would have unwound many of the army’s powers, and his killing in January has shaken civil society leaders who see it as a warning to reformers.

“Those who did this did not tolerate progress,” said Myo Win, a Muslim activist who heads the Smile Education and Development Foundation, a nonprofit group in Yangon. “Of course, the rest of us are worried.”

Authorities say the assassination was a plot by three former military officers who hired an ex-convict to carry it out. The gunman and two other suspects have been arrested while the third, a retired army lieutenant colonel, remains at large.

Ko Ni’s grandson survived the shooting, but the gunman also killed a taxi driver who pursued him.

The home affairs minister, Lt. Gen. Kyaw Swe, said the suspects were motivated by “extreme patriotism” and angered by posts Ko Ni had written on social media. He did not specify the writings. But few figures represented a greater challenge to Myanmar’s establishment than the 63-year-old Ko Ni.

Besides advising Suu Kyi’s National League of Democracy party and defending the rights of his fellow Muslims in a Buddhist-dominated country, he was, behind the scenes, pushing a bold gambit to abolish the army-written constitution.

The document gives the army control of the entire civil service, and Ko Ni had told friends that as long as that provision remained in place, “the military is basically still running the country,” said Bertil Lintner, an author and commentator who has worked on Myanmar since the 1980s.

The army effectively holds veto power over any constitutional changes because a three-quarters majority in parliament is required to pass amendments, and one-quarter of seats are reserved for the military. Ko Ni thought he had found an opening: Scrap the constitution with a simply majority vote in parliament.

“There is nothing in the 2008 constitution that says it can’t be abolished with a single vote,” said Lintner, a longtime friend. “He was a constitutional expert, and very good at finding loopholes."

He had already devised the strategy that allowed Suu Kyi — the country’s most popular political figure — to lead the government after the 2015 elections. Sidestepping a constitutional provision that barred her from becoming president because her late husband had foreign citizenship, Ko Ni’s solution was to create the powerful post of state counselor, which sits above the president.

But Suu Kyi thought Ko Ni’s plan to do away with the constitution was “too provocative,” Lintner said. Although party officials said they remained committed to constitutional reform, many experts believe Ko Ni was uniquely qualified to lead the effort.

“With the loss of its chief technician and advocate, the constitutional reform process will almost certainly be stalled,” said Richard Weir, a fellow with the Asia division of Human Rights Watch.

Ko Ni often discussed his ideas in public forums and with journalists, including foreign reporters with whom he spoke in English. Last September, he confided in activist Myo Win that he felt threatened.

“Someone close to the military came and told him that he was their second-biggest enemy after Shwe Mann,” Myo Win said, referring to the former head of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party who was ousted in 2015 for pushing constitutional reforms.

The following month, when Ko Ni spoke at a conference in the northeast city of Lashio, the audience of 200 or so attendees was joined by about 10 plainclothes officers from military intelligence.

“They always knew where he was,” Myo Win said.

But Ko Ni kept his fears from his family. His son Thant Zin Oo, a 29-year-old software engineer in Singapore, noticed the abuses hurled at him on social media sites but thought they were harmless.

“He did not mention anything that could cause us any concern, although there was online harassment constantly,” his son said.

Some of the vitriol he faced derived from Ko Ni’s faith. Muslims, who account for fewer than 5% of Myanmar’s population, have often been targeted by a surging Buddhist nationalism — particularly in western Rakhine state, where members of the Rohingya ethnic group are denied citizenship and have been systematically persecuted.

Ko Ni was not Rohingya but spoke out about the injustices faced by the group. He also criticized his own party for failing to field any Muslim candidates in the 2015 elections, an apparent effort to placate Buddhist extremists.

“I can think of many Muslim lawyers in Myanmar who very deliberately keep a much lower profile,” said Melissa Crouch, a senior lecturer at the University of New South Wales law school in Sydney, Australia, and an expert on Myanmar’s constitution. “He stood out.”

But over the last year, Crouch said, Ko Ni had come to believe that space for free speech was narrowing. Last November, when she invited him to speak in Yangon on a panel about constitutional issues — the type of event he usually welcomed — he refused.

“In Myanmar there are invisible lines and you never quite know when you’re going to step on them,” Crouch said. “And now that message has been very clearly understood.”

The day he was killed, he was returning from Indonesia, where he had traveled as part of a government delegation to share experiences of political reconciliation. Mya Aye, a Muslim activist who was part of the delegation, said Ko Ni had openly discussed the need for political reforms.

Both men had been targets of extremists before. In 2014, the National League of Democracy party had to cancel a public event after Buddhist monks protested the inclusion of the two men because they were Muslim.

“It’s never been safe for political activists in Myanmar,” Mya Aye said, “and now it is getting worse.”

Suu Kyi’s government has offered a mixed response to the assassination. The morning after his death, which made headlines worldwide, the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper ran the story on its inside pages. Suu Kyi waited one month before making a public statement, calling Ko Ni’s death a “deep loss” but stopping short of a full-throated appeal for justice.

Allies said she has been careful to avoid antagonizing military generals to maintain a working relationship — and because she might fear for her own safety.

“It seems she can’t do much,” Mya Aye said. “She might be thinking that to be vocal would cause unnecessary problems. But she needs to speak out for justice.”

Whether a plot to kill Ko Ni reached higher into the military establishment may never be known. Activists have already criticized the conduct of the investigation.

The police and army, which are running the probe together, waited three weeks to hold their first news conference. The home minister, Kyaw Swe, also raised eyebrows when he suggested without elaborating that Ko Ni’s “community” — a veiled reference to Muslims — might have killed him.

