An Open Prison without End – Myanmar’s Mass Detention of Rohingya in Rakhine State
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 the 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.
In 2018, two of Hamida’s sons who had escaped to Malaysia spent 1,400,000 kyat (US$960) to send her and two of her daughters to Bangladesh. She sought medical care and the basic freedoms that her family had been denied for years. She now lives in another camp among nearly one million Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar. Her husband and two other children remain in Thet Kae Pyin, their requests to return home denied. She hopes one day they can all live in Kyaukpyu again. But only if they will be safe and free:
We want justice. We want to get back to our land. I have a desire to go back to my birthplace in Kyaukpyu before I die; otherwise, it’s better to die here in Bangladesh. Even the animals like dogs, foxes, or other creatures in the forest have their own land, but we Rohingya don’t have any place—although we had our own place once.
The 2012 coordinated attacks on Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State by ethnic Rakhine, local officials, and state security forces ultimately displaced over 140,000 people. More than 130,000 Muslims—mostly Rohingya, as well as a few thousand Kaman—remain confined in camps in central Rakhine State that are effectively open-air detention facilities, where they are held arbitrarily and indefinitely.
Many Rohingya told Human Rights Watch that their lives in the camps are like living under house arrest every day. They are denied freedom of movement, dignity, and access to employment and education, without adequate provision of food, water, health care, or sanitation.
The Myanmar government’s system of discriminatory laws and policies that render the Rohingya in Rakhine State a permanent underclass because of their ethnicity and religion amounts to apartheid in violation of international law. The officials responsible for their situation should be appropriately prosecuted for the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.
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.
After the 2012 violence, the Rakhine State government segregated the displaced Muslims and ethnic Rakhine in Sittwe township in an ostensible effort to defuse tensions. While the displaced ethnic Rakhine have since returned to their homes or resettled, the government has maintained the Rohingya’s confinement and segregation for eight years.
Myanmar has failed to articulate any legitimate rationale for this extensive, unlawful internment. While the Rohingya have faced decades of systematic repression, discrimination, and violence under successive Myanmar governments, the 2012 violence provided a pretext for a longer term approach. “What they did in 2012 was overwhelm the Rohingya population,” said a UN officer who worked in Rakhine State at the time. “Corner them, fence them, confine the ‘enemy.’”
Rohingya in the camps are denied freedom of movement through overlapping systems of restrictions—formal policies and local orders, informal and ad hoc practices, checkpoints and barbed-wire fencing, and a widespread system of extortion that makes travel financially and logistically prohibitive.
Myanmar authorities meanwhile have enabled a culture of threats and violence that instills fear and self-imposed constraints. The central Rakhine camps violate international human rights law and contravene international standards on the treatment of internally displaced persons (IDPs), which provide that displaced populations “shall not be interned in or confined to a camp.” These violations are so severe that these camps cannot accurately be considered IDP camps at all, but rather open-air detention camps.
Access to and from the camps and movement within are heavily controlled by military and police checkpoints. Rohingya are not allowed to leave the camps without official, mostly unobtainable, permission. In the city of Sittwe, where about 75,000 Rohingya lived before 2012, only 4,000 remain. Surrounded by barbed wire, checkpoints, and armed police guards, they now live under effective lockdown in the last Muslim ghetto of Aung Mingalar.
The restrictions have given rise to a widespread system of bribes and extortion, while unauthorized attempts to leave result in arrest and ill-treatment. The constraints have tightened over the years. Mohammed Yunus lived in Ohn Taw Gyi camp in Sittwe before fleeing to Bangladesh. “During my years inside the camp, I saw the situation becoming more and more strict,” he said. “It was like an open prison without end.”
Myanmar officials have often invoked tensions between ethnic Rakhine and Muslim communities as the rationale for limiting Rohingya’s freedom to travel outside the camps. This claim is belied by the authorities’ involvement in stoking mistrust and fear and longstanding ability, demonstrated over decades of military dictatorship, to keep communal tensions in check.
The security risks posed at various points by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), the ethnic Rohingya armed group, and the Arakan Army, an ethnic Rakhine armed group, also fail to justify the repressive measures. The broad-based and harsh security restrictions imposed on Rohingya are unlawfully discriminatory, indefinite, and do not reflect specific security threats as international law requires.
The government’s policies have exacerbated the underlying ethnic tensions by failing to address hate speech and Buddhist nationalism, hold accountable perpetrators of violence, or promote tolerance. Instead of undertaking effective action to protect vulnerable communities, government officials have echoed and endorsed the threats, discrimination, and violence against the Muslim population.
A Rohingya woman from Aung Mingalar described her frustration with the government’s pretense: “They say, ‘Because of your security you can’t go outside [the camps].’ What security? If they wanted to put people in prison, they could. If they wanted to control the situation now, they could.”
Living conditions in the 24 camps and camp-like settings are squalid, described in 2018 as “beyond the dignity of any people” by then-United Nations Assistant Secretary-General Ursula Mueller. Severe limitations on access to livelihoods, education, health care, and adequate food or shelter have been compounded by increasing government constraints on humanitarian aid, which Rohingya are dependent on for survival. Fighting between the Myanmar military and Arakan Army since January 2019 has triggered new aid blockages across Rakhine State.
