CHIANG MAI, Thailand – Amnesty International has labeled the current situation in northern Rakhine State as “apartheid” following the mass exodus of Rohingya Muslims into Bangladesh. The crisis developed when an Aug. 25 attack by Muslim militants against government security forces sparked a military clearance operation.
Rohingya in Myanmar “are trapped in a vicious system of state-sponsored, institutionalized discrimination that amounts to apartheid,” the UK-based rights group said in a report on Tuesday.
After the release of the report, UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was quoted by The Independent newspaper as telling his country’s parliament he had received “very troubling” evidence that will be used to access whether genocide has been committed against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.
He stressed that “unless the refugees are allowed return, then this crisis, this purge will indeed satisfy the definition of ethnic cleansing. As for genocide, I’m afraid it is the case that we have recently received evidence of a very troubling kind, and what we will do is make sure that such testimony as to what has been taking place is collated and used so that the proper judicial authorities can determine whether indeed it answers to the definition of genocide.”
International human rights groups have accused Myanmar authorities of crimes against humanity and discrimination against the Rohingya, who are seen by many in Myanmar as interlopers from Bangladesh.
Last Thursday, US-based Human Rights Watch released a report accusing Myanmar security forces of widespread rapes of women and girls as part of a campaign of UN-labeled “ethnic cleansing” against Rohingya Muslims.
“Caged without a roof,” AI said, “puts into context the recent wave of violence” in Myanmar. Security forces have reportedly killed innocent Rohingya and burned whole villages to the ground, according to AI. The UN says more than 620,000 have fled to Bangladesh.
While the Rohingya refugee crisis has hit headlines in the past three months, Amnesty International said its two-year investigation had documented how “authorities severely restrict virtually all aspects of Rohingya’s lives in Rakhine State” in terms of access to healthcare at hospitals in towns, education, freedom of movement and denial of citizenship.”
It added that “The current situation meets every requirement of the legal definition of the crime against humanity of apartheid.”
Regarding the use of the term “apartheid,” human rights advocate U Aung Myo Min said a “thorough investigation by local and international experts is needed to describe the situation and decide whether it meets the definition, because we need a lot of evidence to support the label of apartheid.”
U Aung Myo Min, director of Equality Myanmar, said international allegations have been met with denials from the government, so “we cannot judge from only one perspective; we still have not been able to conduct any investigations that are accurate and impartial.” He was referring to widespread disinformation and fake news, including photos, regarding the Rohingya crisis that have been disseminated over the Internet.
Establishing “a joint investigation team of local and international experts would allow an accurate analysis of the situation because the public does not trust government-formed investigation commissions. Plus, international experts need input from local people to put events in context,” he said.
AI said Myanmar “is legally obliged to dismantle the apartheid system in Rakhine State, and must also ensure accountability for those responsible for committing acts that amount to crimes against humanity.”
Anna Neistat, AI’s senior director of research, said in the press statement, “The Myanmar authorities are keeping Rohingya women, men and children segregated and cowed in a dehumanizing system of apartheid. Their rights are violated daily and the repression has only intensified in recent years.”
Since last month, State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has said her government is working toward the repatriation and rehabilitation of people from northern Rakhine State and to accept them back into the country. Returning refugees will need to show proof that they previously resided in the country, she said, adding that the government would implement repatriation under a 1993 agreement, something confirmed by the permanent secretary of the Labor Ministry.
However, the right groups raised concerns over the safety of any returnees.
“Restoring the rights and legal status of the Rohingya, and amending the country’s discriminatory citizenship laws is urgently needed – both for those who remain in the country and those who wish to return. Rohingya who have fled persecution in Myanmar cannot be asked to return to a system of apartheid,” Neistat said.