As camps close in Rakhine, humanitarians fear complicity in permanent segregation

By EMANUEL STOAKES and BEN DUNANT | FRONTIER

YANGON — The humanitarian community – including senior UN officials – have expressed serious concern over government plans to close camps for displaced Muslims in Rakhine State and allegedly replace them with permanent shelters, with some warning that the process appears to reflect “a policy of apartheid”.

A cache of documents obtained by Frontier show that aid officials believe that the government is focused on building permanent shelters for internally displaced people (IDP) – either in or near existing camps – while ignoring community consultation and fundamental human rights issues, such as freedom of movement.

Alarm over the new settlements is such that a discussion note shared between humanitarian groups has called for “drastic measures” to be considered, such as withholding humanitarian support related to the camp closures if “red lines” on human rights are crossed.

However, Minister of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement Dr Win Myat Aye told Frontier that talk of continued segregation was “totally wrong”. He said, “We are trying to have both communities living together.” He said the government was also consulting closely with camp residents and is “emphasising access to medical care, education, and livelihood activities.”

Support more independent journalism like this. Sign up to be a Frontier member.

He said freedom of movement for stateless Muslims would be provided on enrolment into a National Verification process, which the government claims is a pathway to citizenship. However, many Rohingya have refused to participate in the scheme, suspecting it of being a government ruse aimed at denying them full citizenship.

Making segregation sustainable

Communal riots in Rakhine State in 2012 forced more than 145,000 people from their homes, the overwhelming majority of whom were Muslim. As of this year, 128,000 Muslims – mostly Rohingya, but some of Kaman ethnicity – remain in 23 camps in central Rakhine, unable to make trips outside without government permission, cut off from most livelihood and educational opportunities, and dependent on aid from international agencies for their survival.

The closure of these IDP camps was a key recommendation of the advisory commission led by former United Nations Secretary-General Mr Kofi Annan that was appointed by State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in 2016 to propose strategies for addressing the root causes of conflict in the ethnically divided state.

The government has been keen to exhibit progress in response to international pressure over an army crackdown starting in August last year that drove more than 700,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh. A fact-finding mission mandated by the UN Human Rights Council has recommended that senior generals be prosecuted for genocide, but the government still defends the campaign as a legitimate response to attacks on security posts by militant group the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army.

Last month at the UN General Assembly, Minister for the Office of the State Counsellor U Kyaw Tint Swe reiterated a government claim that “we are now implementing 81 out of 88 recommendations made by the [Annan-led] Commission.”

However, the documents obtained by Frontier show that aid officials believe the closures are being implemented in a manner contrary to the commission’s recommendations. International NGOs and UN agencies, driven by a growing belief that humanitarian support since 2012 has helped make mass confinement and segregation sustainable, are debating how to respond to the government’s request to assist in the process.

‘A policy of apartheid’

Concerns over the camp closure initiative were shared at the highest levels of the humanitarian community in Myanmar.  A September 24 note sent to the government from resident and humanitarian coordinator Mr Knut Ostby, the chief UN official in the country, said that the process so far has been focused on the upgrading of shelters within existing IDP camps or on adjacent sites.

“The steps taken to date have not yet addressed other required elements of a comprehensive camp closure plan, including meaningful consultation with affected people or allowing freedom of movement so that people can access jobs, schools and other services,” the note said.

Ostby contends in the letter that the government’s current approach “risks further entrenching segregation while denying IDPs many of their fundamental human rights”.

He recommends “pausing camp closures and the construction of permanent structures” to allow for the development of a “comprehensive strategy” with more input from the displaced people themselves and guarantees of freedom of movement, as well as access to livelihoods and essential services.

Two days later, a “discussion note” was circulated among an inter-agency coordination body headed by Ostby. The consultation paper, aimed at provoking conversation within the humanitarian community on the issue of camp closures, was prompted by a “recent request made by the Government to the UN regarding the provision of assistance in some relocation sites.”

The anonymous author observes that, despite efforts to engage with the government to improve the camp closure process, “the only scenario that is unfolding before our eyes is the implementation of a policy of apartheid with the permanent segregation of all Muslims, the vast majority of whom are stateless Rohingya, in central Rakhine”.

“The humanitarian approach implemented since 2012 has failed,” the author argues, suggesting that a policy of providing services in camps, without robust advocacy, had betrayed some core principles. “The very short-term humanitarian vision, despite being well-intentioned, resulted in de facto support of the government’s policy of segregation and detention sites.”

With the humanitarian community at a “crossroads”, the author says, “the humanitarian community should re-set its strategy for central Rakhine and consider implementing drastic measures should the current situation continue without any improvements in basic human rights for the people we are here to serve and protect”.

If “red lines” on human rights are crossed, the note asks, “Should humanitarian assistance be phased out?”

