Rights Group Warns of ‘Mass Killing’ as Rohingya Crisis Continues

By Feliz Solomon 20 May 2015

RANGOON —Minorities in Burma are among the world’s most vulnerable to mass killing, a leading rights group warned on Wednesday, as the country struggles to appease the international community amid a refugee crisis at its western shore.

The Peoples Under Threat index, produced by London-based Minority Rights Group International (MRG), ranked Burma as the eighth most dangerous country in the world for some ethnic and religious minorities, citing armed conflict in the country’s northeast and violence against Rohingya and other Muslims as urgent indicators of future peril.

“Renewed conflict in northern Burma’s Kokang region has cast doubt on the government’s commitment to democratic reform, while Muslim Rohingyas face persistent threats of communal riots,” MRG said in a statement, while the full report alludes to risks posed to seven other ethnic minorities including Arakanese, Chin, Kachin and Karen.

The annual assessment is intended as an “early warning tool,” which identifies people and groups most at risk of genocide, mass killing or violent repression. While the purpose of the index is to assess and prevent future threats, “mass killing is already underway” in states that top the list, the report said. Burma shared the distinction of top 10 with Syria, Somalia and Afghanistan—the top three—settling at No.8 between Pakistan and South Sudan.

In light of a refugee crisis unfolding in the Andaman Sea, MRG’s morbid prediction could already be coming true. Thousands of people from Burma and Bangladesh are believed to be floating on rickety boats, abandoned by human traffickers and pushed away by authorities of three other Asean nations, in what Human Rights Watch has referred to as a “game of human ping pong.” The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimated that as many as 8,000 people are at risk of dying on the boats, while about 1,000 are believed to have already died since 2014.

The so-called “boat people” have been fleeing en masse from Burma’s Arakan State and the coast of Bangladesh for years to escape violence, persecution and poverty. In Burma, deadly riots between Buddhists and Muslims in 2012 left about 140,000 people in isolated displacement camps without mobility and basic services. The conflict overwhelmingly affected Rohingya Muslims, who are denied citizenship and are viewed as illegal immigrants by the government and much of the general population, who refer to them as Bengalis.

Dire conditions in displacement camps, as well as the fear of further violent outbreaks, led many to seek refuge in countries like Muslim-majority Malaysia. A pattern of human smuggling soon emerged, later found to be linked to an elaborate multi-national human trafficking circuit. Some knowingly paid smugglers to transport them to another country, later to be intercepted by traffickers and detained for ransoms of up to US$2,000. Many were found to have died in remote jungle camps in southern Thailand, succumbing to sickness or starvation. Others are believed to have died or been killed while at sea.

More troubling still is recent evidence that, once established, the profitable trafficking scheme may have prompted some brokers to deceive or trick people into boarding the boats. Some reports claim that Rohingya and Bangladeshi youths had even been kidnapped and delivered to traffickers, as brokers could earn about $100 for each person they recruited for the perilous journey.

The discovery in early May of dozens of shallow graves in a trafficking camp near Thailand’s border with Malaysia led to an aggressive crackdown on the trade, which at least one rights group warned could backfire. As Thai authorities rushed to wipe out the camps, the Arakan Project, an NGO that has monitored the conditions of Rohingya for more than a decade, predicted that traffickers would simply avoid land altogether, leaving the victims afloat, abject and difficult to locate. That appears to be what happened, as decrepit boats were found drifting near Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, each of which said that they would nudge the ships beyond their territorial waters.

The Burmese government on Monday denied that the crisis was related to unrest in Arakan State, claiming that the exodus—which has evolved into a heart-wrenching regional dilemma and a diplomatic nightmare—was caused by criminal traffickers, not the other way around. Burma’s Minister of Information, Ye Htut, said the government would scrutinize the “boat people” and repatriate those who could prove that they were Burmese citizens, while the rest could fend for themselves. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced on Wednesday that Burma was “ready to provide humanitarian assistance to anyone who suffered in the sea,” but the government has yet to address allegations that institutionalized discrimination continues to fuel departures.

“The ongoing crisis in the Andaman Sea and the Burmese government’s disgraceful refusal to take responsibility for the mass exodus of Rohingya send a terrifying message to Muslims in Rakhine: either accept persecution at home or face death at sea,” said Hanna Hindstrom, the Asia Information Officer for MRG, in a timely defense of the group’s assessment. Hindstrom said that until Burma grants basic rights to the Rohingya, such as citizenship and self-identification, “the government will have blood on its hands.”

Burma’s Ministry of Information did not respond to The Irrawaddy’s multiple requests for comment, though rights advocates were quick to interject. David Mathieson, senior Burma researcher for Human Rights Watch, agreed that the negligence of the Burmese government and all other relevant authorities would be tantamount to murder.

“In regards to Rohingya and Bangladeshi boat people, any government that orders pushbacks that result in large scale death is the perpetrator of a mass killing, knowing that a failure to give sanctuary will likely result in death,” Mathieson said.