NAYPYIDAW, Myanmar — It has been nearly 65 years since the beginning of one of the longest running civil wars in global history. The internal conflict in Myanmar has escalated this past year to a frightening manifestation of instability and human rights abuses. The last month alone has seen the first forced exit of NGOs en masse from the country. Hundreds of thousands displaced by the turmoil are without basic security and protection and are facing a critical water shortage as the summer months quickly approach.
Earlier this month, the United States Congress strongly rebuked the abuses and persecution of the minority Rohingya Muslims. The House Foreign Affairs Committee, tasked with overseeing U.S. foreign policy, unanimously passed a resolution urging the international community to press for the protections and rights of ethnic and religious minorities in the country.
For over 20 years, United Nations envoys have been reporting on the abuses against Rohingya Muslims. UN Envoy Tomás Ojea Quintana responded to the ongoing persecution of Rohingya Muslims by releasing a statement which criticized the long history of food, water and medical shortages as possibly amounting to “crimes against humanity.” The state government denies its existence and refers to them as “Bengalis.” They live under “apartheid-like” conditions where there are restrictions placed on movement, marriage, childbirth, education, home repairs, construction of places of worship and even the most mundane aspects of daily life.
In June 2013, president Thein Sein declared that the Rohingya populations were illegal and should be settled somewhere outside in a third country or relocated under the UN High Commissioner for Refugees since they are not viewed as Myanmar citizens and never were. The government has even blamed the spike in violence on Rohingya population growth and they have been referred to as “breeding like African carp.” There are about 140,000 living in Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps, and another 700,000 outside the camps.
Tensions have been heightened by the recent census, as fears that it might lead to official recognition of Rohingya Muslims whom the authorities view as illegal immigrants. In the Kachin state, villagers are faced with a severe of lack of basic aid and clean water forcing IDPs to flee back and forth between villages and IDP camps amid risks of violence and rising temperatures, putting more at risk for severe dehydration.
It is one of the most heavily mined regions of the world and with populations moving back and forth, the risk of maiming or death by landmines is very high. There have been reports of sexual violence perpetrated by the Myanmar army against civilians as the government battles ethnic rebel troops in Kachin. UNICEF has noted that in the midst of this fighting, nearly 1,000 children have been forced from their homes and face risks such as rape and forced recruitment into different fighting factions.
The Myanmar military has created an exploitative relationship with Chinese interests in the state. The gross mismanagement of the area’s rich natural resources like jade, timber and gold as well as large hydro projects, a gas pipeline and government controlled opium fields means that state interests are bent on making profitable relations with the Chinese while nearly 100,000 people are displaced in Kachin and do not receive the revenue that the government is amassing from the state which sits along the Chinese border.
Although many repressive laws instituted during the era of junta rule have been rolled back in the past three years, there has been a recent return to the censorship of old. Several leading newspapers have published black front pages this month in response to a series of criminal cases targeting journalists as the country nears its election next year. Journalists risk losing their licenses for any paper and face continued monitoring and harassment by former security service members who still have yet to be tried for abuses that occurred under junta rule. The tightening of government control and censorship extends to emergency medical care as well.
A recent report by Doctors Without Borders on the treatment of 22 patients injured in a massacre contradicted government reports that it “officially” did not happened and that it was “wrong information.” They were accused of bias for Rohingya populations by providing medical care and ousted from the country. The March 26 riots saw the vandalism of homes and offices rented by UN agencies and NGOs. They were attacked by Buddhist mobs angry at their assistance to minority populations. Now NGOs and UN agencies cannot find willing landlords to rent space due threats of continued violence and destruction.
Without NGOs, there will be no administration of much needed health services for nearly 2,700 malnourished children in the Rakhine state alone, UNICEF reports. According to Said Liviu Vedrasco, technical officer at the World Health Organization, the withdrawal of NGOs from the country means that hundreds of thousands are now facing “acute gaps” in primary and secondary healthcare, which amounts to basic security.
The international community is just now responding and re-targeting approaches with the regime. Without aid assistance and the work of NGOs and UN agencies, what will happen to those displaced and abused in this civil war remains uncertain and likely grim.