Camp shelters, originally built to last just two years, have deteriorated over eight monsoon seasons. The national and Rakhine State governments have refused to allocate adequate space or suitable land for the camps’ construction and maintenance, leading to pervasive overcrowding, high vulnerability to flood and fire, and uninhabitable conditions by humanitarian standards.
A UN official described her visit to the camps: “The first thing you notice when you reach the camps is the stomach-churning stench. Parts of the camps are literally cesspools. Shelters teeter on stilts above garbage and excrement. In one camp, the pond where people draw water from is separated by a low mud wall from the sewage.”
These conditions are a direct cause of increased morbidity and mortality in the camps. Rohingya face higher rates of malnutrition, waterborne illnesses, and child and maternal deaths than their Rakhine neighbors. An assessment of health data by the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a humanitarian organization working in the camps, found that tuberculosis rates are nine times higher in the camps than in the surrounding Rakhine villages.
Lack of access to emergency medical assistance, particularly in pregnancy-related cases, has led to preventable deaths. Only 7 percent of live births took place in health facilities during the first quarter of 2018, putting mothers and newborns in life-threatening risk. Child mortality rates are also high. During a 10-day period in January 2019, five children under 2 died from treatable diarrheal illness.
The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the extreme vulnerability in which Rohingya live. They face threats from overcrowding, aid blockages, and movement restrictions that increase the risk of transmission, as well as harassment, extortion, and hate speech from authorities.
Rohingya children are denied their right to quality education without discrimination. About 70 percent of the 120,000 school-age Muslim children in central Rakhine camps and villages are out of school. Given the movement restrictions, most can only attend under-resourced temporary learning centers led by volunteer teachers. The only high school in central Rakhine State open to Muslims, located in the Sittwe camp area, has just 600 students and a 100:1 student-teacher ratio.
Rohingya have been barred from attending Sittwe University since 2012 for undefined “security” reasons. A Rohingya woman who passed the matriculation exam to study in Yangon in 2005 but was never granted permission to leave Rakhine said: “Since childhood, I have lost many opportunities for my education. If I could have come [to Yangon] in 2005, I could have changed my life.” In one camp, only 3 percent of women are literate.
This deprivation of education is a violation of the fundamental rights of the 65,000 children living in the camps. It serves as a tool of long-term marginalization and segregation of the Rohingya, cutting off younger generations from a future of self-reliance and dignity, as well as the ability to reintegrate into the broader community. It also feeds into the cycle of worsening conditions and services. Without opportunities for Rohingya to study to become teachers or healthcare workers, the community is left with a growing lack of trained service providers, particularly as ethnic Rakhine are often unwilling to work in the camps.
Restrictions that prevent Rohingya from working outside the camps have had serious economic consequences. Almost all Rohingya in the camps were forced to abandon their pre-2012 trades and occupations. Former teachers and shopkeepers have been left seeking ad hoc and inconsistent work as day laborers for an average of 3,000 kyat (US$2) a day. An 18-year-old from Say Tha Mar Gyi camp said: “Some of us want to run our own businesses but we don’t have money to invest. Some of us want to be carpenters but we don’t have tools. Some of us want to go fishing but we don’t have boats.”
The seeming unending joblessness is a significant push factor in Rohingya seeking high-risk avenues of escape from the camps. Since 2012, more than 100,000 have willingly faced the threat of drowning at sea or abuse by traffickers to seek protection and the chance for a new life and work in Malaysia and elsewhere. A Rohingya woman explained: “We know we will die in the sea. If we reach there, we will be lucky; if we die, it is okay because we have no future here.”
The National League for Democracy (NLD) government, under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi, has repeatedly demonstrated its unwillingness to improve conditions for Rohingya since taking office in 2016 following a half century of military rule. A Rohingya woman who fled Rakhine State described the lack of political will:
After the 2015 elections [when the NLD won], they have hope in the camps. They think things will change. After one year, they realize the Lady [Suu Kyi] will not do anything for us. They flee again. They are hopeless. She really doesn’t care. If the government wanted to control the monks, hate speech, it could.… Daw Suu is always talking about rule of law. If she actually practiced rule of law, we would be okay.
Little seems likely to change with the upcoming November elections. Most Rohingya have been barred from running for office and stripped of their right to vote.
Rohingya living in the camps have consistently expressed their desire to return to their homes, villages, and land, a right that the government has long denied. As Myo Myint Oo from Nidin camp said: “We want to go back to our places of origin and work our jobs again and live again with our neighbors in peace, like before 2012. We want to live in a safe place with other people, permanently.”
No compensation or other form of reparation has been provided for lost lives, homes, or property. A Kaman Muslim community leader said: “Nobody has been able to return, nobody has been compensated. We keep asking, even still we are asking the government for our land.… The land is still empty, there are no buildings there. We are still asking.”
