Two sets of high-definition images of Myanmar taken from outer space: both are shot in the morning, both show the same villages populated by Rohingya Muslims of Rakhine state. The first set, collected from 2014, displays a small collection of homes where the virtually stateless minority has settled. The buildings, lying between trees and set back from dirt roads, number more than 100. In the second set of images, taken in the past two months, the homes have vanished, and all that remains is square patches of burnt earth.
Provided by Human Rights Watch, the images reveal 430 buildings that have been destroyed in three different villages, and support the claim from a United Nations official that Myanmar is seeking the “ethnic cleansing of the Muslim Rohingya” from its territory.
After nine border officers were killed on 9 October, the region’s Muslim minority – already excluded, impoverished and persecuted – has once again fallen victim to a sharp increase in targeted violent attacks. Over the past two months, around 10,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled to Bangladesh and, according to Amnesty International, eyewitness accounts from those refugees suggest that “Myanmar’s security forces, led by the military”, are “torching hundreds of homes”.
The human rights group has also accused the Myanmar military of “firing at villagers from helicopter gunships,” carrying out “arbitrary arrests” and “raping women and girls”. The UN has added torture, summary executions and the destruction of mosques to this list.
There are an estimated 1 million Rohingya Muslims – just one of many ethnic minorities groups – living in Buddhist-majority Myanmar. Despite living in Rakhsne state for generations, Rohingya Muslims are seen by many in the country not as fellow citizens but as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
A series of violent clashes in 2012 left 100,000 displaced. The following year I visited Myanmar with Refugees International and the Burma Campaign UK. During this trip we heard stories of how Rohingya communities had fled from violent attacks to the remote areas of the countryside. In Rakhine state, the camps where Rohingya Muslims had been forced into living were horrific, and in many cases people were cut off from life-saving humanitarian aid and access to healthcare.
I travelled by boat to a UNHCR-supported camp in Pauktaw, and have vivid memories of the shores near the camps being covered in faeces, with dead rats floating just metres from where children were bathing to keep cool in the unbearable heat. I can also remember the exhaustion, the trauma and the fear on the faces of so many who had only known lives of segregationand are subjected to racial discrimination everyday. I also remember being told of stories of loved ones being killed, of children dying for lack of access to healthcare, and of women dying at child birth.
Since Myanmar passed the citizenship law in 1982, full citizenship in Myanmar is based, according to Burma Campaign UK, on being a member of the “national races” – a category awarded only to those who are “considered to have settled in Myanmar prior to 1824, the date of the first occupation by the British”. In Myanmar’s national census of 2014, the Muslim minority group was initially allowed to self-identify as “Rohingya”, but the government later reversed this freedom and deemed that they could only be identified as “Bengali”.
This has left the Rohingya open to discrimination and mistreatment. Denied the right to education and equal employment, and given only limited access to healthcare, they have endured intolerable conditions. In Myanmar in 2013, I walked around hospital wards that segregated the sick by their religion.
Many Rohingya Muslims flee Myanmar by boat from the Bay of Bengal in the hope of reaching Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia or Indonesia. As their situation has continued to deteriorate over the last year, thousands have attempted to cross a stretch of water that is three times more deadly for refugees than the Mediterranean. According to the UN, they are often “stranded at sea on overcrowded boats, controlled by traffickers and people smugglers”, with many “beaten and held hostage for ransom”.
Despite last year’s historic elections – which supposedly began the end of 50 years of military rule – the rights and freedoms of Rohingya Muslims have not improved. Eight months before polling day, the president of Myanmar revoked all temporary registration cards, leaving many Rohingya Muslims without any form of identity document and hence unable to cast their vote.
Despite her election victory, human rights campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi – who’d been under house arrest for 15 years – was prevented from becoming president and instead assumed the role of “state counsellor”. There was a great sense of hope that once in office, the Nobel peace prize winner would stand up against any rights violations against Rohingya and other persecuted minorities. However, with control over national security still in the hands of the military, not much has changed – in fact the treatment, support and defence of Rohingya Muslims has deteriorated. Journalists are not allowed to enter the region.
Two weeks ago, 70 British parliamentarians wrote to the UK foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, urging the government to intensify its pressure on the Myanmar government to allow full humanitarian aid and access to Rakhine state. We are still waiting for a reply. Britain, along with the international community, needs to urgently listen to these voices and increase its efforts to ensure that alleged abuses are investigated, and that the violent campaign against Rohingya Muslims is ended. Minorities in Myanmar deserve the chance to live in peace.
Rushanara Ali is Labour MP for Bethnal Green and Bow and shadow international development minister.