Ko Ni’s relatives say they won’t judge the investigation until it is over. Asked whether those responsible for his father’s killing would see justice, Thant Zin Oo said, “We have hope.”

Tens of thousands of Rohingya have fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh

March 25, 2017

Myanmar on Saturday rejected the UN rights council's decision to investigate allegations that security officers have murdered, raped and tortured Rohingya Muslims, saying the probe would only "inflame" the conflict.

The Geneva-based body agreed Friday to "urgently" dispatch a fact-finding mission to the Southeast Asian country, focusing on claims that police and soldiers have carried out a bloody crackdown on the Rohingya in Rakhine state.

The army operation, launched in October after militants killed nine policemen, has sent tens of thousands of Rohingya fleeing across the border to Bangladesh.

Escapees have given UN investigators gruesome accounts of security officers stabbing babies to death, burning people alive and committing widespread gang rape.

The reports have heaped enormous pressure on the one-year-old civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel laureate who won global acclaim for her decades-long democracy struggle against the former military junta.

Her administration lacks control over the armed forces but has vigorously swatted back calls for an international investigation into the recent Rakhine bloodshed, disappointing rights groups.

On Saturday Myanmar's foreign affairs ministry stopped short of pledging to block the UN-backed probe but said it "has dissociated itself from the resolution as a whole".

"The establishment of an international fact-finding mission would do more to inflame, rather than resolve the issues at this time," it added.

Myanmar's government is carrying out its own domestic inquiry into possible crimes in Rakhine.

But rights groups and the UN have dismissed the body, which is led by retired general turned Vice President Myint Swe, as toothless and inadequate.

The recent crackdown is only the latest conflict to pile misery on the stateless Rohingya, who are denied citizenship and face brutal discrimination in the Buddhist-majority country.

More than 120,000 Rohingya have languished in grim displacement camps ever since bouts of religious violence between Muslims and Buddhists ripped through Rakhine state in 2012.

Most are not allowed to leave the squalid encampments, where they live in dilapidated shelters with little access to food, education and healthcare.

Asia is 8 months pregnant as she stands for a photo with her son in the Balu Kali refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, on Jan. 17, 2017. Allison Joyce—Getty Images

By Feliz Solomon
March 24, 2017

The U.N. Human Rights Council agreed Friday to create an international fact-finding mission into alleged rights violations in Myanmar, particularly against the country's Rohingya Muslims, a stateless minority that has suffered decades of persecution in the western state of Rakhine.

A resolution adopted by consensus says the 47-member council has decided to "dispatch urgently an independent international fact-finding mission" to investigate allegations that may amount to crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing, "with a view to ensure full accountability for perpetrators and justice for victims."

The U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, had initially urged the council to establish a full commission of inquiry, the body's most powerful investigative tool, but members ultimately reached a compromise on a fact-finding mission that Myanmar and its neighbors would be more likely to agree to. While the resolution passed, Myanmar and several other nations, including the Philippines, "disassociated" themselves from the resolution in whole or in part.

The mission will likely focus on events that unfolded since Oct. 9 of last year, when Myanmar's army and other state security forces began what they called "clearance operations" in the northern part of Rakhine state in response to a deadly attack on border patrols by suspected Rohingya insurgents.

Tens of thousands of refugees poured over the border into Bangladesh in the weeks and months that followed, arriving with harrowing accounts of gang-rape, torture, arson and extrajudicial killing. A U.N. flash report published in early February, based on interviews with more than 200 victims, details the alleged atrocities, concluding the "likely commission of crimes against humanity."

Amnesty International's Director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, Champa Patel, welcomed the "long overdue step" of establishing an international probe, urging the U.N. to "waste no time turning words into action" and to appoint gender-based violence and children's rights experts to the panel, given the high volume of violations alleged against women and children.

"The people of Myanmar in general and the Rohingya community in particular have the right to know the full truth, as does the international community," Patel said in a statement to the media.

The Myanmar government, led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, has largely denied the allegations, claiming that the international community is exaggerating the gravity of the events. The credibility and impartiality of domestic inquiries, including one headed by Vice President and former General Myint Swe, has been called into question by U.N. officials and rights groups. The resolution recognized, however, that the Myanmar government "notes the seriousness" of the contents of the flash report, acknowledged domestic efforts to investigate and called on the government to "consider assistance" to strengthen them.

The resolution is the most serious intervention to date into the crisis in Rakhine, an impoverished state bordering Bangladesh where most of Myanmar's 1.1 million Rohingya live. The rapporteur warned last week that the government "may be trying to expel the Rohingya population from the country altogether.” An estimated 94,000 Rohingya have been displaced since October, most of them to Bangladesh.

Violence between minority Muslims and the majority Rakhine Buddhists in the state capital Sittwe that began in 2012 displaced more than 100,000 Rohingya, most of whom still live in squalid displacement camps which they are not allowed to leave. Lee's initial request for an inquiry also called for a probe into the events leading up to the 2012 exodus, which remain a mystery.

It is unclear whether the 2012 violence will fall within the scope of the newly established fact-finding mission.

The Myanmar government has kept in place long-standing policies of state discrimination, such as a 1982 citizenship law linking political rights to ethnic identity; restrictions on family life; and excessive regulations governing access to healthcare, education and employment that appear to amount to apartheid.

