UPDATED at 10:59 A.M. EDT on 2018-08-22
Authorities in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state have closed a camp that housed about 600 Rohingya Muslims displaced by communal violence six years ago and have resettled them in new homes, a Myanmar government official said Monday.
More than 580 Rohingya comprising 85 households had been living in the Nidin internally displaced persons (IDP) camp in Mrauk-U district’s Kyauktaw township since 2012, said Aung Thurein, director of the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement.
Myanmar is closing down IDP camps Rakhine’s Sittwe district and in Kyauktaw and Myebon townships, where mostly Rohingya were housed following waves of clashes in the ethnically and religiously divided state in 2012 that left more than 200 people dead and displaced about 140,000 Muslims. Eighteen IDP camps still remain open.
Myanmar, which views the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, denies the members of the minority group citizenship and prevents them from freedom of movement and access to education, health care, and jobs.
After a discussion with the IDPs, authorities decided to place them in new homes in Nidin village instead of sending them back to their former places of residence, though the Rohingya have indicated that they want to return to those locations, Aung Thurein said.
The government will provide help for them for their long-term survival, said Aung Thurein, who is also director of the Rakhine State Advisory Commission’s Recommendations Implementation Committee.
“After shutting down the camp, we can’t just build houses for the refugees; we have to create jobs for them and provide other things, such as education and health care,” he said.
The committee that Aung Thurein heads was created in September 2017 to implement the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, a group led by former U.N. chief Kofi Annan that proposed ways to solve sectarian tensions between Muslims and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists in the state, although it did not evaluate possible human rights violations.
The commission’s report called for the closure of IDP camps, for reviews of Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law, which prevents the Rohingya from becoming citizens, and for an end to restrictions on the group to prevent further violence in the region.
Some of the Rohingya who have left the Nidin camp also said they need jobs and that they have asked authorities to build a school for their children and a market where they can do business.
“If we have to live here, we need some things like a market where we can work for our survival,” said Ba Maung, a Rohingya former IDP at Nidin camp. “When we lived in Kyauktaw, we had to depend on the Myoma Market for our survival.”
Other Rohingya said they must be able to safely travel by means of transportation other than boats to visit villages.
“Although we have bicycles, we can’t even think about going to other Muslim villages on foot or by bike,” said Rohingya former IDP Kyaw Aye. “We can only travel by boat. Traveling by boat is less dangerous than traveling by land.”
Other camp closures
In addition to the Nidin camp, all IDP camps in Rakhine’s Kyaukphyu and Sittwe townships, one Kaman Muslim camp in Ramree township, and a Rohingya camp in Pauktaw township have been shut down, Aung Thurein said.
The Taungpaw IDP camp in Myebon township and the Thetkepyin and Khaung Doke Khar 1 and 2 refugee camps in Sittwe will be shut down soon, he said.
A Myanmar government official who spoke to RFA’s Myanmar Service on condition of anonymity said efforts to close the remaining camps have been stepped up to reduce international pressure over the Rohingya crisis ahead of the opening of the United Nations General Assembly in September.
More than 1 million other Rohingya are living in sprawling refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh, some of whom are waiting to return to Myanmar under a repatriation agreement the country signed with Bangladesh in November 2017.
Some of the 800,000 Rohingya refugees who fled northern Rakhine state after two brutal crackdowns by security forces in October 2016 and August 2017, which included indiscriminate killings, rape, and arson, may be eligible for return if they can prove prior residency in Myanmar. The remainder of those in the Bangladesh camps escaped from previous bouts of violence in Rakhine.
The Myanmar government has denied that its military forces committed widespread atrocities against the Rohingya, despite credible evidence complied by rights groups.
The U.N., U.S., and human rights groups have said that the atrocities amounted to a campaign of ethnic cleansing, if not genocide, and some organizations have issued calls for officials responsible to stand trial at the International Criminal Court.