In response to recommendations in an interim report from the government-appointed Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, led by the late UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the government announced in April 2017 that it would begin closing the camps. Its approach, however, has entailed constructing permanent structures in the current camp locations, further entrenching segregation and denying the Rohingya the right to return to their land, reconstruct their homes, regain work, and reintegrate into Myanmar society, in violation of their fundamental rights.
As noted in a March 2019 memo by the UN-led Humanitarian Country Team:
The Humanitarian community recognizes that the activities undertaken by the Government thus far in the framework of its “camp closure” plan are contributing to the permanent segregation of Rohingya and Kaman IDPs, and have not provided any durable solutions for IDPs or improved their access to basic human rights.
In November 2019, the government adopted the “National Strategy on Resettlement of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and Closure of IDP Camps,” which it claimed would provide sustainable solutions. Yet the steps undertaken thus far offer no sign of improving the “closure” process or having any positive impact on the lives of camp detainees. A UN official called the strategy development “just a smokescreen,” and a 2020 UN analysis concluded: “The implementation of the strategy, in of itself, will unlikely resolve the fundamental issues that led to the displacement crisis in Rakhine state.”
The camp “closures” being carried out fall far short of the safe and dignified solution to displacement called for under international standards. Rohingya and Kaman as well as humanitarian agencies report that in the three camps labeled “closed,” there has been no notable increase in freedom of movement or access to basic services.
“Nothing has changed,” a Rohingya man living in one of the “closed” camps said. “We have had individual shelters since August 2018, but everything else has stayed the same. We don’t have freedom of movement, and still have major challenges for livelihood, income, and health.”
The camp closure process has triggered the UN and humanitarian groups to reevaluate their approach to working in the camps. These agencies have a humanitarian mandate to assist wherever it is needed, and the needs of the Rohingya in the camps are vast. But working in the camps for eight years has increasingly threatened to make them complicit in what agency staff have determined to be a government effort at permanent segregation and deprivation. Many are questioning their engagement with a government and military that have threatened and manipulated their operations for years.
One UN officer said: “Do you really want to invest millions in making concentration camps better? That is the question we’re facing.… You are helping them become permanent detainees.”
An internal UN discussion note from September 2018 asserted that despite the humanitarian community’s efforts, “the only scenario that is unfolding before our eyes is the implementation of a policy of apartheid with the permanent segregation of all Muslims, the vast majority of whom are stateless Rohingya, in central Rakhine.”
After eight years of de facto detention, the sense of hopelessness among displaced Rohingya is pervasive, and only worsened by the meaningless assurances of camp closures. Not one Rohingya interviewed by Human Rights Watch expressed a belief that their situation in the camps could improve, that their indefinite detention may end, or that their children could one day live, learn, and move freely. “How can we hope for the future?” said Ali Khan, who lives in a camp in Kyauktaw. “The local authorities could help us if they wanted things to improve, but they only neglect [us].”
“I think they won’t solve this problem,” a Rohingya woman who had escaped Rakhine State said of the government’s plan to close the camps. “I think the system is permanent. A long time ago they took our money. Nothing will change. It is only words.”
In September 2012, then-UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar Tomás Ojea Quintana gave a prescient warning about the government’s plan:
The current separation of Muslim and Buddhist communities following the violence should not be maintained in the long term. In rebuilding towns and villages, Government authorities should pay equal attention to rebuilding trust and respect between communities.… A policy of integration, rather than separation and segregation, should be developed at the local and national levels as a priority.
Yet, rather than “rebuilding trust and respect,” the government has maintained the Rohingya’s confinement and segregation for eight years—while having since resettled or returned the thousands of displaced Rakhine Buddhists—exacerbating ethnic and religious discrimination with devastating impact.
The 1973 Apartheid Convention applies to “inhumane acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them.” Apartheid and persecution are also crimes against humanity under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.
As the term “racial group” has been defined under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racism (ICERD) and by ad hoc international criminal tribunals, the Rohingya, as an ethnic and religious group, should be considered a distinct racial group for purposes of the Apartheid Convention.
Myanmar government laws and policies on the Rohingya community, notably their long-term and indefinite confinement in camps and villages, and regime of restrictions on movement, citizenship, employment, housing, health care, and other fundamental rights, demonstrate an intent to maintain domination over them. The adoption of many of these practices into state regulations and official policies and their enforcement by state security forces shows an intent for this oppression to be systematic.
Specific inhumane acts applicable to the government’s apartheid system include denial of the right to liberty; infringement of freedom or dignity causing serious bodily or mental harm; and illegal imprisonment. Various governmental measures appear calculated to prevent members of the Rohingya population from participating in the political, social, and economic life of the country, and deny group members their rights to work, to education, to leave and to return to their country, to a nationality, and to freedom of movement and residence. The government has also imposed measures designed to divide the population along racial lines by the “creation of separate reserves and ghettos” for the Rohingya and the confiscation of property.
All of these acts are ongoing in Rakhine State and amount to a regime of apartheid against the Rohingya.