Scrap plan to sell vacated Muslim-owned properties and businesses in Rakhine State
(Yangon, February 26, 2016)—The government of Myanmar should immediately and unconditionally facilitate the right to return for more than 145,000 Rohingya Muslims and others confined to 67 internment camps in Rakhine State, Fortify Rights said today. The government should ensure safe and voluntary reintegration and return of displaced Muslims to their original homesteads and provide reparations for lost property and livelihoods in accordance with international law and standards.
The Rakhine State government had plans to sell Muslim-owned properties and commercial licenses this month in the state capital Sittwe without consent from or benefit to those who were forced into internment camps in 2012. The Rakhine State government recently put the plan on hold.
“The authorities did the right thing. We applaud the decision,” said Matthew Smith, Executive Director of Fortify Rights. “Now is the time to end ongoing abuses and support all of the displaced to return home and restore their lives. The apartheid-like system in Rakhine State must be deliberately and carefully dismantled.”
Myanmar authorities have confined more than 145,000 Rohingya to 67 internment camps following targeted attacks against Rohingya and other Muslims by civilians and state security forces in 2012—events that are commonly mislabelled as “communal violence.”
Rohingya in internment camps in Sittwe Township told Fortify Rights that they had asked government officials visiting the camps to facilitate their return to their original homes, properties, and businesses. Visiting officials reportedly told displaced Rohingya from Sittwe there would be “no way” for them to reclaim their businesses. Many Rohingya in the camps now fear they will never return to their original homes and businesses.
“We don’t know what they’re going to do with our shops now, because . . . there are no Rohingya in downtown Sittwe anymore,” a 42-year-old displaced Rohingya man told Fortify Rights in Thet Kae Pyin internment camp. “Now the Rakhine are using our shops. Even though we have our documents—licenses, tax papers, everything—what can we do if they use our shops?”
Government officials claim the mass confinement of displaced Rohingya is for security. The authorities uniformly refer to Rohingya as “Bengali,” explicitly denying their existence as an ethnic group, while subjecting displaced Rohingya to avoidable deprivations in shelter, food, and medical care.
Rather than facilitate the right to return home, Myanmar state security forces have extorted money from displaced Rohingya who continue to conduct modest business within the internment camps and from those seeking emergency medical treatment. Fortify Rights has documented the denial of humanitarian aid to thousands of “unregistered” internally displaced Rohingya, whom the authorities do not recognize as displaced. These residents are denied access to aid and services delivered by the UN World Food Program and other agencies.
The right to return is recognized as customary international law. Article 13(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides for the “right to freedom of movement and residence,” which also protects displaced persons’ right to return. Article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that “[e]veryone lawfully within the territory of a State shall, within that territory, have the right to liberty of movement and freedom to choose his residence.” This right applies to long-term residents of a country and stateless persons arbitrarily deprived of the right to acquire nationality. Moreover, the United Nations Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement call on authorities to “allow internally displaced persons to return voluntarily, in safety and with dignity, to their homes or places of habitual residence, or to resettle voluntarily in another part of country.”
In 2015, the government of Myanmar reportedly facilitated the right to return for several thousand displaced Rohingya to new settlements located near their former villages in Rakhine State. These relocated communities continue to be denied freedom of movement.
“Naypyidaw has deliberately stalled in restoring rights to displaced Rohingya, fomenting deeper divisions between Buddhists and Muslims,” said Matthew Smith. “There is no defensible reason for the incoming Government of Myanmar to continue to confine Rohingya to these squalid internment camps. The international community should demand the authorities provide freedom of movement for all residents of Rakhine State and support the reintegration and voluntary return of all displaced persons to their original places.”
In November 2015, Myanmar’s National League of Democracy (NLD) party, led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, swept national elections. The NLD is currently transitioning into power, a culmination of a decades-long struggle for democracy and against direct military rule.
The NLD is slated to appoint the Chief Minister and government of Rakhine State.
“The new government has an opportunity to break with the abusive legacy of the previous administration,” said Matthew Smith. “Lifting restrictions on freedom of movement and facilitating safe, voluntary, and dignified returns for displaced Rohingya would be an important step in the right direction for Rakhine State.”
There are more than one million stateless Rohingya in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, most of whom are confined to three townships in northern Rakhine State—Maungdaw, Buthidaung, and Rathedaung—where the population has endured widespread and systematic human rights violations for decades.
A 79-page report in February 2014 by Fortify Rights, Policies of Persecution: Ending Abusive State Policies Against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, exposed longstanding, confidential state policies implemented by the Government of Myanmar that deny Rohingya the rights to nondiscrimination, freedom of movement, marriage, family, health, and privacy.
In 2012, initial violence between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State graduated into targeted, state-sanctioned attacks against Rohingya and other Muslims in 13 of 17 townships in the state. The 2012 violence resulted in untold casualties, mass displacement, and widespread destruction of property. Displaced Rohingya left behind homes, shops, animals, and personal possessions. In some areas, government officials subsequently bulldozed otherwise unaffected Muslim-owned structures, including homes and mosques throughout the state.
While all ethnic communities in Rakhine State survived human rights violations under decades of direct military rule, the deadly attacks in 2012 compounded longstanding, state-sponsored abuses unique to the stateless Rohingya, including the restrictions on freedom of movement, marriage, childbirth, and livelihoods.
A 78-page report prepared for Fortify Rights in October 2015 by the Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School, Persecution of the Rohingya Muslims: Is Genocide Occurring in Myanmar’s Rakhine State? A Legal Analysis, found strong evidence toward establishing the elements of the crime of genocide against Rohingya in Rakhine State.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has reported that more than 170,000 men, women, and children—mostly Rohingya—have fled ongoing abuses in Rakhine State since 2012, taking risky boat journeys to Malaysia and often falling into the clutches of transnational human trafficking syndicates. Rohingya refugees and survivors of trafficking have ended up in Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia, where they are denied freedom of movement and adequate protections and are at risk of indefinite detention and being re-trafficked.
Tens of thousands of Rohingya are believed to have fled from Rakhine State to Bangladesh since 2012 and remain there, joining an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh who are eking out an existence in avoidable squalor similar to that in Myanmar’s internment camps. The government of Bangladesh denies Rohingya access to adequate humanitarian aid and asylum procedures and has rejected offers of international assistance.