Independent human rights groups and journalists are blocked by the government from entering the camps or to investigate alleged human rights abuses in northern Rakhine State, Myanmar. But VOA managed to speak to women inside the internally displaced camps.
Maw Mura* wrings her hands constantly as she describes her difficulties living as a Rohingya woman, in one of Myanmar’s forgotten segregated camps.
“Living in the camp is like living in a prison or a chicken coop, it’s not appropriate for teenagers, married parents and elders to live inside a small room,” pointing to the clutter of tin roofed shelters. Her eyes are empty, there’s no anger or fire, just resignation.
Thirty-seven-year-old Maw Mura has been forced to live in the barbed wire confined camps since 2012, after violence erupted in the town of Sittwe in western Myanmar. Buddhist mobs took to the streets with machetes, burning down houses where Maw Mura’s shop was also looted. A few months after arriving in the camp, Maw Mura’s husband died, leaving her to raise her children on her own.
Some 128,000 Rohingya and other displaced Muslims have been left here in the Sittwe camps.
“I want to go home, we want freedom of movement,” says Maw Mura, when asked what she wants in the future. Her home inside the camps is a small tin and bamboo shelter that has only one room which she has to share with another family. This is a situation not uncommon inside the camps.
“Closure of camps” without citizenship breeds permanent segregation fears
This month marks the two year anniversary since more than 700,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh after a brutal military crackdown. For those who have remained in Rakhine, they face severe movement restrictions and many are confined to a life behind barbed wire fences in the Sittwe camps, heavily patrolled by police.
The Myanmar government has begun “closing” down the camps -- a policy of building modular housing blocks next to the existing make-shift shelters. But to date, Rohingya still aren’t allowed to leave these sites.
Minister of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement Dr. Win Myat Aye says the government is acting on the recommendations made by the Kofi Annan-led commission that was tasked with producing an independent report for Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi that focused on rebuilding peace in Rakhine State.
Yet the government is accused by rights groups of skirting around the heart of the problem — recognizing them as citizens. Instead they are selecting only some of the recommendations to implement, rather than implementing the steps outlined in the report as a whole. And the Rohingya are being denied their most pressing request: citizenship so they can freely return home to their place of origin.
Without a citizenship card they can’t access health care, education or open a business.
Presenting camp closures as progress?
In the lead up to the 2020 election Aung San Suu Kyi’s government is in a scramble to show the international community that they have acted on the 88 recommendations made by the Kofi Annan-led Rakhine Advisory Commission.
The International State Crime Initiative, based at Queen Mary University of London, released a report last year again warning that genocide is a process still ongoing, so presenting the camp closure as progress or a positive step must be questioned.
Alicia de la Cour Venning, executive board member at the International State Crime Initiative explains: “The closure of the camps alongside persistent failures to address the state-driven processes of dehumanization, isolation, and systematic weakening, which are central to the perpetration of genocide, will only exacerbate the already bare life existence of the Rohingya.”
“It’s not ok to create a different kind of camp. Unless we are resettled in our original places, we will be separated forever. Like in Israel and Palestine, they are separated, this apartheid is unacceptable. It will keep people separated. Government and powerful people want to get benefit from this,” Mohammad Noor, a father who has lived inside the camps since 2012 added.
Since 2017 the grip on international humanitarian groups providing food rations, basic sanitation programs has been tightened.
The Rohingya that VOA spoke to, urgently raised their one hope to live again in the community, to live an independent, dignified life. Not reduced to helpless victims.
For many Rohingya women interviewed, their biggest concern after citizenship was that their children would grow up illiterate.
Hla Hla, a mother of two children, states simply, “we want to have a similar life again where our children have education and we have job opportunities.”
*The names of the Rohingya women have been changed to protect their identity.