Conditions in Myanmar are far too dangerous for the safe, dignified return of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees who have fled to Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, to escape violence and persecution in their home country, according to a report by the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
More than 730,000 Rohingya refugees are living in squalid, overcrowded camps in Cox’s Bazar. While conditions in Bangladesh remain dire, U.N. officials say the situation in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state is worse and far more threatening.
U.N. Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Kate Gilmore presented the report to the U.N. council. She says Rohingya Muslims in northern Rakhine state face serious discrimination, and continuous, systematic violations of their fundamental rights and freedoms.
“We continue to receive and can verify reports from a variety of sources, including reports on sexual and gender-based violence, that human rights violations continue, allegedly committed by members of the security forces,” Gilmore said. “The conditions conducive for refugee return simply do not exist.”
Security forces attacked and burned Rohingya homes and shops in several townships in May, Gilmore reported. She said her office has received reports of disappearances, and of people being subjected to torture and other forms of abuse in detention.
In addition, she said, Rohingya Muslims are denied basic services to health, education and jobs, and many have been stripped of their property and identity papers, essentially rendering them stateless.
Gilmore called on the Myanmar government to reverse this situation and to end the statelessness of the Rohingya. She said it is unlikely the refugees will return to their place of origin until their citizenship status is recognized.
Reaction in Myanmar
Myanmar’s Ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva, Kyaw Moe Tun, says human rights awareness is promoted throughout his country. He called the U.N. report misleading, incomplete and full of unverified allegations that distort the truth.
The repatriation process must begin as soon as possible to resolve the humanitarian situation, he said, adding that Myanmar has been ready to receive people since January 2018, when his country and Bangladesh signed a repatriation agreement.
Myanmar has presented Bangladesh with a list of more than 1,200 verified displaced persons who repeatedly expressed their desire to return, he said.
Earlier this year, Bangladesh’s Foreign Secretary Shahidul Haque told the U.N. Security Council “not a single Rohingya has volunteered to return to Rakhine due to the absence of conducive environment there.” (VOA)
The cutoff of internet service to conflict-affected areas of western Myanmar’s war-torn Rakhine and Chin states has created a difficult situation for civilians who cannot access donors online to make aid requests, though the state government said it will step in to fill the void and help them, locals and officials said Monday.
Citing ongoing fighting between national forces and the Arakan Army (AA), the Myanmar government on June 20 ordered four telecom operators to temporarily stop providing internet services to eight townships in Rakhine state and one township in neighboring Chin state where battles have taken place.
“Because we can’t use the internet, nobody knows about the difficulties we are facing here,” said Naing Oo Maung, a resident of Poeshipyin village in Rakhine’s Ponnagyun township. “Because we can’t post our information online, we can only ask civil society organizations for help by phone.”
“We cannot read or listen to the news, so we don’t know the current situation,” he added. “We have no more medicine in the [displaced persons] camps now. Children are sick, but we can’t ask for help online.” Rakhine residents also report that they cannot conduct bank transactions or connect with relatives and friends at home and aboard.
Domestic and international NGOs and other organizations say they their ability to provide aid has been limited by the internet shutdown as well because they cannot receive information to help some of the roughly 34,000 people who have been displaced by clashes between the Myanmar military and the AA, whose ethnic Rakhine soldiers seek greater autonomy in Rakhine state.
Zaw Zaw Tun, a relief volunteer in the region and secretary of the Rakhine Ethnic Congress, said residents displaced by fighting usually send aid organizations photos and videos so the groups know what supplies are needed.
“When we hear that people in a particular location have a problem or a need, we usually ask locals for photos and video files,” he said. “We can see the real situation in that place and can make a decision [to help or not]. If we cannot verify this, then we may receive fake reports. Because we can’t use the internet, it is difficult to believe what we have heard [without seeing it].”
Khin Maung Latt, an upper house lawmaker who represents Rakhine state’s No. 2 constituency in Myanmar’s national parliament, said political representatives can post online aid requests on behalf of their constituents.
“If we post information on social media such as Facebook, about 1,000 or 10,000 people will know [about it] in a few minutes, and they can help the IDPs [internally displaced persons] quickly,” he said. “We can let the donors know the truth about the situation of the IDPs by posting their pictures online. Now, they are suffering because internet service is cut off.”
Rakhine state government spokesman Win Myint suggested that displaced civilians call local officials for help. “If IDPs need help, they can contact the state government office via township administrators or directly,” he said. “It would be easier for them to contact us through township administrators, [who] will inform us in a timely manner, and we will work on helping the IDPs as soon as possible.”
A ‘fundamental human right’
Rights groups say internet service is vital for people who rely on it to stay informed about developments in the armed conflict.
“Internet services are not supposed to be cut under any conditions,” said Maung Saungkha, spokesman for Athan, a domestic organization that advocates freedom of expression in Myanmar. “As a consequence of the shutdown, the citizens cannot be informed about deaths and injuries in the conflict area. There will be heavier losses.”
“Access to internet service is fundamental human right, so we implore the government to restore the internet service,” he added. Min Lwin Oo, a legal advisor at the Norway-based Asian Human Rights Commission, agreed.
“The internet connection shutdown blocks the regular flow of information,” he said. “It delays human rights observers from acquiring relevant information on rights violations in the conflict areas. It also hinders the completion of real-time action.”
Hostilities between Myanmar forces and the AA intensified in late 2018 and again in January, when Arakan soldiers carried out deadly attacks on police outposts.
Myo Nyunt, spokesman for the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party, suggested last week that the rebel forces could be using the network to spy on the Myanmar military’s operations and to transfer data involving military intelligence.
On Saturday, the United States became the latest party to call for an immediate end of the blockage of internet-based communications for roughly 1 million people in the two states. “Internet service should be restored without delay,” said a press statement issued by State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus.
“Resumption of service would help facilitate transparency in and accountability for what the government claims are law enforcement actions aimed at preventing further outbreaks of violence in the affected areas, and would limit further damage to Burma’s international reputation,” it said, referring to Myanmar’s former name.
Yanghee Lee, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, along with the rights groups Reporters Without Borders, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch also issued warnings last week about the cutoff of internet-based communications and called for the restoration of service in the region. (RFA)