Myanmar must deal with internal Rohingya problem first

Internally displaced members of the Muslim minority in Myanmar have been overshadowed by border-crossing refugees
Myanmar must deal with internal Rohingya problem first

Rohingya Muslim children and elders gather at the Thet Kel Pyin camp in Rakhine state during the Eid al-Adha celebrations on Aug. 22. About 130,000 Rohingya remain in squalid camps in Rakhine, cut off from adequate healthcare and unable to travel. (Photo by Phyo Hein Kyaw/AFP)

International attention continues to focus on faltering plans to resettle in Myanmar up to one million Rohingya Muslim refugees now in Bangladesh, but a related tragedy is also unfolding.

An estimated 130,000 ethnic Rohingya have been trapped for the past six years in internally displaced person (IDP) camps in Myanmar's troubled Rakhine State.

About 100,000 were from 2012 forced into what would eventually become 16 camps of various sizes on a large tract of land in and around the island capital of Sittwe. Another 30,000 are spread between 20 other camps in the state.

The sort of violence against Rohingya that caused this dislocation has occurred off and on since Burma's independence from the British Empire in 1948.

The violence flared in the northern part of central Rakhine, engulfing Rohingya from the mainland as well.

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The camps were built in a farming and fishing area where there are mosques and at least one madrassa school for boys centered on the study of Islam but also teaching Arabic and English. Villages not directly caught up in the violence found camps are built next door to them.

The area has effectively become a large concentration camp, something portrayed by Myanmar officials as necessary for the protection of inmates.

They are akin to IDP camps in Myanmar's Kachin State where there are some 120,000 people displaced by the long-running secessionist conflict between the military and the Kachin Independence Army.

Those in the Kachin camps are citizens; collateral damage in a bloody war of attrition over resources such as jade, rubies, timber and opium that are sold in neighboring China.

One major stumbling block to Rohingya resettlement is that an overwhelming majority lack citizenship. They are the only significant ethnic minority not included as one of Myanmar's world-beating 135 "official" ethnic groups recognized at independence. By some estimates, these minorities constitute a third of the nation's population. However, official statistics have long been a subject of controversy. The 2010 census figure of 1.1 million Rohingya is proving to have been significantly underestimated.

Myanmar is hit hard by an annual monsoon and Sittwe has an average annual rainfall of 455 centimeters compared to other supposedly wet cities such as Seattle in the United States with 114 centimeters and Sydney in Australia with 154 centimeters.

Cox's Bazar in southern Bangladesh, where most cross-border Rohingya refugee camps are located, averages 355 centimeters of rain each year and the inmates there are also threatened by flooding, landslides, cholera, malaria and dengue.

The IDP camps in Rakhine lack proper sanitation and only a few of the larger camps have clinics. From time to time, the military picks a fight with an NGO and halts some or all aid, for days or even weeks, as it did in June.

The Myanmar government has also chipped away at Rohingya culture by imposing restrictions on their faith such as a ban on the building of mosques.

During the 2012 violence, mosques were burned or smashed by hard-line Buddhists, including from the notorious Ma Ba Tha group and plainclothes members of the military.

As a result, a handful of shanty houses of worship have been set up in IDP camps; Rohingya don't like to use the word "mosque" because they feel that would denigrate what a real mosque should be like.

From 2014-16, many Rohingya resorted to paying people traffickers to flee to Thailand, Malaysia and elsewhere, with many perishing at sea. Young men have been the largest cohort, but women and children have also sought to join husbands, fathers and brothers. There are now about 40,000 Rohingya in far less restrictive camps in Malaysia.

Like refugee and IDP camps the world over, there is an overarching unemployment problem that means pretty much everyone is scratching around just to feed themselves.

Children are particularly vulnerable. When I visited the Rakhine camps in late 2015, the clear message from healthcare professionals and NGOs was that disease and malnutrition pose the greatest threats.

So far, people in the camps have been spared a serious epidemic. But one wonders if the military is hoping that such a tragedy would abet its broader ethnic cleansing objective.

For seven years, children born in the IDP camps have known nothing other than these benighted places as home. They are underfed and receive no formal education. Their start in life has been indescribably awful. Most of them, if they survive, will suffer physical and mental handicaps caused by malnutrition and early exposure to serious diseases.

The official path out of the camps was always supposed to be via verification of their original residences. But this process is crawling at a snail's pace. Only four such camps, with several thousand people in total, finally closed and those involved were not resettled in their historic towns or villages.

A problem for so many Rohingya is that they lost essential documentation when their homes and shops were burned and looted as they fled for their lives.

It is the same problem that dogs fellow Rohingya in the Bangladesh refugee camps. Progressing of the residential verification process, along with provision of adequate services, is essential.

However, these are only the first requisite steps. The Myanmar government clearly needs to strike a better deal with the military, which runs the IDP camps in the north of Rakhine. That is hard to do with de facto civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and military leader Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, who stands accused of genocide, being barely on speaking terms.

It is understood that the powerful general was earlier this year only narrowly talked out of imposing martial law in either northern Rakhine or the whole state.

Much Rohingya land has been occupied by Rakhine Buddhists, many of whom were not party to acts of Buddhist militant violence against the Rohingya.

Myanmar's 'Rohingya Conflict, a new book by Anthony Ware and Costas Laoutides, lays out with clear-eyed humanity and factual detail that this is very much a tripartite conflict.

Some Buddhists went into separate IDP camps. Militants from among Buddhist Rakhine, formerly known as Arakanese, have been fighting the national military like other ethnic groups such as those in Chin, Kachin, Shan, Karen, Kayah and Mon states.

Most critically, the people of Myanmar and Rakhine Buddhists must make peace with Rohingya Muslims who have remained within the fragmented nation's borders.

However, Suu Kyi has so far not demonstrated that she is up to the task of bringing about reconciliation based on credible acceptance of the Rohingya.

Until this is achieved, and other barriers to resettlement are removed, what chance is there that many Rohingya still marooned in Bangladesh will believe that they could survive returning to their homeland?

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