Tactical concessions

An in-depth internal humanitarian analysis seen by Frontier also raised the issue of disengagement. The document, written in September, examined how the government had fared in implementing 44 of the Annan commission’s recommendations, finding that “there was little or no progress” on two-thirds of the actions analysed.

While progress was identified in some areas, the study found that there was a lack of substantial action on human rights. The implementation process in its current form amounts to “a tactical concession meant only to relieve international pressure”, it concluded.

In such a situation, it asked whether international actors “should continue working with the government in Rakhine” and “if so, how they will mitigate the continued rights violations committed by their government counterparts, as well as how to reduce the harm they themselves cause by remaining”.

The current method of closing camps in central Rakhine State was identified as one of the processes most at odds with the commission’s recommendations.

The paper’s authors assert that the government has “pressed forward with an extremely problematic strategy of ‘village-ification’ in which it will ‘close’ camps by building houses and facilities within the same camp area without allowing [IDPs] to return to their areas of origin or to a third location […] or making any provisions for increased freedom of movement”.

“The government’s current strategy would essentially formalise and entrench a system of segregation that would perpetuate human rights violations for years to come,” it concludes.

‘An excuse to create ghettos’

Four aid officials who spoke to Frontier on condition of anonymity doubted that Nay Pyi Taw had any intention of ensuring that the human rights of the Rohingya were upheld, even as they moved ahead with relocation plans for displaced Rohingya. Two were willing to be quoted anonymously.

A senior official in the aid and development community said that there was “no sign at this stage that the government plans to deliver on freedom of movement”.

“If people are moved into better accommodation, even provided with electricity, but they still cannot leave, then we have just established permanent camps,” the aid official said. “The international community has to ask itself how long they are willing to be enablers of what is essentially an apartheid regime.”

Another senior aid worker, who also asked not to be named, said, “The way camps are being ‘closed’ is just an excuse to create ghettos. The only difference between those ‘closed’ camps and the ones that are still classified as open is the individual housing. No rights have been changed.”

“We can already see the effects of segregation happening with the new generation of Rohingya young people speaking less and less Rakhine language. The separation is going to get worse and this just fuels the fear of the other ethnic group,” the aid worker said.

UNHCR spokesperson Ms Aoife McDonnell told Frontier on the subject of camp closures, “The serious risks involved, the biggest of which is the permanent segregation of all Muslims in central Rakhine, have already been raised with the Government and other key stakeholders in Myanmar and outside”.

“The core of the issue remains freedom of movement. Without freedom of movement, displaced Muslims, the vast majority of whom are stateless, do not have access to livelihoods and basic services, in particular health and education,” she said, adding that UNHCR is “strongly advocating” with the government to lift movement restrictions as a precondition for durable solutions.

McDonnell acknowledged that “the humanitarian imperative versus do no (further) harm principle dilemma has been a very challenging one for all humanitarian actors in Rakhine, including UNHCR,” and that the agency was considering how to strike the right balance.

An emailed statement attributed to Ostby read, “The UN would support a consultative, voluntary resettlement of IDPs that addresses human rights, pathway to citizenship and freedom of movement for these communities.”

Dr Ko Ko Naing, a director-general at the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement involved in implementing camp closures, told Frontier that the ministry had “received feedback and comments” from UN agencies about the government’s camp closure strategy, and that they would hold workshops with the UN agencies and international NGOs to discuss it further.

He said the government’s approach was “in line with international standards and practice” and that they are “providing assistance to everyone without discrimination”.

Win Myat Aye told Frontier, “We are working towards harmony between the two communities [Buddhist and Muslim]. We are also holding many dialogues between communities, administrators and other [project] implementers.”

“The difficulty is in building trust and confidence between communities. Rakhine people and Muslims have little confidence and trust in each other,” the minister added.

He said his ministry would try to return camp residents to their original homes and lands but that, in many cases, this was “difficult”. He said, where this was not possible, they would be returned to “a place close to their place of origin.”

“We always discuss with them. With their agreement, we proceed,” he said, stressing the government’s consultative approach, in direct contradiction to the claims of humanitarians who spoke to Frontier.

Despite repeated calls, senior government spokesperson U Zaw Htay could not be reached for comment. He had earlier told Frontier that he would only take questions during fortnightly press conferences in Nay Pyi Taw. The last one was held on October 5.

Model townships

Concerns among humanitarians over continued segregation also suggest that the government may be deviating from a blueprint for the reintegration of communities put forward by the Advisory Board for the Committee for Implementation of the Recommendations on Rakhine State, which called for displaced people in camps to be “resettled back in their places of origin”.

The 10-member advisory board, chaired by former deputy prime minister of Thailand Mr Surakiart Sathirathai with mixed Myanmar and foreign membership, was appointed in December with a one-year extendable mandate. Its credibility was badly damaged by the early departure of member Mr Bill Richardson, a veteran US diplomat and politician, and the head of the secretariat Mr Kobsak Chutikul, a retired Thai ambassador and parliamentarian, both of whom criticised the board’s lack of independence. In August the government asked the board to issue its final report and disband.

