Thursday 30 November 2023

Gaza’s Children & Our Rohingya Children: A Tale of Israeli and Myanmar Genocides

Source Forsea, 28 Nov

We, the Rohingya have been chased from our homelands through a series of massacres and Burmese military campaigns since 1978. Our villages have been exterminated and wiped out of all maps. The Palestinian situation is just the same, if not, even worse.

Last month I was at Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh as part of my yearly visits to the Rohingya children's education & vocational training programs that I run through a registered charity. During my visit I saw many kids playing and running around in narrow unkempt alleys between densely crowded shelters. I got to know a few kids by their names: Kulsum, 6, Jannatara, 7, and Nurhashim, 6. Their smiles were innocent and their laughter simply oblivious. I can still see them when I close my eyes.

But what if I closed my eyes and I saw them bombed to death all of a sudden? Alas, such unspeakable horror was the eventuality of many Palestinian children in Jabalia and many other refugee camps…

We, the Rohingya have been chased from our homelands through a series of massacres and Burmese military campaigns since 1978. Our villages have been exterminated and wiped out of all maps. People who lived in my parents' and grandparents' villages were forced out by government authorities to make space for settler colonies called "Nga ta la". Those of us who owned lands for generations became homeless overnight. Many had no choice but to resort to Internally Displaced Persons camps a few kilometers from their own villages inside Arakan. We became refugees in our own homelands.

Photo of Kutupalong Refugee Camp in Bangladesh. Wikipedia Commons

The Palestinian situation is just the same, if not, even worse. They were evicted from their homes through non-stop eviction campaigns by the Israeli government ever since the formation of Israel which resulted in the Nakba of 1948. Their houses have constantly been bulldozed and their entire neighbourhoods have been demolished to make way for new Israeli settlements. The vast majority of Palestinians are now forced to live in pockets of "Bantustans" in the West Bank, in refugee camps within Israel and neighbouring states, and in the open air prison of Gaza.

Just like the Rohingya, the Palestinians cannot move freely within their own ancestral lands. Like the Rohingya, the Palestinians need to go through check points and pay hefty sums to the authorities to be able to simply go from one village/township to another. The Rohingya can never get official jobs or work without fear of their land and produce getting confiscated overnight; the Palestinians live through the same. The Rohingya are not allowed to vote or run for office in federal elections, the Palestinians in Israel are the same. The Rohingya are discriminated in Burmese schools and educational institutions, just like Palestinian children are treated inferior in Israeli education systems. The Rohingya are constantly abducted, detained, and imprisoned without trial; the Palestinians have an unparalleled record of unlawful detentions in Israeli prisons. In essence, just like the Rohingya live under severe discrimination in Myanmar, the Palestinians live in apartheid under systemic discrimination and oppression from Israeli authorities.

Like the Rohingya, the Palestinians are looked down upon and denigrated by the Israelis as objects of extreme hate. Throughout social media, Israeli citizens are often heard saying out loud in public "we will kill you all", "we will bomb all hospitals, all the tunnels, everything", "Gaza nakba 2023" . Similarly, prior to the Rohingya massacre of 2017, hate speech on social media was widespread with statements such as "kill them all so that they can meet Allah faster", or "stuff pig into their mouths and throw them into the river". At the government level, Israeli Ministers have referred to Palestinians as "snakes", "beasts on two legs" and "human animals", just like the Rohingyas were referred to as "insects" and "half humans" by government officials and the clergy. Scholars of genocide stress that hate speech and dehumanization of a population are integral to any genocide, an international and organized process of physical destruction of any identity-based population or human group. There is no doubt that the Israeli regime, from its "moderate" president to Far-Right prime minister and cabinet ministers, as well as the society at large, have openly and crudely expressed vile and hate-filled speech towards the Palestinians, just as Myanmar's flagship political party of Aung San Suu Kyi, state officials, and the military, as well as multi-ethnic civil society had towards the Rohingya while committing genocide.

However revolting the Hamas acts of violence against the Southern settler communities might have been, a just military retaliation can never include the indiscriminate bombing of refugee camps. Genocide is no "self-defence": Period. For an armed force as sophisticated as the IDF, there is no reason why they should ever resort to the bombing of a civilian population, starving them for weeks, and destroying their healthcare facilities where the crippled and elderly are housed. The only reason is their sheer intent to eliminate the Palestinians as much as they can.

