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The uncomfortable truth about Myanmar

This May 20 photo shows ethnic Rohingya Muslims collecting water at a camp set up outside Sittwe in Myanmar's Rakhine state. (Photo by Ye Aung Thu/AFP)

By Michael Sainsbury
November 7, 2015

Let's call the dire situation in parts of Rakhine state what it is: apartheid

The 150,000 or so Muslim Rohinyga now trapped in 10 refugee camps near Sittwe, the capital of Myanmar's Rakhine state, are not allowed to leave the site, nor are about 50,000 others who were, up until now, villagers tilling the land and fishing the backwaters and shores.

In downtown Sittwe, there are a further 3,000 or so people barricaded in their homes in a handful of city blocks, allowed out once a week on a police bus to shop at the food and goods markets inside the camps. Conditions there are possibly still worse — the parallel is World War II's Warsaw ghetto.

Outsiders are no longer allowed in to check, and international nongovernment organizations including aid and refugee groups have been run out of town — literally. Violence has been reported against NGO workers keen to help alleviate some of the appalling conditions inside the camps. Local police now occupy Sittwe's main mosque.

No matter what the result of Myanmar's Nov. 8 election, the plight of the Rohingya seems certain to continue deteriorating. This could even take a sharp turn for the worse on a number of fronts.

A new legal analysis by advocacy group Fortify Rights argues that the Myanmar government's treatment of the Rohinhya is tantamount to genocide.

The report — "Persecution of the Rohingya Muslims: Is Genocide Occurring in Myanmar's Rakhine State? A Legal Analysis" — draws on nearly three years of research and documentation provided to the Lowenstein Clinic by Fortify Rights, including eyewitness testimonies, internal government documents as well as U.N. data, reports, and information.

"The publication is the first to apply the law of genocide to the situation of the Rohingya in Myanmar. It concludes that strong evidence exists to establish the elements of the crime of genocide: that Rohingya are a protected group as defined under the Genocide Convention; that Rohingya have suffered acts of genocide as enumerated by the convention; and that those acts were committed with the intent to destroy Rohingya as a group, in whole or in part," the group said in an Oct. 29 statement accompanying the report's release.

"The government of Myanmar has openly attempted to prevent Rohingya births, in policy and legislation. It denies freedom of movement to more than 1 million Rohingya, and at least 140,000 internally displaced Rohingya are confined to more than 60 internment camps throughout Rakhine state. The government is responsible for denying Rohingya access to adequate humanitarian aid, sanitation, and food, and these abuses have led to avoidable deaths. Authorities have effectively forced Rohingya to take deadly journeys by sea, particularly since 2012, knowing the risks of death they face in doing so."

"The plan of the government is to finish our people, to kill our people, but they cannot kill us all by the bullet," a Rohingya man, 52, told Fortify Rights. "What they can do is deny us food and medicine, and if we don't die, then we'll opt to leave the country. [In these cases] the government has used a different option to kill the people. We must understand that."

The situation seems ripe for rising radicalization of the disaffected youth who haven't already fled on the dangerous sea journey to Malaysia, often via Thailand and human slave camps.

Although the mullahs at the Sittwe Islamic University told reporters that they in no way encourage radical speech or action, they admit they have no control over the imams preaching in makeshift mosques that dot the camps. Some have said there are at least a few whose ideas are more radical than their former teachers at the madrasas.

"At some stage, if hunger gets bad enough and hope fades away, radicalism can take over, people decide they want to fight back," one elder in the camps said.

The irony is that in Myanmar's 2010 election, the vast majority of Rohingya voted for the ruling military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party.

"They promised us a better deal and they lied," is the general consensus — a widespread case of buyer's remorse.

In March, the ruling party stripped 800,000 Rohingya of the identity cards that would have given them a vote in the Nov. 8 election.

That the Rohingya now appear, again universally, to put their hopes in opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is also tragic, as she has been all but dismissive of their situation.

Meanwhile, the greatest human tragedy in the Asia Pacific, further tainted by apartheid and possibly genocide, continues to unfold as the world watches idly.

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