More than 100,000 Rohingya refugees who’ve been confined to camps in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state for nearly a decade are asking to be allowed to return home so they can find work and food amid the COVID-19 pandemic, members of the Muslim minority group say.
Sheltered in camps near the Rakhine state capital Sittwe, the Rohingya were driven from their homes by ethnic clashes with the state’s majority-Buddhist population in 2012, and had been supported until now by contributions from the U.N. World Food Programme.
Deliveries of food have fallen off, though, due to economic disruptions tied to the spread of coronavirus in Myanmar, and the Rohingya now have trouble finding sufficient food, shelter, or work in the camps, one camp resident said.
“How can we eat when we are not allowed to work outside the camps?” asked Maung Kyaw Sein, a resident of the Thekkair-byin refugee camp, adding that he and others have now lived in the camp for around ten years.
“We want to go back,” he said. “We want to return to our old places, where we can find work and food. We can’t find any work here, and we don’t have enough rice or any other kinds of food.”
Deadly ethnic clashes in Rakhine in 2012 destroyed factories and other businesses in Sittwe, killing nearly 200 Rohingya and displacing 140,000 members of the persecuted community, who are denied citizenship and labeled illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. They were settled in 14 camps west of Sittwe after their homes were burned down and their property destroyed during the fighting.
Five years after the Sittwe violence, Myanmar's military launched a scorched-earth campaign against ethnic Rohingya villages in response to attacks by Muslim insurgents on police posts in Rakhine, burning villages, killing residents, and driving 740,000 Rohingya across the border to Bangladesh. About 600,000 Rohingya remain in Rakhine state, which has about 3.1 million people.
The 2017 attacks have since been described by international rights groups and foreign governments as constituting acts of “genocide” and “crimes against humanity.”
The Rohingya in Sittwe have repeatedly asked to be settled again in their former villages along the Bay of Bengal in northern Rakhine, but previous Myanmar governments—including the National League for Democracy government ousted in a Feb. 1 military coup—have ignored their requests without explanation.
Although government authorities had previously promised to build new houses for the displaced Rohingya, nothing was ever done, said one resident of the Thekkhair-byin refugee camp named Maung Maung.
“We had to move from Sittwe in 2012 to the refugee camp south of Sittwe, and our entire family now has to live in a 10’ by 10’ room, so we have a lot of difficulties,” he said.
“Government officials would sometimes come here and say they would give us a house,” he said, adding, “We asked them instead to let us go back to our former areas, but nothing has happened yet.”
Speaking on condition of anonymity for security reasons, another refugee said they would like to ask authorities for permission to travel freely and return to their original places of residence because of food shortages in the camps.
“In the past, we had shops and could operate our own businesses, but we can’t do anything here. We hope that the government will give us back our original places,” he said.
Myanmar military forces still guard the roads leading to Rohingya refugee camps in Sittwe, and discrimination against the Rohingya continues, local Muslim Rohingya elders say, adding that some Rohingya leave the area illegally by boat each year in attempts to reach Thailand or Malaysia, where they hope to find a better life.
Calls requesting comment from the Rakhine State Military Council on the refugees’ demands for repatriation and freedom of movement rang unanswered.
Death in detention
Ruby Alam, a Rohingya administrator in U Shay Kya village in Rakhine’s Maungdaw township, died in detention this week after being arrested by Myanmar security forces, sources told RFA. His body was brought to the Maungdaw township hospital on Aug. 31, a village administrator said on Wednesday.
“We learned that he was arrested on Aug. 29, and his body was returned to the hospital yesterday morning and then buried in the evening. That’s all we know,” the administrator said, speaking on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
Ruby Alam was buried at a Muslim cemetery at around 5:00 p.m., said Shwe Htoo Khaing, chairman of the Maungdaw Karuna Network Funeral Aid Association, whose group was asked by the hospital to help. “It was our duty to help them. We could not ask what happened,” he said.
Reached for comment, Nay Oo—Maungdaw District Administrator for the Military Council—denied any knowledge of Ruby Alam’s death, and no information on why he had been arrested was immediately available.
His body bore signs of bruising on his arms and legs, and he was believed to have died of a heart attack, sources said.
Earlier this week, Myanmar’s ruling junta instructed government employees and administrative staff in a secret memo not to use the term “Rohingya” to describe those living in the Sittwe camps or the hundreds of thousands driven by the military into Bangladesh in 2017, sources who received the memo told RFA.
Instead, the memo said, the ethnic group should be called “Bengalis,” a pejorative term referring to the group’s supposed status as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, though many have lived in Myanmar for generations.
The National Unity Government (NUG), formed in opposition to military rule, has promised to amend the country’s constitution to give citizenship to the Rohingya, who are not recognized as an official ethnic group in Myanmar.
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