"This is Ethnic Cleansing in Action"

An interview with Matthew Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights, about the plight of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.
By: /
May 5, 2014
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Three years after the arrival in power of the first Burmese civil government in decades, the democratization process remains imperfect and may have reached its limits. Since 2011, a series of measures appeared to indicate President Thein Sein’ willingness to turn the page on years of repressive military dictatorship. Western governments, international donors, and businesses welcomed these reforms as sanctions imposed on Burmese leaders were eased and high-level diplomatic visits marked a considerable thawing of relations between Myanmar and the West.

However, the lifting of censorship, liberation of political prisoners, freedom of protest, and dialog with ethnic minority groups cannot hide the profound and long-existing ethnic cleavages and mistrust that remain deep. Today, the Muslim minority group known as the Rohingya has been the target of hate speech and violence.

Matthew Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights, a human rights organization based in South East Asia which recently published a report titled “Policies of Persecution: Ending Abusive State Policies Against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar,” spoke with the Montreal Institute For Genocide Studies' Marie Lamensch calling the current situation in Myanmar “ethnic cleansing in action” and  upon Western and Southeast Asian governments to act.

Your organization, Fortify Rights, recently published a new report titled “Policies of Persecution: Ending Abusive State Policies Against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.” Can you first tell us about the situation of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar? What is their status, how are they perceived, and how and by whom are they being persecuted?

The Rohingya are a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority in Rakhine State in western Myanmar. Myanmar’s Buddhist-majority government openly denies the existence of their ethnicity, refers to them as “Bengali” and considers them intruders from neighbouring Bangladesh. At the same time, the government bars Rohingya from equal access to citizenship. This renders well over 1 million Rohingya “stateless.” To compound the problem, the government in Naypyidaw has publicly, and successfully, promoted the otherwise untenable idea that the Rohingya pose a threat to national security. These claims fuel dangerous levels of discrimination and severe anti-Rohingya violence.

To solve this problem, the ethnic Rakhine (Buddhist) population is an important part of the equation. As another ethnic minority in Myanmar, the Rakhine have faced serious abuses at the hands of several governments over many years, including the current government. Despite their shared plight, the Rohingya and Rakhine have clashed for years. In 2012, specifically, Rakhine Buddhists and state security forces in Rakhine State carried out arson attacks and violence against Rohingya communities in townships throughout the state, forcing thousands of Rohingya from their homes. It was a well-planned campaign of “ethnic cleansing.” More than 150,000 Rohingya now eek out a living in miserable internal displacement camps. The government has done nothing to ensure their right to return home let alone ensure that their humanitarian needs are met.

Many more Rohingya have fled the country by sea, often landing in the hands of abusive human traffickers and smugglers en route to Thailand and Malaysia. While no one has reliable data as to the precise scale of the Rohingya exodus, we do know Myanmar authorities have, in some cases, profited from it by demanding payments from asylum seekers. Another 500,000 Rohingya live in squalor in neighboring Bangladesh where the government refuses to allow a comprehensive aid effort, let alone open its borders to Rohingya asylum-seekers as required under international law. 

In February 2014, we released a report to highlight the first publication of the actual policies underpinning abusive restrictions by the Myanmar authorities against the Rohingya of Rakhine State. We obtained twelve leaked government documents detailing restrictions on movement, marriage, childbirth, and other aspects of everyday life for the Rohingya population. All of these restrictions remain enforced today. Our report, titled Policies of Persecution, details how government officials are responsible for the crime against humanity of persecution and calls on President Thein Sein to act immediately to abolish various abusive policies and practices. We’re working with a number of human rights defenders toward that objective.

It’s worth mentioning that since the 1990s, UN officials and special rapporteurs, human rights organizations, and journalists have documented abuses by the Myanmar authorities against the Rohingya. The Arakan Project, Human Rights Watch, the Burmese Rohingya Organization UK, and now newer outfits such as Rohingya Blogger have all done excellent work documenting abuses. The Reuters team, which just won a Pulitzer for its coverage of Rohingya human trafficking, the New York Times, AP, and others have also provided excellent, important coverage, and there are an enormous number of unsung human rights defenders among the Rohingya community including political prisoners such as Dr. Tun Aung and U Kyaw Hla Aung. These individuals should be released immediately.

What was the response of the government to your report and to other condemnations or allegations?

We hoped for a more respectable response from the government. About a month prior to publication we wrote to the president’s office and relevant ministries, informing them about our research and asking a number of questions. They didn’t respond, which factored into our decision to publish.

The government failed to provide a credible response to the report. Within hours of its publication the president’s spokesman Ye Htut told the Myanmar Times that Fortify Rights was a “Bengali lobby group” and flatly refused to answer questions about the report. Just days later, the president’s office made the profoundly callous decision to evict MSF from Rakhine State, effectively denying lifesaving healthcare and aid to tens of thousands of Rohingya. It’s difficult to imagine the plight of the Rohingya worsening, but that’s exactly what we’re seeing today.

The Burmese government is now conducting a National Population Census – approved and funded by the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) and by international donors. Yet the Rohingya are excluded from the census and have been told to that they cannot identify as “Rohingya,” thereby denying their existence. Will this lead to more religious and ethnic tensions?

The census has been a regrettable debacle. No meaningful data was collected among Rohingya communities in Rakhine State, that much is sure. 

For months, communities throughout Myanmar, civil society groups, and a diverse chorus of international nongovernmental organizations, including Fortify Rights, warned the government, UNFPA, and other donors about the problems with the census. We called for it to be postponed until it could be conducted in a way that wouldn’t lead to ethnic disunity, violence, or abuse. We were basically told it would move forward for financial reasons. As a result, UNFPA’s reputation in Myanmar has been severely, and in some cases irreparably, damaged, particularly among ethnic communities. That’s unfortunate because the organization can otherwise support important work on a variety of issues. The big question now is what will come of the information the enumerators managed to collect.