A commission chaired by former U.N. chief Kofi Annan at the behest of Suu Kyi has been tasked with making recommendations to alleviate the crisis. The panel, which has no investigative mandate, published its initial guidance last week, calling on the government to allow unfettered humanitarian access to all people affected by the recent violence, many of whom have been completely unreachable for more than five months due to the lockdown.

Annan's commission also called on Suu Kyi's government to allow media access to affected areas, pursue accountability for alleged human rights violations, establish a clear path to citizenship and close all displacement camps in the state.

The wide-ranging U.N. resolution adopted Friday also addresses a number of other human rights concerns in the country, notably including an escalation in charges of criminal defamation targeting journalists, politicians and social media users.

Yanghee Lee, special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on March 13, 2017. © 2017 Reuters

March 24, 2017

Human Rights Council Orders International Fact-Finding Mission

Geneva – The United Nations Human Rights Council on March 24, 2017, took a key step toward preventing future abuses and bringing justice for victims in Burma by adopting a strong resolution condemning violations and making significant recommendations, Human Rights Watch said today.

The resolution authorizes the council president to urgently dispatch an independent, international fact-finding mission to Burma. The mission would establish the facts and circumstances of alleged recent human rights violations, particularly against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State, to ensure “full accountability for perpetrators and justice for victims.”

“The Human Rights Council’s authorization of an international fact-finding mission is crucial for ensuring that allegations of serious human rights abuses in Burma are thoroughly examined by experts, and to ensure that those responsible will ultimately be held accountable,” said John Fisher, Geneva director. “Burma’s government should cooperate fully with the mission, including by providing unfettered access to all affected areas.”

The fact-finding mission will examine allegations of arbitrary detention, torture, rape and other sexual violence, and destruction of property by Burmese security forces during “clearance operations” against ethnic Rohingya Muslims in northern Rakhine State. The “clearance operations” followed an October 9, 2016 attack by Rohingya militants on border guard posts that reportedly killed nine police officers. The mission will include expertise in forensics as well as on sexual and gender-based violence.

Human Rights Watch, along with other groups, has documented widespread and serious abuses against Rohingya by Burmese military and police in Rakhine State, including extrajudicial killings, systematic rape, and the burning of numerous Rohingya villages. The UN estimates that more than 1,000 people died in the crackdown, from October through December.

The resolution also says that Burma should continue to address systemic and institutionalized discrimination against the Rohingya and other ethnic and religious minorities, amend or repeal all discriminatory legislation and policies, and take measures for the safe return of all internally displaced people and refugees. Approximately 120,000 Rohingya remain displaced in Rakhine State as a result of violence in 2012. About 100,000 of them are in closed camps near Sittwe, the state capital, where they are living in squalid conditions, many of them in rice fields prone to seasonal flooding. The violence since October has created an additional 25,000 internally displaced people in Burma and led to the flight of 74,000 more to neighboring Bangladesh.

The resolution also addresses other important human rights concerns in Burma. These include the use of criminal defamation laws against journalists, politicians, students, and social media users in violation of their right to free expression; restrictions on peaceful assembly; and the continued use of child soldiers by both state and non-state actors. The Human Rights Council also cited the recent killings of constitutional expert and National League for Democracy advisor U Ko Ni, environmental activist Naw Chit Pan Daing, and journalist Soe Moe Tun. It called on Burma to reform all laws restricting the rights to freedom of expression, assembly, and association; release all remaining political prisoners; and ensure thorough, impartial, and independent investigations into the recent killings.

“The violations occurring in Rakhine State threaten to undo Burma’s hard-won progress toward a more rights-respecting and democratic future,” Fisher said. “Burma’s government should make full use of the Human Rights Council resolution to address the major human rights challenges ahead.”

By Dr. Ali Al-Ghamdi
March 23, 2017

KOFI Annan, former secretary general of the United Nations, recently released an interim report in his capacity as the head of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State in Myanmar.

Aung San Suu Kyi, state counselor and foreign minister of Myanmar, constituted last September the commission to propose concrete measures to end tensions and improve the welfare of all people in the northwestern state of Rakhine. This move was apparently aimed at reducing the global pressure on her government over the atrocities being perpetrated against the Rohingya Muslims in the restive state. By this act, she also wanted to divert attention from the criticism leveled against her personally.

It is a well-known fact that the entire world stood by her when she was put under house arrest by the military junta, when it ruled the country with an iron fist. Myanmar had remained isolated from the rest of the world for more than half a century during the military rule. Succumbing to the global pressure, the junta released her from the captivity and subsequently she became the leader of the country and her party, the National League for Democracy, which won a landslide victory 2015 elections. However, Suu Kyi has so far done nothing to halt the killing, driving out of homes and other gross human rights violations being committed against the Rohingya Muslims.

It was not expected that Annan would take over this suspicious and mysterious mission at the expense of his reputation and credibility especially when taking into account the fact that the commission was established by the Myanmar government to mislead and deceive the world. Is there any justification for the creation of such a panel by those who continue committing crimes against humanity and bless the ethnic cleansing and genocide being carried out against the Rohingya Muslim minority in the country? These atrocities are being perpetrated not secretively but in broad daylight since long time. The global bodies like the United Nations and the rights bodies such as the UN Human Rights Council, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch are fully aware of the gravity of these crimes.

Several prominent international figures also came out heavily against the persecution of the unarmed Rohingya people. South African bishop and Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu is one among them. Addressing the Rohingya conference in Oslo earlier, Tutu said: “In the wake of the continuous persecution being meted out to the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, we have a responsibility toward them through enabling them to restore their stripped citizenship and securing their fundamental human rights.” He described the plight of the Rohingya as one of the most enduring human rights crises on the earth.

