During February there were no outbreaks of mass violence against the Rohingya. However, this should not be considered a sign that Burma is becoming a more welcoming environment. Though there may not be as many attacks, the government has started imposing practices that make it much harder for the Rohingya to access healthcare, adequate supplies of food and water, and safe shelter. They are reported to be living in squalid conditions in IDP camps in Rakhine State. These camps are heavily guarded, and the Rohingya inhabitants are not able to leave without first getting a permit from the authorities, even to access the hospital. Those who cannot obtain permits are forced to visit community clinics that do not necessarily have the resources to provide adequate treatment.
According to Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF), the movement restrictions on the Rohingya are severely impacting access to healthcare. If someone tries to leave a camp without permission and is caught, they are beaten. MSF has stated that internally displaced people are particularly vulnerable to natural disaster, especially as the country heads into monsoon season. On February 28, it was announced that they had been ordered to cease operations in Rakhine State by the Burmese government. There are currently no other medical organizations working in the country on the same scale as them, as they were one of the few agencies that would provide treatment to the Rohingya. MSF frequently distributed medication for tuberculosis, as well as aided pregnant women in safe delivery. The removal of MSF from Rakhine State will likely have major implications on the healthcare of the Rohingya.
The lack of attacks is also not expected to last. Next month, the government is scheduled to begin Burma’s first nationwide census since the 1980s. The census will require everyone to list their ethnicity and religion, which could put Muslims, and the Rohingya in particular, in danger of being subjected to more attacks and discrimination. Representation for minority groups in local government is dependent on their population being above a certain number in the census, so if it is conducted in a corrupt manner, this could mean that they will be further denied political and civil rights. Even if the census is conducted fairly, there is still fear that it will fuel anti-Muslim sentiments, and whether or not there will be an option to list Rohingya as an ethnicity is currently in question, given that they have not been recognized as a legitimate group.
Internationally, the Rohingya are not being welcomed either. Bangladesh is no longer allowing refugees into the country, as they claim that they are unable to support anymore people. It was also recently discovered that Thailand has deported 1300 Rohingya refugees back into Burma over the last year. They had previously been held at Thai detention centres, and deported by the hundreds. According to Thai authorities the deportations were voluntary, though a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch, Sunai Phasuk, says that the deportations were a blatant violation of international laws that prohibit sending refugees back to the place where they face danger and persecution. It was also admitted by Major General Thatchai of Thailand that immigration authorities have hired boat operators to take this particular ethnic group across the border, where they are met by brokers who smuggle them into Malaysia. This kind of treatment by neighbouring countries has made Rohingya refugees more vulnerable to unsafe voyages on flimsy boats in an attempt to find safety, as well as to human traffickers who seek to capitalize on the situation of the refugees.
Furthermore, recent activities suggest that the government is going through great efforts to cover up any of the violence that has been occurring, either by blaming it on the Rohinya or by denying that it happened in the first place. Last month, 48 Muslims were reported to have been killed in Maungdaw Township by the police and a group of Buddhist villagers following the disappearance of a police sergeant, as reported by the United Nations and other human rights organizations. Following the violence, 16 homes were also set on fire. With pressure from international organizations, the government said that it would put together its own commission to look into the events. However, they would not let foreign groups be included in this investigation despite requests from the United Nations, the UK, and the USA because President Thein Sein claimed that international organizations are biased towards the Rohingya. The Myanmar National Human Rights Council did visit Du Char Yar Tan village, where the attacks took place, but said that after interviewing both Rakhine and Rohingya villagers, there was no credible evidence that any violence took place, despite other allegations from the UN and other non-governmental organizations.
Following these attacks, 16 homes all belonging to Rohingya families were burned down, in the same village. That night, the police were guarding the village and there have been reports of witnesses seeing police involvement in setting the fires. After Rohingya MP Shwe Maung spoke out against the fire and accused the police of being involved, he was interrogated and threatened with a defamation lawsuit. The refusal to cooperate with international organizations in the investigation of Du Char Yar Tan suggests that the Burmese government has no interest in truly coming to the root of the problem of the violence against the Rohingya. The response to MP Shwe Maung also indicated that they do not want anyone disturbing the image of the government as being uninvolved.
On February 25, the organization Fortify Rights released a report containing leaked documents from the Burmese government proving their involvement in the cleansing of the Rohingya. The report revealed that between 1993 and 2008, Rakhine State authorities consistently placed restrictions on travel, religion, and family planning for the Rohingya. All of these policies are still in effect and are still being enforced, and the Rohingya are the only people in the country who face these kinds of rules and limitations. While there has been speculation about the government’s role in the violence, this is the first definitive form of evidence that proves their complicity.
With the discovery of these documents and the removal of the MSF, it is clear that the Burmese government is doing everything they can to make life as difficult as possible for the Rohingya in order to motivate them to leave. However, with nowhere safe to go, they are stuck in a difficult situation of concern. Recent limits on journalist visas have also made it difficult for foreign correspondents to visit the country and accurately report on the situation. This, combined with the government’s lack of cooperation with external agencies, indicates that they do no want anything that compromises the image of the new, democratic Burma. It will be necessary to monitor the changes that occur in the country while next month’s census is conducted, as well as the through the aftermath. The lack of response by the international community allows the violence to continue. Although the United States did introduce a new bill in December to end military aid to Burma until the situation improves, it has yet to make it past legislation, meaning that they are continuing to supply the military with more funding. Now, more than ever, there is a need for pressure to be placed on the Burmese government in order to send the message that if they continue to target the Rohingya, the world will be watching.