Wounded child and man wait for treatment at Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City following an Israeli airstrike on October 11, 2023. Wikimedia Commons

When I close my eyes and see Kulsum, Jannatara and Nurhashim playing in the alleys of Kutupalong refugee camps, I pray that they aren't bombed to death by some Burmese military artillery falling over their heads. Their only crime: they were born Rohingya and are therefore considered less human by the ruling regime. And I hope my prayers are answered. But for Alaa, Momen, Hazem, Yousef, Yazan and dozens of other children in Jabalia refugee camp, that prayer cannot be made. They are already bombed to death, along with approximately 6000 other innocent children, who were clearly considered less human by the Israeli government and its allies.

Raïss Tinmaung

Raïss Tinmaung

Raïss Tinmaung is the country coordinator for Canada at Free Rohingya Coalition.

Tuesday 5 September 2023

India pushes back hundreds of Myanmar refugees fleeing fighting

Source RFA, 22 Aug
About 300 are sheltering in tents along the border and need food and supplies.sharethis sharing button
India pushes back hundreds of Myanmar refugees fleeing fightingBurmese civilians flee escalating armed conflict in Kampat, northwestern Myanmar's Sagaing region, near the Indian border, July 24, 2023.
 Citizen journalist

India has pushed back at least 300 hundred Burmese refugees who spilled across the border while fleeing fighting between Myanmar's military and rebel forces, forcing them to shelter in makeshift tents near the border, refugees and aid workers said. 

More than 1,000 residents of Tamu township, in northern Myanmar's Sagaing region, fled to India's Manipur state in July and August to escape the hostilities, only to have Indian soldiers turn them back, the sources said.

The hundreds of refugees living in tents in Indian villages near the border are facing food and supply shortages, a refugee from Tamu who was among them told Radio Free Asia.

Indian troops drove the Burmese refugees out of the villages after two or three days, forcing them to seek shelter near the Myanmar side of the border, he said.

"We are currently in need of rainfly sheets to build tents and many other supplies," he said.

Burmese and Indian authorities. meanwhile, have shut a key border crossing in the area.

Altogether, about 5,000 Burmese refugees from Tamu township have sought shelter in Manipur state due to the fighting, said Salai Dokhar, founder of India For Myanmar, a group that helps Burmese refugees in India. 

They are among about 50,000 Myanmar citizens who have fled to India since the military ousted Myanmar's democratically elected government in a February 2021 coup.

Bombings force villagers to flee

Junta troops conducted nighttime aerial bombings of Boke Kan village in Tamu township on Aug. 18, prompting more than 500 residents and others from nearby communities to flee to adjacent Manipur.

Similarly, on July 22, over 700 residents from Khampat, a 2,000-home township located about 8 kilometers (5 miles) southeast of the border with Manipur, fled across the border and into India because of a battle between junta forces and the resistance fighters.

Manipur authorities have been collecting biometric data from Burmese refugees, raising fears that the data could be shared with the junta, RFA reported earlier this month.

Thang Sei, an official from the Burma Refugee Committee Kabaw Valley, which is helping the Burmese refugees, told RFA that more than half of the refugees returned to Myanmar after a few days when fighting in Tamu stopped.

They went to the town of Kalay and other villages in Sagaing, but since junta troops continue to clear the Tamu area, it is still impossible for refugees to return to their homes there, said the refugee who is sheltering on the border.

Neither the Indian Embassy in Yangon nor the Myanmar Embassy in New Delhi, India, responded to RFA's requests for comment on the refugees.

The Indian government should reconsider its decision to expel Burmese refugees, said Salai Dokhar.  

"When Burmese people want good relations between Myanmar and India, this kind of action by India directly destroys our hopes for the future," he said. "That is why Indian officials need to review the way they handle Burmese issues."

Translated by Myo Min Aung for RFA Burmese. Edited by Roseanne Gerin and Malcolm Foster.

Wednesday 19 July 2023

Rebellion or Revolution?: A Fundamental Question for the Anti-Coup Myanmar Spring

Source Forsea, 29 June

This essay dissects the 2.5 years old "Myanmar Spring" (or Nway Oo or accurately "early summer revolution") in the face of the universally unpopular military coup waged on the pretext of serious voter fraud by Aung San Suu Kyi's re-elected National League for Democracy. It rightly sees the bravery and determination of Myanmar's youth as one major factor that has sustained the armed and non-violence resistance against the popularly reviled coup leader Min Aung Hlaing and his instrument of terror, the Tatmadaw or formerly revered national armed forces. It injects a healthy dose of a class analysis which is too often glossed over or simply ignored by too many Myanmar watchers, pro-NLD lobbyists and mainstream scholars and experts on Myanmar affairs.

