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“An Open Prison without End” — Myanmar’s Mass Detention of Rohingya in Rakhine State
Report Presented by Human Rights Watch — United States of America.
Human Rights Watch defends the rights of people worldwide. We scrupulously investigate abuses, expose the facts widely, and pressure those with power to respect rights and secure justice. Human Rights Watch is an independent, international organization that works as part of a vibrant movement to uphold human dignity and advance the cause of human rights for all.
We have nothing called freedom. – Mohammed Siddiq, lived in Sin Tet Maw camp in Pauktaw, September 2020
Hamida Begum was born in Kyaukpyu, a coastal town in Myanmar’s western Rakhine State, in a neighborhood where Rohingya Muslims, Kaman Muslims, and Rakhine Buddhists once lived together. Now, at age 50, she recalls the relative freedom of her childhood: “Forty years ago, there were no restrictions in my village. But after 1982, the Myanmar authorities started giving us new [identity] cards and began imposing so many restrictions.”
In 1982, Myanmar’s then-military government adopted a new Citizenship Law, effectively denying Rohingya citizenship and rendering them stateless. Their identity cards were collected and declared invalid, replaced by a succession of increasingly restrictive and regulated IDs. Hamida found growing discrimination in her ward of Paik Seik, where she had begun working as an assistant for local fishermen. It was during those years a book was published in Myanmar, Fear of Extinction of the Race, cautioning the country’s Buddhist majority to keep their distance from Muslims and boycott their shops. “If we are not careful,” the anonymous author wrote, “it is certain that the whole country will be swallowed by the Muslim kalars,” using a racist term for Muslims.
This anti-Muslim narrative would find a resurgence years later. “The earth will not swallow a race to extinction but another race will,” became the motto of the Ministry of Immigration and Population. By 2012, a targeted campaign of hate and dehumanization against the Rohingya, led by Buddhist nationalists and stoked by the military, was underway across Rakhine State, laying the groundwork for the deadly violence that would erupt in June that year. Hamida’s ward was spared the first wave of violence, but tensions grew over the months that followed. Pamphlets were distributed calling for the Rohingya to be forced out of Myanmar. Local Rakhine officials held meetings discussing how to drive Muslims from town.
In late October 2012, violence returned. Mobs of ethnic Rakhine descended on the local Rohingya and Kaman with machetes, spears, and petroleum bombs. In Hamida’s ward, Rakhine villagers, often alongside police and soldiers, burned Muslim homes, destroyed mosques, and looted property. “The Buddhist people started attacking us and our houses,” Hamida recalls. “When we Muslims tried to protest and stand against the mob, the Myanmar security forces opened fire on us.” Soldiers shot at Rohingya and Kaman villagers gathered near a mosque, killing 10, including a child.
Hamida and her Muslim neighbors attempted to flee to Bangladesh. They arranged boats and set off at night. “We were on the Bay of Bengal for three days without any food,” she says. “When we arrived at the Bangladesh sea border, the authorities there provided us with some dry food—then pushed us back toward Myanmar.”
Hearing they could receive much needed food and aid at the camps in Sittwe, the Rakhine State capital, Hamida and her family made their way to Thet Kae Pyin camp. She lived there for six years with her husband and six children, first in a temporary settlement, later a shared longhouse shelter. Life in the camps brought hopelessness, fear, and pain. “There is no future there,” Hamida says. “Do you think only tube wells and shelters inside the camp is enough to live our lives? We couldn’t go to market to get the items we needed, couldn’t eat properly, couldn’t move freely anywhere. We were in turmoil 24 hours a day.” They were not allowed to study, work, or leave the camp confines. Hamida was unable to get the health care she needed. When our children died from lack of medical treatment, we had to bury them without any funeral,” she says.
The 2012 attacks on the Rohingya ushered in an era of increased oppression that laid the groundwork for more brutal and organized military crackdowns in 2016 and 2017. In August 2017, following attacks by an ethnic Rohingya armed group, security forces launched a campaign of mass atrocities, including killings, rape, and widespread arson, against Rohingya in northern Rakhine State that forced more than 700,000 to flee across the border into Bangladesh. While these atrocities, which amount to crimes against humanity and possibly genocide, have drawn international attention, the Rohingya who remain in Rakhine State, effectively detained under conditions of apartheid, have been largely ignored.