On Tuesday, April 19th a ferry boat with 65 Rohingya passengers including men, women, children and babies, sank at the entrance of the Thay Choung river in Myanmar. According to the Burmese Rohingya Organization UK, 15 Rohingya passengers died, about 20 are missing, 20 are alive and 10 are unconscious. Children and a baby are among the dead.
The boat sunk after being hit by a big wave while they were traveling from Sin Tat Maw (Sandama) the Internally Displaced Persons camp (IDP) in Pauktaw Township to Sittwe Township, Arakan, to buy food.
Enduring increased violence and repression since 2012, Rohingya people have faced a worsening humanitarian situation. Restrictions on travel and lack of security have made growing and buying food much more difficult for Rohingya people. Restrictions on international humanitarian assistance to those in IDP camps and the rest of Arakan State also make the humanitarian crisis much worse.
Since 2012, approximately 140,000 internally displaced people have been trapped in camps which UN officials have described as having some of the worst conditions in the world.
These restrictions and lack of security force Rohingya people to make long and sometimes dangerous journeys to find food. More than ten percent of the Rohingya population have fled Myanmar since 2012.
Previous governments have used a combination of impoverishment and repression to try to force Rohingya people out of Burma. The new National League for Democracy (NLD) led government must now end this policy, says the Burmese Rohingya Organization UK.
“The NLD-led government should immediately lift all restrictions on international humanitarian aid in Arakan State, and ensure security for aid workers,” said Tun Khin, President of Burmese Rohingya Organization UK. “People are dying every day. Tragedies like this ferry sinking have happened too often in the past and will happen again without action.”
The incoming NLD government presents the first opportunity in decades to not only halt the escalation of anti-Rohingya policies and laws, but also put it into reverse, ending violations of international law and applying the rule of law and international human rights standards.
For decades, successive regimes and governments in Myanmar have pursued a twin-track policy of impoverishment and human rights violations in order to attempt to wipe out the Rohingya community from Arakan State, the organization says. Under the government of President Thein Sein, human rights violations against the Rohingya sharply escalated, as he attempted to use Buddhist nationalism and anti-Muslim prejudice in the country to win public support.
Human Rights Watch stated that human rights violations against the Rohingya met the legal definitions of ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. Fortify Rights also found evidence of crimes against humanity. Studies by the Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School and Fortify Rights, and by the International State Crime Initiative of Queen Mary University London, found evidence that amounts to genocide of the Rohingya. There is a humanitarian crisis in camps that Rohingya fled to in 2012, and senior members of the nationalist Arakan National Party continue to whip up hatred against the Rohingya.
In February 2016, the Burmese Rohingya Organization UK published proposals for four steps the new NLD government could take to start to address the Rohingya crisis, including ending restrictions on aid.
Addressing the root causes of prejudice and human rights violations against the Rohingya will take many years, but in order to start this process, and to have an immediate impact saving lives and reducing human rights violations, here are practical steps an NLD government can take in its first six months:
- Action against hate-speech and extremists – Take action to prevent hate speech and incitement of violence, and demonstrate moral leadership, with Aung San Suu Kyi and other NLD leaders personally and specifically speaking out against prejudice and hatred, and challenging the extreme nationalist narrative.
- Ensure humanitarian access – Immediately lift all restrictions on the operations of international aid agencies, ensure safe return to homes, and also start to devote more government resources to assisting IDPs and isolated villagers.
- Reform or repeal of the 1982 Citizenship Law – The lack of full citizenship lies at the root of most of the discrimination faced by the Rohingya. There is no way this issue can be avoided, and it is much better that an NLD-led government bite the bullet and deal with it at the start of their period in government when they have a new and strong mandate, strong party unity, and elections are years away. It will have to be addressed at some point. Better it is done while the NLD-led government is strongest.
- Justice and accountability – An NLD-led government should set up a credible independent investigation with international experts to investigate these crimes and propose action. If the NLD government fails to do so, the United Nations should establish its own Commission of Inquiry.