Download the Sai Latt essay HERE

Interestingly, Dr Sai Latt's situates in the process and context both the ousted NLD regime – which it correctly sees as an instrument of national bourgeoisie (cronies and urban commercial elite) beneath the veneer of democracy, human rights and federalism – AND the still unfolding Myanmar opposition movements against the coup junta. Crucially, in an observation bound to upset many in the elite or leadership positions of Myanmar Nway Oo Revolution the author likens those Myanmar operating in the international lobby or advocacy spaces to "assembly line workers", running or attending numerous Zoom and in-person meetings, gatherings and events, repeating ad nauseum well-rehearsed spins of federalism, democracy and human rights. His empirical research coughs up the deeply troubling absence of truly revolutionary (read "principled" & progressive) thoughts and deeds, weak intellectual underpinnings – beyond recycling and relaying of worn-out but still popular catch phrases and views – and the absence of clarity of revolutionary goals, if at all.

Up-close, but not personal, this truly critical Burmese scholar-practitioner sheds a crucial light, without fear or favour, on the dark spaces where Nway Oo is failing to deliver – intellectual, ideological and real-life revolutionary gains. In the 19-page analysis, Dr Sai Latt makes those of us who are engaged in and supportive of Myanmar resistance to look objectively and honestly at the very movement (s) which seeks to overthrow the universally hated Common Enemy. He asks whether the current movements – termed Taw Hlan Yay or "revolution" in Myanmar language  – are engaged in merely an attempt by any means to put the old neo-liberal NLD leadership back in power or do they actually have any serious revolutionary or progressive mission anchored in revolutionary ideals and informed by the understanding of the political economy of the global capitalist regime with its national offshoots in places like Myanmar, a raw material supplier and a source of cheap labour.

About the author

Sai Latt
PhD (geography), Simon Frazer University, Canada.

Myanmar's Spring Revolution and the Rohingya genocide

(Myanmar's Spring Revolution and the Rohingya genocide),
discussed by Dr Maung Zarni and Habib
Ecosocialism 2023 – A World Beyond Capitalism on July 1&2
Solidarity Hall (Victorian Trades Hall)
54 Victoria St, Carlton VIC 3053.
Program details (here)

Myanmar’s NUG negotiates ethnic differences as crisis deepens

Source Aljazera, 15 June

Myanmar's NUG negotiates ethnic differences as crisis deepens

Administration set up in wake of the 2021 coup is also battling international indifference as conflict fades from headlines.

Members of Myanmar's ethnic communities at a community event held by the NUG, Some are in traditional clothing.
Members of Myanmar's ethnic minorities ask Aung Myo Min questions in Melbourne [Ali MC/Al Jazeera]

Melbourne, Australia – Aung Myo Min, the human rights minister of Myanmar's parallel National Unity Government (NUG), has urged the world to hold the military to account for possible war crimes since seizing power more than two years ago.

Visiting Australia, where he met advocacy groups and NGOs, and spoke at universities, the minister also aimed to win support for the civilian government's movement to overthrow the military regime.

Since the military removed Myanmar's democratically elected National League for Democracy (NLD)  party from government in February 2021, the ethnically diverse country has fragmented into numerous civil conflicts, exacerbating unrest that, in some areas, had been rumbling for decades.

In a shift away from overthrown leader Aung San Suu Kyi's stance on nonviolence, the NUG instead has entered the fray by establishing the so-called Peoples' Defence Force (PDF) of civilians, sometimes training and fighting alongside established ethnic armed groups.

The various civil conflicts are peppered by worsening human rights abuses committed by the military, including the alleged bombing of civilians, which the minister described as "crimes against humanity and war crimes".

"We are not only highlighting what is going on in the country, but we are calling for international accountability by all means possible in the international judicial system," Aung Myo Min told Al Jazeera.

Last month, Cyclone Mocha ripped through low-lying areas of northwestern Rakhine state, destroying camps where many Rohingya have lived for more than a decade, adding to concerns about military control over humanitarian assistance in the rapidly splintering country.

The NUG – formed out of the ashes of Aung San Suu Kyi's NLD – has maintained diplomatic relations with foreign governments, but it has yet to secure official recognition – coveted also by the generals who led the power grab.

