Myanmar: Rohingya trapped in dehumanising apartheid regime

The Rohingya people in Myanmar are trapped in a vicious system of state-sponsored, institutionalised discrimination that amounts to apartheid, said Amnesty International today as it publishes a major new analysis into the root causes of the current crisis in Rakhine State.

“Caged without a roof” puts into context the recent wave of violence in Myanmar, when the security forces killed Rohingya people, torched whole villages to the ground, and drove more than 600,000 to flee across the border into Bangladesh.

The two-year investigation reveals how authorities severely restrict virtually all aspects of Rohingyas’ lives in Rakhine State and have confined them to what amounts to a ghetto-like existence where they struggle to access healthcare, education or in some areas even to leave their villages. The current situation meets every requirement of the legal definition of the crime against humanity of apartheid.

“The Myanmar authorities are keeping Rohingya women, men and children segregated and cowed in a dehumanising system of apartheid. Their rights are violated daily and the repression has only intensified in recent years,” said Anna Neistat, Amnesty International’s Senior Director for Research.

“This system appears designed to make Rohingyas’ lives as hopeless and humiliating as possible. The security forces’ brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing in the past three months is just another extreme manifestation of this appalling attitude.

“Although these rights violations may not be as visible as those that have hit the headlines in recent months, they are just as horrific. The root causes of the current crisis must be addressed to end the cycle of abuse and make it possible for Rohingya refugees to return to a situation where their rights and dignity are respected.”

Rakhine State: An open-air prison

While Rohingya have faced systematic, government-sponsored discrimination in Myanmar for decades, Amnesty International’s investigation reveals how such repression has intensified dramatically since 2012, when violence between Buddhist and Muslim communities swept the state.

Rohingya in Rakhine State are essentially sealed off from the outside world and face severe restrictions on their freedom of movement that confine them to their villages and townships. These restrictions are put in place through an intricate web of national laws, “local orders” and policies implemented by state officials displaying openly racist behaviour.

A regulation in effect across Rakhine State clearly states that “foreigners” and “Bengali races [a pejorative term for the Rohingya]” need special permits to travel between townships. In northern Rakhine State, where the majority of the Rohingya lived until the recent exodus, even travel between villages is heavily restricted by a system of permissions. Arbitrary curfews have been harshly and continually imposed in predominantly Rohingya areas for the last five years.

In central Rakhine State, Rohingya are kept tightly locked down in their villages and displacement camps. In some areas they are not allowed to use roads and can only travel by waterways, and only to other Muslim villages.

For Rohingya who do manage to obtain permission to travel in northern Rakhine State, frequent checkpoints mostly staffed by Border Guard Police (BGP) are a constant menace, where they are regularly harassed, forced to pay bribes, physically assaulted or arrested.

One Rohingya man described witnessing such abuse when the bus he travelled on was stopped by police: “There were four police in total, two of them beat the guys with a cane on their backs, shoulders and thighs. Another slapped the lady four or five times with his hand. […] After that they took them to the police station.”

While conducting research for the report, Amnesty International staff saw first-hand a border guard kicking a Rohingya man at a checkpoint, and documented at least one case of an extrajudicial execution, when BGP officers shot dead a 23-year-old man travelling during curfew hours.

During the violence in 2012, tens of thousands of Rohingya were driven out of urban areas in Rakhine State, in particular the state capital Sittwe. Today some 4,000 remain in the town where they live in a ghetto-like area sealed off with barbed wire barricades and police checkpoints. They are at risk of arrest or violence from the surrounding community if they try to leave.

A life on the brink of survival

The restrictions on movement are having a devastating impact on the daily lives of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who have been pushed to the brink of survival.

While the quality of hospitals and clinics in Rakhine State is generally poor for all communities, Rohingya face serious and often life-threatening barriers in accessing health care.

Rohingya are denied access to Sittwe hospital, the highest-quality medical facility in Rakhine State, except for in extremely acute cases. Even then they require authorization from the Rakhine State authorities and travel under police escort. In northern Rakhine State, many see no choice but to travel to Bangladesh to access the health care they need, but this trip can often be prohibitively expensive for all but the wealthiest families.

One man in his 50s said: “I wanted to go to Sittwe hospital for medical treatment, but it’s forbidden, the hospital staff told me I couldn’t go to there for my own safety and said I needed to go to Bangladesh for treatment. It cost a lot of money. My brother has many paddy fields and oxen and he had to sell some of these to pay for the travel. I was lucky… most people cannot afford this, so they just end up dying.”

Outside of northern Rakhine State, only a few medical facilities are accessible for Rohingyas. There, they are kept in separate “Muslim wards” which are guarded by police. One aid worker compared one such ward to a “prison hospital”.

Several Rohingya described how they had to pay bribes to hospital staff and police guards if they wanted to call family members or purchase food from outside. Others avoided hospitals altogether – fearing abuses by doctors and nurses, or thinking they would not be offered care at all.

“Denying Rohingya access to medical care is abhorrent – we spoke to women who said they would rather give birth at home in unsanitary conditions than risk abuse and extortion at hospitals,” said Anna Neistat.

Since 2012, Myanmar authorities have tightened restrictions on Rohingyas’ access to education. In large parts of Rakhine State, Rohingya children are no longer allowed into previously mixed government schools at all, while government teachers often refuse to travel to Muslim areas.

With higher education largely off limits for Rohingya, many people Amnesty International spoke to expressed a sense of despair and hopelessness about the future.