Addressing the Oslo conference, prominent philanthropist and business tycoon George Soros said the greatest threat facing democracy in Myanmar is the hostility toward Rohingya and the deprivation of their fundamental rights. The Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader, also came out in support of these persecuted minorities. He urged Suu Kyi to grant the Rohingya their fundamental rights. All these global figures and many others know well about the atrocities being perpetrated by the Buddhist extremists against these hapless people. They have been killed, driven out of their homes, their homes and mosques set on fire with the clandestine blessings of the authorities. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims fled Rakhine in order to escape death. Many of them perished in the sea while attempting to reach neighboring countries. Several human traffickers were also involved in the perilous journey of the Rohingya boat people.

Anybody, who examines the preface of the interim report of Annan, can easily understand that he has played the role of a false witness while reviewing the situation in Rakhine. In his statement, he never uttered the word Rohingya even at a single time. By which apparently he fulfills the desire of the Myanmar authorities, including the Nobel Peace laureate Suu Kyi, who is supposed to have received this prestigious prize for defending democracy and the human rights.

It is interesting to note that the first word of Annan in a press conference, held a few days ago to release the interim report of the Commission, was that the situation in Rakhine state after Oct. 9, 2016 was different from the situation that prevailed before that date. His statement showed as if he has come to help resolve a minor problem between two factions of people who are equal in their rights and duties. He forgot or pretended to forget that the problem is much deeper and complex than he attempted to portray. The problem of Rohingya in Rakhine is the problem of around 1.5 million persecuted Muslims who have been living for several centuries. Now, there have been deliberate attempts to drive them out of this state through killing, displacement and intimidation.

According to an earlier report of the UN, the Rohingya Muslims are the most persecuted minority in the world. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fled to Bangladesh as well as to Makkah. Recently, several others fled to Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. Their desperate flight is the best example for the severity of persecution being meted out to them in their homeland.

The problem of Rohingya Muslims cannot be solved simply through formation of a commission by the Myanmar authorities who themselves are accountable for the creation of this very problem. The authorities tried and continue trying to put an end to this problem through liquidating these hapless people through ethnic cleansing or genocide. It is very unfortunate that these atrocities are being perpetrated unabatedly even after Suu Kyi’s party won a landslide victory. Now, the soldiers and the security forces have become the culprits in the killing, rape and expulsion. After all this, Annan comes and openly declares that the ongoing gross violation of the human rights does not come in the purview of the mandate entrusted on him and his team.

In such a scenario, what is the minimum thing expected from him by the international community is to demand the constitution of an international impartial commission to carry out probe into the killing, rape, ethnic cleansing, and other gross human rights violations being committed in Rakhine by the Myanmar authorities.

Dr. Ali Al-Ghamdi is a former Saudi diplomat who specializes in Southeast Asian affairs. He can be reached at

Rohingya refugees wait at roadside for help near Kutupalong refugee camp, Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh on Feb. 13, 2017. (Photo by Turjoy Chowdhury/Sipa USA via AP)

By Joanne Lu
March 23, 2017

Cyclone season is right around the corner in Bangladesh, and tens of thousands of unregistered Rohingya Muslim migrants living in makeshift camps are at risk.

Since Myanmar’s military began its deadly crackdown on Rohingya Muslims in October, more than 74,000 people have crossed the border into Bangladesh, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates.

The recent influx adds to the 300,000 to 500,000 Muslims who have sought refuge in Bangladesh over the last 30 years. But, according to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), only about 33,000 are registered refugees living in official camps. The rest are living in overcrowded makeshift camps or host communities with limited infrastructure and public services.

“People are existing in very difficult circumstances,” Azmat Ulla, the head of the IFRC Bangladesh office, said in a press release. “Most don’t have access to regular medical services and they are not getting enough food or sufficient nutrition.”

“Shelter is also a big issue,” Ulla added. “Many are living in sub-standard temporary structures. We need to scale up our support, particularly as there will be additional challenges ahead with the onset of the flood and cyclone season.”

The IFRC launched an emergency appeal on Monday before flood and cyclone season hits in April. The relief organization hopes to raise $3.2 million for food aid, shelter materials, clean water, sanitation and health care for 25,000 of the new arrivals over a nine-month period.

According to the IFRC, Bangladesh Red Crescent Society volunteers will also be trained to provide psycho-social support to the migrant families as they grapple with the emotional distress of traumatic experiences in Myanmar and an uncertain future in Bangladesh.

A recent U.N. report found the “likely commission of crimes against humanity” in the military’s crackdown on Rohingya communities after an insurgent attack on Oct. 9. But even before the security operation, the 1.1 million Rohingya Muslim population was denied citizenship and basic rights, because the government and the state’s majority Buddhists considered them illegal migrants from Bangladesh, not an ethnic minority. Confined to squalid internally displaced persons (IDP) camps or heavily guarded villages, they have been named among the most persecuted people in the world.

But in neighboring Bangladesh, where they are seeking refuge, their reception is chilly as well. Local residents and leaders complain that Rohingya migrants are taking their jobs and increasing the drug trade.

“Local population, local leaders are extremely unhappy about this influx,” H.T. Imam, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s political adviser, said, according to Reuters. “They displace laborers by undercutting locals. Ya ba [methamphetamine]trade is flourishing due to them.”