Rohingya

Rohingya families at a refugee camp outside Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State (Reuters).

The Burmese government recently decided to expel Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) from Rakhine state, thereby leaving many Rohingya at risk. The offices of various international agencies have also been attacked by mobs. What sparked this recent conflagration and what will its consequences be?

On March 26 and 27, mobs of Rakhine attacked UN and INGO operations in the state capital city, Sittwe, destroying vehicles, boats, homes, and offices, causing enormous damage and leading to the evacuation of aid workers. It’d be wrong to assume this was a spontaneous outburst. The reality is that aid workers have been facing local threats and intimidation for months because they provide aid to Rohingya and the government did very little to address the problem. At the same time, there’s an urgent need for an early warning system in Rakhine State so aid workers and others will know when potentially violent mobs are mobilizing—the fact that there is not already a system is in place is concerning.  

In short, the government of Myanmar is simply not interested in adequately providing for the humanitarian needs of the Rohingya. Following the attacks in late March, it suspended nearly all aid operations in Rakhine State that are only just now starting to resume in a limited capacity. This is a humanitarian disaster by design. Food, water, sanitation, lifesaving health aid, and livelihood support have all been denied for more than 150,000 IDPs and thousands more non-IDPs. Our contacts in the region are witnessing preventable deaths of men, women, and children of all ages.

The local economy is also shattered. We’re now seeing Rohingya who weren’t previously displaced seeking refuge near the IDP camps because they’ve sold all their belongings out of economic desperation. They’d now fall into the dubious category of “unregistered IDPs.” The phenomenon of unregistered IDPs was happening even before the aid groups were evicted. These particularly at-risk IDPs are ineligible for the rations given to registered IDPs—creating an enormous problem. Despite developments on the ground, UN agencies haven’t registered new IDPs since December 2012. Some officials went so far as to callously refer to these unregistered IDPs as “opportunists.” It’s a desperate situation. Rohingya families we thought would never flee the country are now planning perilous journeys by sea. They tell us that anything is better than what they’re experiencing now and that they fear for their lives in Rakhine State. This is ethnic cleansing in action.

Thapyuchai

A Muslim man by the remains of his burnt home in Thapyuchai village, in Rakhine state.

Burma recently emerged from a half-century of brutal military rule and isolation yet the nominally civilian government has passed a number of discriminatory policies against the Rohingya, refuses to grant them citizenship, and the authorities clearly fail to prevent violence against them. What impact will this have on Burma’s claim that it wants to be more democratic and open?

The first point that comes to mind is that Myanmar’s major institutions are still largely controlled by the military in one way or another and that the military remains unreformed. It’s the same old abusive institution it has been for decades.

Internationally, the situation in Rakhine State and the treatment of the Rohingya is causing significant reputational damage to the government, but thus far that damage hasn’t led the government to reverse course and stop abusing the Rohingya. It should also be noted that the Rohingya aren’t the only ethnic minority under attack in the country. We’re documenting severe abuses in Kachin State, where a deadly civil war has raged since 2011, displacing more than 100,000 ethnic Kachin Christians. Forced labor, killings, torture, and other abuses are happening there. We’re doing what we can to support Kachin and Rohingya human rights defenders, but much more needs to be done.

Many Western governments, including Canada, have opened diplomatic relations with the Burmese government and do not seem to be paying much attention to the plight of the Rohingya. What are your key recommendations to western governments and foreign investors?

At this point the situation of the Rohingya in Myanmar merits serious discussions about genocide prevention. We’d argue that it’s irresponsible for the international community not to be discussing the nuts and bolts of genocide prevention in Myanmar.

We’ve been encouraged by some of the attention paid to the situation by certain governments, including the United States, U.K., Australian, Swedish, Dutch, Canadian governments, and others, but much more needs to be done. The collective pressure that’s been put on Naypyidaw by governments, human rights groups, and others has been ineffective, as evidenced by the fact that the situation in Rakhine State continues to worsen. There is much more we  need to do. The abuses need to stop, Rohingya voices need to be heard, and human rights defenders in Myanmar need technical and material support.  

There is also much more that Southeast Asian regional governments could and should do. If there were any governments in the world that have a clear political interest in ending abuses against Rohingya in Myanmar, it would be ASEAN governments. They’ve been on the receiving end of Rohingya asylum-seekers for years and need to speak up. 

On the issue of statelessness, it’s important that the diplomatic community in Yangon advocate for the amendment of the 1982 Citizenship Law, which is the basis for Rohingya statelessness. We’d argue it’s also the basis for many of the other abuses. Statelessness is a gateway abuse. Some diplomats have basically adopted the government’s line that the 1982 law doesn’t need to be amended, which is baffling because the law is plainly inconsistent with Myanmar’s international legal obligations. Some agencies have offered support to the government to scope the ways in which the law should change, but as far as I know, those offers have been dismissed.

We’re also calling for an independent investigation into abuses in Rakhine State, and we’re not alone in that recommendation. Myanmar has appointed several “independent” commissions to look into the situation in Rakhine State— in some cases led by the president’s advisors. These commissions failed to address abuses by the state and they also failed to prevent further violence and abuse. At best, they served to cover up state crimes. We’re calling for an independent international investigation into abuses in Rakhine State. This would have a preventative effect and help establish the facts. There’s no defensible reason to avoid a credible investigation into what’s unfolding there.