“I saw a pregnant Rohingya woman giving birth to a baby girl. She was in need of emergency medical service, but there was no way for her to get medical help inside the hilly areas. So, her husband and brother had to carry her with the new born baby towards the Ukhia area, in Bangladesh, which was seven kilometres on foot,” said Adil Sakhawat, a journalist with the Dhaka Tribune who has been reporting from the Myanmar-Bangladesh border for the past few weeks.
Since August 25, over 146,000 Rohingya have entered Bangladesh through its land and river border with Myanmar. Crossing the river or land border is an arduous task, made more difficult by the monsoon season. Sakhawat had to walk over seven kilometres in the hilly area before he came across fleeing families.
He says most of the people arriving had been walking for almost 3 to 11 days, depending on where in Myanmar they had fled from. “They were starving for food. I heard many Rohingya were saving their lives eating leaves off the trees and drinking water from the springs,” Sakhawat shared. He said they have no way to protect themselves from the rain or the sun.
The Rohingya are fleeing something the United Nations believes “very likely” amounts to ethnic cleansing. The killing of the Rohingya by the military Myanmar is believed to be widespread and systematic by most international human rights organisations. So far none of them, including the United Nations have been able to visit Myanmar to carry out a fact-finding mission themselves. The United Nation’s fact finding mission teams were denied visa by the government.
According to a Human Rights Watch report this new wave of violence started in the last month of August, with an attack on two dozen police posts and checkpoints and one military base which left 11 members of the security forces dead. The attack was claimed by Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, a group that has come up over the past two years or so. This is the second attack they’ve claimed to have carried out.
Last year in October the same group attacked border guard patrol posts. It was after this attack that the military increased its already heavy presence in the Rakhine state of Myanmar — the area where Rohingya live.
This is not the first time that the Rohingya have been attacked by the military or been persecuted by the state. They are not considered citizens by the government but aliens who immigrated from India under British rule. The Myanmar government considers them citizens of adjoining Bangladesh.
The first incident of violence against the Rohingya took place in 2012, which left over 200 people dead after clashes between Buddhists and Muslims in the Rakhine state. Over the years the United Nations, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International among other human rights organisations have recorded targeted killing of Rohingya, burning of their villages and rape used as a mechanism by the Myanmar military.
Mark Farmaner, Director of Burma Campaign UK, a human rights advocacy group for Burma says that there is also widespread hostility against the Rohingya, for being Muslim, which is exacerbated by the Myanmar idea that to truly be a citizen you have to be Buddhist. This idea has been promoted by military dictatorships in the past and now the democratic government, the de-facto leader of which is Aung San Suu Kyi.
Myanmar as a country has been marred by ethnic strife and 135 ethnic groups are recognised by the state as citizens. Under the military dictatorship from 1962-2011, all major ethnic groups had an armed resistance against the military which believed in the idea of a unified, Buddhist Myanmar state. Under democratic rule, the political situation for most of these groups changed but the Rohingya are still heavily persecuted.
The attacks in October 2016 were considered “the most serious humanitarian and human rights crisis in Rakhine State since the October 2012 “ethnic cleansing” campaign against the Rohingya by the Human Rights Watch.
Farmaner says the violence in the attacks this time has been even worse than that in October. “There are eye witness accounts of how they have been specifically targeting children, taking aim and shooting at them.”
The Human Rights Watch through satellite imagery has recorded the burning of 10 different areas. The Myanmar government has said the burning has been carried out by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, a claim many human rights organisations have rejected.
Since October 2016 though, the military has been carrying out a campaign in the Rakhine state of Myanmar. Farmaner says they have been treating every Rohingya male as a militant and have been killing them.
This year after the attacks in August, the military strengthened its campaign. “This time they were much more organised and systematic. Last time they were taken by surprise but this time they knew there was bound to be another attack and so the military had pre-planned,” says Farmaner.
M.S Anwar, an activist brought up in Arakan, Burma and currently the news editor of Rohingya Blogger living in Malaysia says, “The attacks on the security agencies were largely because the government has been pushing the Rohingya into a corner for decades.”
“The clashes between Myanmar armed forces and members of ARSA in Northern Arakan on August 25 happened because the Myanmar government had been creating precedence for violence since July 29 by blockading Rohingya minorities in Rathedaung Township from all sides and starving them to death; by killing some members of hill-tribes in Maungdaw and shifting the blame on the Rohingya people; and subsequently by sending more special troops to northern Arakan,” says Anwar.
In short, the events leading up to violence were complex and while Rohingya have borne the bigger brunt of the military operation, people from other ethnicities living in the area have also been internally displaced.
Getting to the border and then crossing into Bangladesh in itself is not an easy task. The river crossing is rough and no aid agency is allowed to function in the border areas. Those that eventually reach the camps are given aid by UNHCR or other aid agencies functioning in Cox’s Bazaar, the Bangladeshi district that borders Myanmar. On arrival, most refugees first meet the border guards.
Within Cox’s Bazaar, refugees are concentrated into two main sub-districts called Upazilas. These sub-districts are Teknaf and Ukhia. This is also where Rohingya coming in over the past few years have settled.
Once in Bangladesh, they have no legal rights to work or seek education. The last refugees were registered in 1992 by UNHCR. UNHCR has confirmed that they are also not registering refugees now, so all figures are based on estimations.
“Bangladesh government does not officially receive them as refugee, they are terming the Rohingya people as Undocumented Myanmar Nationals. It’s like Bangladesh government is now allowing the new arrivals without any official documents just on humanitarian grounds. But officially they are saying they are not allowing them into Bangladesh,” says Sakhawat.
Over the past few days, Bangladeshi border guards have been trying to confine the fleeing refugees to the No-man’s-land between the two countries.
As the Rohingya crisis gained more momentum and global attention over the past week, international pressure on Bangladesh has been increasing to accept the people coming in. According to Farmaner largely the pressure from the global community, especially Turkey has worked.
World leaders and influencers including Malala Yousafzai have also called Aung San Suu Kyi to take a stand for the Rohingya since the ‘Nobel Peace Prize’ winner had stayed silent so far. She broke her silence on the issue putting out a statement on the Facebook page of her office after a phone call with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on September 6.
She called pictures of the Rohingya crisis circulating online “the tip of a huge iceberg of misinformation calculated to create a lot of problems among different communities and with the aim of promoting the interests of the terrorists.”
In addition, the statement also said that the government had started protecting “all people in the Rakhine state.” After the phone call Turkey has been allowed to send 1000 ton of aid to Myanmar, the area where Rohingya are concentrated. The aid will be distributed using military helicopters. International aid organisations have been denied access to the areas by the Myanmar government.
Farmaner says the United Nations and other human rights organisations need to adopt a harder stance towards Myanmar. He says “what is happening to the Rohingya in Myanmar under international law qualifies to be called genocide.” He believes it should be stated as such.
This is a developing story. All facts and figures quoted are accurate for September 7, 2017 unless otherwise stated.