Instead, Bangladesh wants to move them to an island called Thengar Char that only emerged from the ocean 11 years ago, floods at high tide and disappears completely for three months every year during monsoon season. It’s currently uninhabited except by a handful of water buffalo and pirates and criminals who make use of it occasionally. There are no roads, no fresh water, no cell service. It would take years – and lots of money – to make the island inhabitable.

In the meantime, the Rohingya continue to face an uncertain and bleak future. An announcement by Myanmar’s de facto leader, Nobel laureate Aun San Suu Kyi, that she would reconsider granting citizenship to Rohingya was met with large protests last week. Those who have fled Myanmar are also being crossed off official household lists, leaving them legally unable to return.

Those who stay put will soon face cyclones and floods, which usually causes mass evacuations along Bangladesh’s coast and widespread crop and property damage. In their makeshift camps, the Rohingya will once again be hit the hardest.

Joanne Lu is a South Carolina-based writer and editor dedicated to global development, poverty alleviation and social justice. After a year in Rwanda, she now covers the Asia-Pacific and economics. Find her on Twitter @joannelu or email

By Liz Mys and Andrew Day
RB Article
March 22, 2017

Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh 

“In some camps there are latrines in front of their dwellings upon the mazes of long bamboo sheds. They are choked with the blackest rancid bubbly mixture of everything nasty that you can possibly imagine from excrement to dead animals. Mosquitoes hovering over their putrid breeding ground just inches from where thousands of people are laying on the mud floors of their huts. In the midst of the hot season, the gunk in the latrines thicken into a bog like mixture.- Andrew Day 

Unlike the Kutapalong Registered camp where the main source of water is ground water, with tube wells (one functioning tube well to 107 families on average), Nayapara camp, which is in Teknaf sub district beside the river Naf and groundwater is not available due to hydrological constrains. 

In order to provide water in the Nayapara camp, an artificial reservoir was constructed within the boundary of the camp. Drinking water is supplied through a pipe line network and during the dry season, water is trucked in to the camp. 

Nayapara. Photos by Andrew Day 

The operating time of the water taps is 2 hours per day, though it is of one cause of discrepancy. The families report that they only manage to collect 3 to 4 containers per family per day, 6 to 8 liters. For an average family of 6 or more this ration is hardly enough and well below the 15 to 20 liters recommended.

Leda Unregistered Camp
Nayapara Registered Camp 

The water they are getting to drink and to cook with, depending on where you are will come from a dirty ravine, shallow tune wells or pumped from reservoirs. The quality of water is terrible. Most of the water sources begin to dry up at the end of the hot season, before the rain comes, making supply scarce.

Men can bathe with a bucket standing by a tube well, or some will go to the murky brown water that has collected in an ablution pond at some of the larger mosques. The women can’t do so as easily without harassment. 

In these densely populated areas, many women can only hope for a small water pail to wash themselves inside their huts.

The rain will finally come during the monsoon season. The heavy downpours will cause the latrines to flood over and the hellish contents therein flows into their sleeping quarters and saturates all their possessions. Their clothes, their cooking pot, whatever that has not been taken away by the current of flood water, which when it gets so bad could rise up to chest high of this bacteria laden runoff.” – Andrew Day

In between the refugee camps, local thugs rule the areas and harass the Refugees living there. This Refugee woman from Leda Camp showing us the crushed water jugs – a harassment against the refugees preventing them from collecting water from the stream.

“It is dangerous in the forest where we go to collect wood or dry leaves, there are robbers, or villagers or forest ranger demand money from us. They sometimes take our tools or beat is until we pay. But we don’t have money to pay”. – Refugee, Leda Camp

Many have told stories of beatings from thugs and police for something as basic as collecting water from a nearby stream. Women folk tells of how they are stopped, verbally abused and raped if they are intercepted by these men. These incidents doesn’t get reported to the authorities as their statuses of being unregistered deem them illegal and unprotected by any laws.

The access to clean and safe water everywhere is a problem. Very few water sources are ever tested but with the shallow wells and reservoirs so overlapped with sewage, it is inevitable that eating and drinking will make them sick.

These unnecessary circumstances are breeding grounds for infections and typhoid is a reoccurring condition or rather a perpetual one, to the point where fevers and vomiting are not to be taken as cause for alarm because they are so common. A common combination is typhoid with anemia and most likely a bacterial skin disease. 

Skin diseases are common and spreads easily in the communities due to the unhygienic living conditions, poor sanitation and polluted water. Photo by Andrew Day
Living is impossible when people are eating and drinking traces of faeces daily. That’s if they have anything to eat at all. 

Many unregistered Rohingya live in unofficial refugee settlements, where malnutrition rampant. In one makeshift camp, the global acute malnutrition rate is at 30%, double of emergency threshold. 

But despite of this, the government has denied permits for aid agencies to assist unregistered refugees, stating that medical, food, drinking water and training facilities run by the charities were encouraging an influx of Rohingya to the country.

Borrowing, lending, trading, selling and buying food are common coping mechanisms among the refugees to compensate for the food deficit. Those who are registered also share their food rations with those who are not. There have also been reported incidences of forced sale of food rations to local villagers which have been instigated and aided by camp personnel, the Mahjees and local thugs.

“I have to borrow sometimes up to five kilograms of food a week to feed my family.” Nayapara refugee, family of 14.

The dry season and monsoon season each year poses a huge risk to the people living in these areas. 
Much help is needed in building safe access to clean water and to build lavatories for the communities.  

