Breaking the Silence on Myanmar’s Rohingya

A Rohingya woman and her children sit in temporary shelter near the Baw Du Pha camp. Sittwe, Myanmar, May 17, 2016. (Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images)

A recent diplomatic row over whether new United States Ambassador to Myanmar Scot Marciel may call the self-identified Rohingya ethnic minority group by that name or use the government preferred “Bengali” shows that ethnic and religious tensions remain high in the Southeast Asian nation.

The situation today for the Rohingya remains largely the same as it did prior to Myanmar’s peaceful political transition last year, which included moving from a military junta-dominated parliament to one with a National League for Democracy majority, the appointment of a new president, and continued efforts to reach a peace agreement between the country’s many armed groups.

As well as being denied the right to self-identify, the Rohingya are still not recognized as citizens of Myanmar, and the 125,000 to 140,000 in Rakhine are denied the right to leave the state, while facing massive impositions on their lives. There is no sign that those still interned in displacement camps near the Rakhine capital Sittwe since June 2012 will be released. Women bear a particularly high brunt from the worrying levels of malnutrition and long-term health implications among their children, high rates of gender-based violence, and society-wide intimidation.

A fire within Rakhine’s Baw Du Pha 2 camp, which led to 2,000 losing their homes at the start of May, was the latest tragedy to befall this displaced population. In October last year, an eight-year-old girl who was already severely malnourished died from injuries allegedly resulting from a rape by a military officer. The daily persecution continues to drive many to attempt leaving Myanmar by sea, many of who drown, as with the 21 who died at sea last month, or face brutality at the hands of those who assist in their flight, as with those found dead in Malaysia last year.

The pattern of pervasive discrimination is one we personally comprehended when speaking to those responsible for delivering the limited humanitarian assistance permitted for the internally displaced population in Rakhine. All those who spoke to us insisted on anonymity, fearing that their access to the camps would be denied if their identities were revealed. Many spoke of fearing to even submit reports to their organizations, in case the governments of Rakhine or Myanmar expelled them.

While restricted in their ability to report on it, the humanitarian workers spoke of the severe forms of violence facing women and children and the limited rights for Rohingya both inside and outside the camps. They reported having witnessed few other situations approaching those in Sittwe, and many of these people had held postings in trouble spots such as Darfur, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, and Afghanistan.

While the case of the Rohingya population may be the most notable, it is also among many examples of displacement and limited humanitarian access in Myanmar. Much more is at stake for ethnic minorities in the country’s ongoing political transition. The National Ceasefire Agreement, which is yet to attract the signature of all 15 ethnic armed groups concerned, contains provisions on the relocation of hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons and refugees. These relocations are proposed for displaced populations that have endured persistent human rights violations and denial of access to humanitarian assistance. They will be high-risk movements in environments where there may be significant resource competition. A recurrence of the violence that followed displacements in 2012 is feared, and compensation offered by the government is seen as insufficient to overcome persistent deprivation of rights such as land ownership.

The culture of silence around the treatment of Rohingya and other ethnic groups in Myanmar poses some important questions. First, whose responsibility is it to report human rights violations in the country’s complex political situation? And do United Nations, international humanitarian, and civil society reports protect populations or further erode the protection they have, however minimal? While most humanitarian agencies must operate in conditions where they are expected to be impartial and neutral, this does not apply to the UN or embassies.

There are also concerns over the point at which securing humanitarian access requires complicity with denying rights and identity for vulnerable and displaced populations. Silence may be justified as a way to prevent further violence, but it also enables violations to continue with impunity.

Civil society groups operating in Myanmar are already concerned about the state’s failure to recognize and prosecute acts of violence committed by the country’s Tatmadaw armed forces. A climate of impunity, coupled with aggressive pro-Myanmar Buddhist nationalist sentiment and resource rivalry generate risks that cannot be overstated. In a political environment where official reporting about violence or discrimination against minority populations is already restricted, and where humanitarian workers are prone to self-censorship to protect these groups, the risk of violence is ever present. The international community must therefore closely watch Myanmar during this important and ongoing regime transition.

Sara E. Davies is Associate Professor in the Centre for Governance and Public Policy, Griffith University. Jacqui True is Professor of Politics & International Relations at Monash University.