The report, seen by Frontier but not yet public, recommends the designation of “model townships” in central Rakhine State where “freedom of movement, access to healthcare, education and livelihood opportunities” can be extended to all communities in a pilot fashion, to meet the recommendations of the Annan commission, before being scaled up to cover the rest of Rakhine.

Kobsak and board member U Win Mra, who also sat on the Annan-led commission and currently chairs the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission, both told Frontier that the reintegration of Buddhist and Muslim communities was at the heart of this recommendation, which was accepted by the government.

Kobsak said the idea for model townships was put to them by an international NGO working in Rakhine State, and “the idea was not to have any segregation”.

Win Mra said that, if successful, the model township idea could provide “a strong pull factor” for refugees in Bangladesh.

So far, no Rohingya refugees have officially returned via a repatriation process agreed between Myanmar and Bangladesh in November last year, despite the establishment by Myanmar of two processing sites and one transit camp near the border.

Creating a context in which Buddhists and Muslims “can go to school together and go to market together” would help “entice people to come back” from Bangladesh to Myanmar, Win Mra said.

However, he admitted that, with the current plans for camp closures, “what the government is doing is not in the form of a model township”. He added that he did not know the details of the current process, and suggested that the government might win greater trust by being more transparent.

‘Not a random menu’

A progress report released in June by the Committee for Implementation of Recommendation on Rakhine State, chaired by Win Myat Aye, explicitly tied the lifting of movement restrictions to enrolment in the National Verification process.

Ko Ko Naing from the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement told Frontier that, for displaced people living in camps, “there are no legal restrictions on movement, only social restrictions”, referring to the mutual hostility that remains between communities.

He said that, like everyone else in the country, “people have to hold identity cards to prove residency” in order to travel freely. For stateless Muslims, he repeated that cards received on enrolment into the National Verification process would provide this freedom.

Win Myat Aye said holders of the cards in central Rakhine would be able to travel freely throughout Rakhine. For travel outside the state, they would have to “inform” local authorities, he said.

However, many Rohingya have rejected the National Verification process because it requires that they state their ethnicity as “Bengali”, imputing foreign origin, rather than Rohingya; and they believe it could confine them to an intermediary legal status that falls short of true citizenship. It is also governed by the 1982 Citizenship Law, which discriminates against groups like the Rohingya that are considered non-native.

Reuters reported in June that Win Myat Aye told Western diplomats at a meeting in Denmark that a review of the 1982 law, as recommended by the Annan commission, could not be implemented along with seven other of the commission’s 88 recommendations.

Retired Dutch diplomat Ms Laetitia van den Assum, who served on the Annan commission, told Frontier, “It is important that the integral nature of the Annan recommendations is properly understood. The 88 recommendations are not a random menu. Their success depends on their full and joint implementation.”

Asked about the camp closures, she quoted the commission’s report: “The question should not be whether Rakhine and Muslims will live together, but rather how they will live together. Reintegration, not segregation, is the best path to long-term stability and development.”

Mr Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for advocacy group Human Rights Watch, told Frontier, “If anything has been learned since June 2012, it’s that there is no such thing as separate and equal in Rakhine state. By isolating the Rohingya and Kaman in locked down settlements, the authorities have impoverished, demoralized and destroyed these communities.”

“Without government commitments to address freedom of movement and associated protection concerns, in a way that liberates rather than restricts the Rohingya and Kaman, nothing is going to improve,” he said. “International humanitarians, and the donors in governments that fund them, should not shy away from taking a tough, principled stand on these issues.”

By Emanuel Stoakes

By Emanuel Stoakes

Emanuel Stoakes is a freelance journalist who divides his time between Southeast Asia and New Zealand. He has produced two major documentary features on the plight of Myanmar's Rohingya minority and written on a variety of subjects for several outlets, including The Guardian, Foreign Policy, IRIN, Al Jazeera English and Frontier Myanmar.
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on email

More stories

Latest Issue

Stories in this issue
Myanmar’s COVID-19 response needs a dose of reality
Prolonged lockdown measures are wreaking great harm and people are fed up. The government needs to ditch this blunt tool for a more surgical approach.
Myanmar’s COVID-19 response is at a crossroads, and something has to give
More than two months after they were introduced, residents and officials in Yangon are increasingly ignoring stay-at-home orders, yet the government insists infection rates need to fall before they can be rolled back.

Stay on top of Myanmar current affairs with our Daily Briefing and Media Monitor newsletters

Our fortnightly magazine is available in print, digital, or a combination beginning at $80 a year

Sign up for our Frontier Fridays newsletter. It’s a free weekly round-up featuring the most important events shaping Myanmar