In June, the European Union and Canada imposed sanctions on seven senior military officials from Myanmar deemed responsible for human rights violations against the Rohingya during the brutal campaign that began in August 2017, which forced more than 700,000 to flee to Bangladesh.
The EU froze the assets of the seven Myanmar army, border guard, and police officials, including Major General Maung Maung Soe, the former head of Western Command in Rakhine, who was sanctioned by the U.S. in December, and Lieutenant General Kyaw Zoe, former commander of the Bureau of Special Operations No. 3. They were also banned from traveling to the bloc.
After the EU and Canada announced the sanctions, the Myanmar military commander-in-chief's office announced that Maung Maung Soe had been fired, and that Kyaw Zoe, also seen as responsible for part of the violence, had been transferred to another post, though instead the army honored his request to resign.
New U.S. sanctions
On Aug. 17, the U.S. government imposed sanctions on military and police commanders and two army units for their “involvement in ethnic cleansing” in Rakhine and other widespread human rights abuses in Myanmar’s Kachin and Shan states, where it said the military had committed extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, and torture against civilians from ethnic minority communities amid prolonged civil wars with ethnic armed groups.
A statement issued by the U.S. Treasury Department named Myanmar military commanders Aung Kyaw Zaw, Khin Maung Soe, and Khin Hlaing, and Border Guard Police BGP commander Thura San Lwin, along with the 33rd and 99th light infantry divisions.
The sanctions, brought under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, subjects those named to a U.S. asset freeze and, where applicable, to a U.S. travel ban.
“Burmese security forces have engaged in violent campaigns against ethnic minority communities across Burma, including ethnic cleansing, massacres, sexual assault, extrajudicial killings, and other serious human rights abuses,” Sigal Mandelker, under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence at the U.S. Treasury Department, said in a statement, using another name for Myanmar.
“Treasury is sanctioning units and leaders overseeing this horrific behavior as part of a broader U.S. government strategy to hold accountable those responsible for such wide-scale human suffering,” she said.
The measures came a week before the one-year anniversary of the start of the Aug. 25, 2017, crackdown, around which time the U.S. State Department plans to issue the findings of a probe into alleged atrocities against the Rohingya in Rakhine state.
Damage to reputation, dignity
Political analysts in Myanmar downplayed the impact that the latest U.S. sanctions will have on the country's economy and politics, but said they will hurt the country's dignity.
“I don’t think these sanctions will hurt Myanmar’s economy because the U.S. did it only from a human rights perspective,” Maung Maung Ohn, a former general who served as chief minister of Rakhine state from 2014 to 2016.
Political analyst Yan Myo Thein said the fresh sanctions would not harm Myanmar’s economy or politics because the military and the home affairs ministry have already taken action against the generals named by the U.S.
“But the Myanmar military and parliament should pay attention to it,” he said.
The four members of a new independent commission established by Myanmar's government on July 30 to investigate human rights violations in Rakhine state should think about U.S. sanctions while they are conducting their investigation, he said.
“It is also important that they work together with the U.S. by getting the documents that American organizations have, as they work on the Rakhine investigation,” he said.
The commission was created in response to growing international condemnation over the campaign of violence by Myanmar forces targeting the Rohingya in Rakhine following deadly attacks on security outposts by a militant Muslim group.
Likewise, Aung Myo Min, executive director of Equality Myanmar, an NGO that focuses on human rights education and advocacy programs, said Myanmar will not be hurt economically by sanctions, but its reputation and dignity will suffer.
“It means that the U.S. is not pleased with Myanmar’s human rights situation, because it has imposed these sanctions while the international community has been paying attention to Myanmar’s human rights situation,” he said.
Prominent attorney Robert San Aung said that the sanctions will damage the military’s dignity.
“Although only four generals have had sanctions imposed on them, this has reverberated throughout the entire military and has disappointed the Myanmar government,” he said. “But I don’t think it will hurt the country’s economy and politics.”
Reported by Min Thein Aung and Khin Khin Ei for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.