According to UNHCR the recent influx of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, saw 70,000 people cross over to Bangladesh since October 2016. From the 1990s, the country has had a huge number of refugees who fled the persecution and violence against them. The number of refugees in Bangladesh is reported to be almost 1 Million in total, only 10% refugees able to receive aid in the UN registered camps. 

Adding to the already huge number of refugee in the country, these families are currently living in makeshift tents around the border areas. Some 2000 families are reported to be hiding in the forests. 

With the monsoon season expected in 2 months time and almost right in the middle of the month of Ramadan, these families will have to face an event more dire situation on top of lack of food and medical care. 

• UNHCR seeks equal treatment for all Rohingya in Bangladesh

A Rohingya refugee disabled man waits in a makeshift stretcher after he was taken by relatives to visit a doctor at Kutupalang unregistered Refugee Camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, March 2, 2017. Picture taken March 2, 2017. REUTERS/Claudia Jardim

By Nita Bhalla
March 21, 2017

NEW DELHI - Tens of thousands of Muslims who have fled violence in northern Myanmar are living in "extremely poor" conditions in neighbouring Bangladesh and need better shelter as the country's cyclone season approaches, the Red Cross said on Monday. 

Some 75,000 Rohingya people from Rakhine state have arrived in Bangladesh since Myanmar's military began a security operation last October, in response to what it says was an attack by Rohingya insurgents on border posts. 

Many refugees are living in "unplanned and overcrowded settlements" in Bangladesh's Cox's Bazar district, said the Red Cross, and do not have adequate food, clean water, shelter materials or medicines.

"Most don't have access to regular medical services and they are not getting enough food or sufficient nutrition," said Azmat Ulla, Bangladesh Head of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, in a statement.

"Shelter is also a big issue. Many are living in sub-standard temporary structures. We need to scale up our support, particularly as there will be additional challenges ahead with the onset of the flood and cyclone season."

Bangladesh's April to December cyclone season often causes mass evacuations from coastal low-lying villages and widespread crop and property damage.

Cox's Bazar, located on the southeast coast, is prone to the cyclones formed in the Bay of Bengal -- and some of the most vulnerable residents are the thousands of displaced Rohingya people who live in make-shift camps in the district.

Rohingya Muslims have been fleeing apartheid-like conditions in northwestern Myanmar, where they are denied citizenship, since the early 1990s. There are now at least 300,000 who have crossed into Bangladesh, according to the Red Cross.

Around 30,000 are registered as refugees and are living in the two official camps in Cox's Bazar. But most are in makeshift camps or with host communities, said the Red Cross, where they lack access to basics such as toilets and healthcare.

A U.N. report last month, based on interviews with survivors in Bangladesh, said the Myanmar army and police had committed mass killings and gang rapes of Rohingya in a campaign that may amount to crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.

(Reporting by Nita Bhalla, Editing by Ros Russell.)
Members of the Maungdaw Investigation Commission arrive at the airport in Sittwe, western Myanmar's Rakhine state, Feb. 1, 2017. (Photo: RFA)

March 21, 2017

Investigators from a Myanmar commission probing reports of recent violence against Rohingya Muslims in the northern part of restive Rakhine state will draft a “balanced” report based on fact-finding missions in Rakhine villages and refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh, where tens of thousands of the minority group have fled from a crackdown, a member of the body said Tuesday.

Members of the Maungdaw Investigation Commission, appointed by the Rakhine state parliament last October, have wrapped up a fact-finding trip to the area and will soon meet with another group of members from the body that went to Bangladesh, said commission member Saw Thalay Saw.

“Most of them [residents of the affected townships in northern Rakhine] are getting back to their business, and they have been receiving help from the state government and international nongovernmental organizations,” she said. 

“We will hold a meeting about our visits and will work on reaching a decision about them,” she said. 

Maungdaw Commission members went to northern Rakhine state on March 17 and met with border guard police and local government officials, as well as with resettled families and individuals who fled during the October attacks, Myanmar News Agency reported

The commission members also discussed plans to ensure health care, shelter, and food for residents, the report said.

The commission’s two groups will discuss having a balanced point of view from both sides—Rohingya who accuse security forces of committing atrocities against them and ethnic Rakhine villagers whose accounts differ from those of the Rohingya, Saw Thalay Saw said.

Some Rohingya have accused Myanmar security forces of carrying out extrajudicial killings, torture, arson and rape during a four-month crackdown following a deadly attack on local border guard posts last October that was blamed on Rohingya militants.

About 1,000 people have died during the security operations, and more than 77,000 have fled mainly to Bangladesh where they have sought refuge in displaced persons camps.

The group from the Maungdaw Investigation Commission that went to Bangladesh to talk to Rohingya about the alleged rights abuses has completed its trip.

Ten investigators questioned about 35 Rohingya in relief camps in southern Bangladesh, who gave accounts of persecution and horrors they faced, according to a report by TRT World, the international news platform of the Turkish Radio and Television Corp.

Saw Thalay Saw, who is also a lawmaker from Shwegyin in Bago region, told RFA’s Myanmar Service last week that the group was going to Bangladesh to investigate what happened to those who fled Myanmar and to check both sides in order to get complete information.

It is not known when the commission will complete its second report and submit it to the Rakhine state government. The first report was submitted to Rakhine lawmakers on Dec. 27, 2016.

No proper strategy

In February, the commission completed another fact-finding mission in the affected areas to investigate United Nations’ allegations of human rights violations against Rohingya Muslims in northern Rakhine that said abuses committed by soldiers and police during the crackdown indicated “the very likely commission of crimes against humanity.”

