What Can You Do in Preparation for the One Year Anniversary of the Ethnic Cleansing Against the Rohingya in Myanmar?

By Francisco Bencosme, Asia Pacific Advocacy Manager, Amnesty USA

Next month will be the one-year anniversary of a widespread and systematic attack on the Rohingya people that changed almost a million lives forever. Join us and take action in supporting human rights in Myanmar by sending a petition to Senator McConnell to allow the Burma Human Rights and Freedom Act of 2017 to come up for a vote.

In June, 2018, as part of a delegation I visited the Kutupalong-Balukhali refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar district in Bangladesh. It is known as the world’s largest refugee camp, hosting 900,000 Rohingya who have fled ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity in Myanmar. This place has become their home, but it’s not home. I spoke with members of the Rohingya community who shared their personal stories that led them to the camps and I promised I would bring their memories to the American public.

First I met with eighteen-year-old Nuri Mohammed who told me that he became orphaned after losing his parents and 10 other family members in what Amnesty International has called a systematic and widespread attack on Rohingya men, women, and children.

He had to see his family die. He wantedto die with his parents but his mother told him,
“My son, go flee this country”. He ran away, jumping into a lake, but not before being shot in the leg by Myanmar soldiers. Nuri didn’t sense the pain or see the bullet wound until after arriving in the camp, where he received treatment at a healthcare center.

He can’t understand why they did it. Why did the military have to kill them? Why did they kill his parents? “We are innocent. That [Myanmar] is our country. We were born in Myanmar,” Nuri said.

Despite the violence he fled, he’s struggling and said he now has nothing — family, friends, or money. They receive monthly rice rations, but he said it’s not nearly enough. He told me he does not see what life can await him in Myanmar. He hopes to start earning money, perhaps start a business. But what he really wants is justice for his family.

Through a translator, thirty-five-year-old Ramis Ahmed, a “majhi” or camp community leader shared details of the violence he and so many others experienced in Myanmar. In speaking to him you could hear sounds of construction and muffled voices of children playing and yelling in the background like most children their ages. However, they were children in a refugee camp escaping ethnic cleansing at the hands of the Myanmar military.

Last September, Ramis made the arduous journey to Bangladesh, alone on a boat. “At first, we all started running. I have two sons. One was at his uncle’s house and my other son was at his grandparents’ so I couldn’t take my children with me,” he said. Finally, after eleven days, all three were reunited. Like Nuri, he came here with empty hands.

Ramis starts his morning with a prayer and spends most of his time talking with other refugees in the camp. When asked if he wants to return to Myanmar, he replied, “In Myanmar, there are two nationalities; one is Buddhist Rakhine and the other is Muslim Rohingya. We cannot practice our religion equally and we cannot go anywhere. If the torture stops, I will go back now”.

For his sons, “I just want them to walk freely and independently,” Ramis said.

A young boy stands bare feet on a pile of bricks as dark skies cloud over him and the camp — perhaps depicting the past and present calamities of the Rohingya, but hopefully not their future.

There are limited educational opportunities for children living in the camps who make up more than half the refugee population. Detached from the host community, Rohingya children have been deprived of formal education for roughly a year and are unable to attend schools in Bangladesh — a fundamental right and a “crucial form of protection from exploitation and abuse, such as trafficking.”

Eighty percent of the camp population are women and children. There have been allegations of trafficking, abduction, exploitation, domestic violence, and various gender-based violence in the Cox’s Bazar district. Many of them have experienced such brutality by Myanmar’s military. Soldiers raided villages and separated the women from the men and went on to rape them, sometimes involving multiple perpetrators. Amnesty’s “We Will Destroy Everything”: Military Responsibility for Crimes against Humanity in Rakhine State, Myanmar” provides detail that Médecins Sans Frontières treated survivors age nine to 50 years old whose rapes were often followed by “further acts of violence, often designed to hurt, humiliate, and dehumanize the victims further”.

It reports that “rape and other crimes of sexual violence were an integral part of the attack on the Rohingya, and were part of the pattern of conduct which drove the Rohingya out of Myanmar”. According to a U.N. Security Council reportin March, humanitarian workers have provided services to roughly 2,700 survivors of sexual violence in the refugee camps, with some having become pregnant as a result of rape and are now waiting to give birth.

Young Rohingya men and boys were also tortured and mercilessly killed. The Myanmar military is accused of forced starvation and even burning their genitals until they blistered.

Camp conditions are also a constant challenge. The location of the camps was once full of forest and vegetation, but that seems hard to believe looking at images of the current dry landscape and muddy waters. Furthermore, the dense population of refugees in these camps intensifies the growing list of concerns due to limited space and resources.

Since I was there, only 22 percent of the needs identified by a joint United Nations agencies’ assessment in the form of financial support had been met by the international community. The monsoon season from June to October will worsen conditions for the Rohingya refugees living in the camps that aren’t well equipped to withstand the rainy weather. Their shelters are built on mud hills and made of flimsy bamboo and tarpaulin. Landslides, flash floods, and inundation pose severe threats to the already precious conditions they face.

Talks of repatriation are “extremely premature,” saidYanghee Lee, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar. “The Government of Myanmar has made no progress or shown any real will to dismantle the system of discrimination in the country’s laws, policies and practices, and to make northern Rakhine State safe,” she said. Additionally, Lee affirmed that “the Rohingya refugees will not be returning to Myanmar in the near future” and was “astonished by the lack of any meaningful progress regarding creating conditions in Myanmar for the return of refugees from other countries”.

The Rohingya remain a stateless people. Amnesty accuses Myanmar of an “institutionalized regime of systemic oppression and domination” and of apartheid. The Rohingya are denied a nationality, have severe restrictions on their freedom of movement and religion, and have limited access to health care, education, work, and food.

Relieving the plight of the Rohingya living in refugee camps requires and demands action from the United States government. Myanmar’s military has committed grave human rights violations that cannot be pushed aside or ignored. Amnesty has found that senior military officials were promotedeven after their involvement in the ethnic cleansing campaign. Perpetrators of crimes against humanity must be held accountable to facilitate a process towards justice.

On August 25th, the United States should remember the events that unfolded, the men, women and children who lost their lives soon after. We can do more than just remember — we can act. Amnesty USA calls on the American public to sign a petitionto Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell(R-KY.) calling on him to allow the Burma Human Rights and Freedom Act of 2017 to come up for a vote. For liberty and justice for all, lets us bring justice to the Rohingya community.

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