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Myanmar’s Rohingya: Things Get Worse

Rohingya living in a displacement camp outside Sittwe, Myanmar
By Sarnata Reynolds
October 15, 2014

When I met Amir two years ago in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, he had just graduated with a degree in Physics from Sittwe University. He was a fluent English speaker and planned to pursue a career as an engineer. Amir lived in Aung Mingalar, the only neighborhood in the capital city of Sittwe where the Rohingya still maintained a residence after 140,000 had been driven out of the city by mobs assisted by the police.

When I returned to Myanmar last month, I met Amir again. He is now living in a camp for internally displaced people (IDP) outside Sittwe – one of more than 1 million Rohingya who are living in apartheid-like conditions across Rakhine State. He is not allowed to leave the camp, he does not have a job, and he does not know what will happen to him. And things may still get worse.

At last month’s UN General Assembly, Myanmar’s Foreign Minister requested international funding to implement a plan that would bring “peace, stability, harmony, and development of all people in Rakhine state.” As well as promoting development, the plan would confer nationality on those Rohingya who can demonstrate that their families have lived in Myanmar for three generations, as long as they are willing to reclassify themselves as Bengali. Those Rohingya who refuse to go through the verification process and those who cannot demonstrate three generations of residence will be detained permanently or until another country agrees to resettle them.

Like thousands of other Rohingya, Amir’s identity documents were destroyed during the June 2012 violence when his house was burned down. It’s unlikely he will be able to demonstrate three generations of residence in Myanmar and thus he could be sent to prison.

While Myanmar has made some important gestures consistent with human rights, including the release of hundreds of political prisoners this month, it has conceded nothing in Rakhine State. To the contrary, it has made the donor community, including the U.S. and UK, complicit in the segregation of the Rohingya by putting them on the hook for the funding of long houses and humanitarian assistance that ultimately perpetuates their continued displacement.

It was not supposed to be this way. I was in Rakhine State two years ago when donor nations were deciding whether to bankroll the IDP camps. The donors knew it could result in permanent segregation, but they agreed to the funding only because Myanmar pledged that the longhouses would be temporary. Donors acted in good faith. Myanmar did not.

Myanmar’s plan to indefinitely and perhaps permanently detain hundreds of thousands of Rohingya is in direct violation of human rights law and standards, and donor countries should implement punitive measures if the government follows through on it. But while the restoration of relations between Myanmar and the west was premised on a turn toward democracy and human rights, it was also based on the promise of growing trade and economic engagement. The critical question now is whether donor nations will allow trade to trump human rights. If they do, the repercussions will harm more than the Rohingya. There’s little incentive for countries like Myanmar to do the right thing if they know donor communities will ultimately turn a blind eye when business interests are at stake.