At the time, Saw Thalay Saw told RFA that the commission members visited several villages in Maungdaw township, one of the areas under security lockdown, and investigated the differences between the U.N. report and the situation on the ground.

Rights groups have criticized the investigation commission and three others set up by President Htin Kyaw, the Myanmar army, and the police to look into reports of atrocities against the Rohingya during the security operations.

The Rohingya face routine discrimination in Buddhist-majority Myanmar where they are denied citizenship and other basic rights.

“All problems in Rakhine from the past and present have occurred because each government has been unable to solve them with the proper strategy,” Rakhine state lawmaker Zaw Zaw Myint told RFA on Tuesday. 

He went on to say that the situation in Rakhine will never be resolved as long as the rights of the ethnic Buddhist Rakhine people are not taken into consideration. 

‘Crimes against humanity’

U.N. special rapporteur to Myanmar Yanghee Lee, who recently visited the affected areas in northern Rakhine state and Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh, told CNN on Monday that the violence could indicate crimes against humanity committed in the Southeast Asia nation.

When Lee visited refugee camps in Bangladesh, she spoke with more than 140 people about the reports of indiscriminate killings, arson, torture, and rape during the four-month-long-security operations in northern Rakhine state.

When asked by CNN if the crisis in Rakhine amounted to genocide, she said, “I would not use that word right now, but …from the allegations I heard and from where I saw it, it could amount to crimes against humanity.”

Though Lee has called for a U.N. inquiry commission to look into the recent violence against the Rohingya in Rakhine state, she said the “international community really did not have the appetite for it.” 

On March 16, the European Union submitted a draft resolution to the U.N. Human Rights Council calling for an immediate international probe of human rights violations by the military against Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. 

Members of the Human Rights Council will vote on the resolution this week.

Reported by Waiyan Moe Myint and Min Theing Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

Bangladesh coast guards walk in the Thengar Char island in the Bay of Bengal, Bangladesh, Feb. 2, 2017.

By Paul Alexander
March 21, 2017

Bangladesh has proposed moving an influx of refugees from Myanmar to an isolated island that only emerged from the sea 11 years ago, partially floods at high tide and disappears completely for three months during the annual monsoon season.

Local officials say extensive time – likely years -- and work would be required, at significant expense, to make Thengar Char habitable. The only regular residents now are a handful of water buffalo, though pirates and other criminals reportedly make use of it occasionally.

The prospect of living there is leading some of the ethnic Rohingya refugees to return to homes they fled due to rapes, arson and extrajudicial killings that they blame largely on Myanmar’s powerful military.

“There was a lot of concern among the refugees when they heard about it,” said Vivian Tan, a U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees representative who has been involved in the Rohingya issue. “They heard no one lives there. They’re concerned about food. They’re concerned about drinking water. They’re concerned with where they can live. There’s a huge flood risk. It sounds like it’s not very hospitable.”

Thengar Char was formed by the 1 billion tons of silt that flow every year from the peaks of the Himalayas to the turbid waters of Bangladesh’s Meghna estuary in the Bay of Bengal. About 59 kilometers and a two-hour boat ride from the coast, it covers about 186 square kilometers, much of it marshy with a shoreline that looks ready to crumble.

The monsoons bring not only heavy rains that swamp the island, but strong winds that also concern aid agencies. Human Rights Watch has called it a “human rights and humanitarian disaster in the making.” There are no roads, let alone cell phone service.

One key reason for wanting to move the refugees is clear. Two camps of registered Rohingyas (there are about 6 other smaller camps with non-registered Rohingyas) are located at Cox’s Bazaar, a district that includes a long beach that Bangladesh would like to develop for tourism. But the government finds itself stuck between the needs of its own impoverished populace and international policies against forcing refugees to return to the conditions that they fled.

Rohingya refugees collect aid supplies including food and medicine, sent from Malaysia, at Kutupalang Unregistered Refugee Camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, Feb. 15, 2017.

“UNHCR has been very clear: there has to be a feasibility study, there must be consultation, and it must be voluntary,” Tan said. “There needs to be a clear overview on what needs to be done for better planning.”

The estimated 1 million Rohingya, who are mostly Muslims, face official and social discrimination in Myanmar and are generally denied citizenship, even if their families have lived there for generations.

A wave of Rohingya crossed into Bangladesh from Rakhine state in 2012 to flee violence from the country’s Buddhist majority, and others have left since then. However, Rohingyas started to cross inside Bangladesh in 1978. Bangladesh broached the idea of a relocation plan in 2014.

On October 9, nine policemen were killed in Rakhine in an attack blamed on Rohingya insurgents. Myanmar's military launched a "clearance operation" in the area to ferret out the insurgents. Soon after the four-month operation started, Rohingya began fleeing the area, accusing soldiers, police and local Buddhist groups who accompanied the forces during the raids, of abuses, including rapes, killings and arson. UNHCR has said the actions very likely constituted "crimes against humanity."

The ruins of a market that was set on fire are seen at a Rohingya village outside Maugndaw in Rakhine state, Myanmar, Oct. 27, 2016.

Myanmar’s military has denied any abuses and says only 100 Rohingya were killed, while two senior U.N. officials working among the refugees said more than 1,000 may have died. About 100,000 are estimated to have left, 70,000 to Bangladesh and 30,000 elsewhere in Myanmar.

Bangladesh doesn’t really know how big the refugee issue is and has been conducting a census of the Rohingya. Unofficial estimates put their number at 200,000 to 500,000.

About 33,000 registered refugees live in the squalid, overcrowded Cox’s Bazaar camps, mostly in shelters made of bamboo and plastic the thickness of garbage bags. Several other camps have sprouted up, and some refugees have found temporary homes among the native Bengalis.

Despite criticism of the plan to move the refugees to Thengar Char – an earlier proposal to shift them to a populated island was abandoned -- the government has said it plans to push ahead, though there is no timeline or other specifics.

At the bare minimum, aid officials say, the government would need to build an embankment around the island to prevent flooding and create shelters from cyclones. There’s no fresh water. Other infrastructure would be needed, including schools. Security would have to be bolstered.

The government has put out feelers for outside aid or grants to fund the project, presumably hoping the refugees would leave at some point, allowing Bangladeshis to take advantage of the improvements.

As they wait to learn Bangladesh’s plan for them, the Rohingya continue to be victims. The conditions they live in leave them open to disease. Some have become prey for human traffickers and drug smugglers, and that would likely continue if they move to an island already used by criminals.

It’s unclear if those who crossed back into Myanmar plan to stay or just want to get their families and whatever is left of their possessions before leaving again. If that’s the case and they are forced or coerced into moving to the island, they could launch a second exodus by sea to India or Indonesia, shifting their burden elsewhere.

In some makeshift sites around Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar area, humanitarian agencies have built tube wells that provide a much-needed source of drinking water for undocumented Rohingya living outside the official camps. © UNHCR/Saiful Huq Omi

By Vivian Tan
March 21, 2017

A small proportion who fled violence decades ago are considered refugees, while many recent arrivals remain undocumented and miss out on vital aid.

UKHIYA, Bangladesh - At a glance, Mostafa and Sohel* have a lot in common.

As a young man in 1992, Mostafa fled violence in the northern part of Rakhine state in Myanmar to seek refuge in Bangladesh.

Twenty-five years later Sohel took the same journey. After weeks of violence amid a security operation in his village, the 22-year-old had to be carried across the Naf River to safety earlier this year, his body burnt and swollen.

Pointing to the scars on his feet, Sohel said: “They beat us senseless and left us to die in a ditch. We were five people in the group, only three survived.”

Both men found refuge in Bangladesh, where Mostafa recently guided Sohel to a hospital to received treatment for his injuries. But despite their common Rohingya background and circumstances, Mostafa and Sohel are being treated very differently.

As part of the influx of refugees in the early 1990s, Mostafa is among 33,000 registered refugees living in two government-run camps serviced by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and its partners in south-eastern Bangladesh.

He has a home in Kutupalong camp and access to basic services including food assistance, healthcare and education for his wife and three children. Now in his 50s, he has learnt to speak English well and is working as a photographer in the camp.

In contrast, Sohel has no legal status in Bangladesh as one of more than 70,000 Rohingya new arrivals who are believed to have fled a security operation between October 2016 and February 2017. He lives with people from his home village and keeps a low profile. He receives ad hoc assistance if he is lucky.

A third category consists of an estimated 200,000 to 500,000 undocumented Rohingya who arrived in Bangladesh between the two influxes. They live in makeshift sites and local villages, and until recently had no access to humanitarian aid.

“The current situation is not sustainable,” said Shinji Kubo, UNHCR’s Representative in Bangladesh. “Regardless of when they came and where they live, these people have the same needs and deserve equal access to protection and assistance.” 

Recent arrival Sohel* (left) shares his experiences with long-stayer Mostafa (centre) as a UNHCR worker listens in. © UNHCR/Vivian Tan

The new influx has highlighted the urgent need to verify the number and location of the new arrivals. Without this information, vulnerable refugees risk falling through the cracks while others could be receiving duplication of assistance. 

“We are advocating for a joint verification of the new arrivals with our partners as soon as possible,” said Kubo. “This exercise will help the government and humanitarian agencies to better target assistance to those who need it the most, be they new arrivals, refugees who came earlier or locals who host them.”

UNHCR works with humanitarian agencies such as the International Organization for Migration and the World Food Programme in Cox’s Bazar.

Several thousand new arrivals are believed to be hosted in the two official camps, straining the capacity of existing refugees and the infrastructure. The water supply in Nayapara camp is expected to run out by the end of March and there are fears of disease outbreaks as a result of overcrowding and poor sanitation.

Many more new arrivals are living in existing makeshift sites or new ones that have sprouted spontaneously.

In Ukhiya district, a site called Balukhali has emerged in the last two months and now hosts 1,600 families, according to a local politician helping them. Located beyond some rice fields, it is a mish-mash of flimsy shelters and latrines made of thin plastic sheets, dried leaves, tree branches and bamboo. These structures could constitute safety and health hazards unless proper site planning is undertaken.

Miriam*, 65, has just moved to Balukhali with her son’s family. “We were living in a local village for more than two months but the leader said we can only receive assistance if we go to a camp,” she said as her son cleared some land to build a shelter. “We have nowhere else to go, we’ll have to stay here.”

The Bangladesh government has announced it will extend a 2016 census of undocumented Rohingya living outside the two camps to include the new arrivals.

“In the long run, we hope that all Rohingya in Bangladesh can be documented to ensure full respect for their rights,” said UNHCR’s Kubo. “Knowing the profile of this population will also help us to identify longer-term solutions for them.”

Despite his traumatized state, Sohel is clear about one thing: “Here I am living in someone else’s house and I worry about the future. If we are given status in Myanmar, we will definitely go back.

*Names changed for protection reasons

Rohingya Exodus