NUG Human Rights Minister Aung Myo Min shaking hands with community members in Melbourne. He is holding a bouquet of flowers. Some people are holding placards reading Welcome to Melbourne. Everyone looks happy.The Australia trip of NUG Minister for Human Rights Aung Myo Min was planned to shore up support among the Myanmar community there and build momentum for recognition [Ali MC/Al Jazeera]

On this occasion, the first of any NUG representative to Australia, Aung Myo Min also met the adviser to Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong.

"We have to do our best to get the recognition of the NUG as the legitimate government because we are the legitimate government," he said.

The NUG's PDF groups have also been accused of some human rights abuses, with three members facing allegations of extrajudicial killing and rape of suspected military sympathisers in central Sagaing's Chaung-U township last August.

The alleged perpetrators have yet to be brought to justice.

In response, the minister told Al Jazeera that the case was "in process for legal action" and that the NUG was "doing a lot of things to prevent this kind of thing [from happening] by adopting the military code of conduct that applies to every single member of the Peoples Defence Forces: to obey and to respect."

Bamar domination

Further hampering the NUG's efforts to create sustainable support is the diversity of ethnic groups that make up Myanmar, many of which were fighting against the military long before the latest coup.

Officially, there are more than 135 ethnic groups in the country of more than 55 million people, which – formerly known as Burma and part of British India – was established at the end of British colonisation in 1948. The mainly Muslim Rohingya are not counted among ethnic minorities because successive Myanmar governments have depicted them as "interlopers" from Bangladesh. They were deprived of their citizenship under a 1982 law.

Despite the nation's diversity, the majority Bamar (also known as Burman) ethnic group has dominated both the military and major parties, such as the NLD, exacerbating ongoing ethnic tensions.

But the human rights minister told Al Jazeera it was vital for the leadership to be inclusive of other ethnic groups, including in both civil society and Ethnic Armed Groups (EAGs).

"The NUG is a composition of the different stakeholders, including the members of parliament from 2020 elections, and also representative of ethnic backgrounds," he said.

"It is important to bring trust, and also proof that the NUG [is] collaborating with the different ethnic groups."

NUG Minister for Human Rights Aung Myo Min speaking at a lectern. He is wearing a suit and is making a point with his left hand.NUG Minister for Human Rights Aung Myo Min speaks to the Myanmar diaspora in Melbourne amid concerns about its engagement with ethnic minorities [Ali MC/Al Jazeera]

In the interview with Al Jazeera, Aung Myo Min acknowledged the failure of Aung San Suu Kyi, who the military has jailed, to adequately address the 2017 military crackdown, which forced nearly a million Rohingya into southern Bangladesh.

Many, Rohingya included, had thought the Nobel Peace Prize winner would be their champion. Instead, in December 2019, while still the country's de facto leader, she went to the international court in The Hague to defend the military against charges of genocide.

"The first thing [the NUG] did was recognise and acknowledge the crimes taking place against the Rohingya people. This is not a hidden agenda any more," he insisted.

"We strongly recommend and are committed to bring[ing] justice for the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities who experience many forms of crimes by the military."

Rual Thang, from the predominantly Christian Chin state in the west of Myanmar above Rakhine, now lives in Australia and met the minister during his trip.

He told Al Jazeera that it was vital that the NUG successfully engage with diverse ethnic groups, not only in Myanmar but in the international diaspora.

"Engagement with the diverse tribal and ethnic communities is necessary," he said. "Otherwise, their legitimacy among the people, especially for the ethnic minorities, could be affected."

Rual Thang, who migrated temporarily to Australia in 2019 to study, is now reluctant to return due to the escalated fighting since the 2021 coup and the repression of political activists such as himself.

Armed groups such as the Chinland Defence Force (CDF) and the Chin National Defence Force (CNDF) have emerged since the coup and are allied with the longstanding Chin National Army (CNA), which was established in the aftermath of a major political uprising in 1988.

Rual Thang told Al Jazeera that in his view, the Chin did not want to secede from Myanmar, but instead be equally represented in a federal cabinet.

"The Chin people have their own political agenda. The first priority is [a] federal state. But not necessarily succession [or] disintegration from mainland Burma. That's not the political goal of the Chin people," he said.

While acknowledging the minister's efforts to create unity between the ethnic groups, he also remained sceptical about the NUG's claims of diversity and believed that the NUG continued to represent the Bamar-dominated NLD.

"From my perspective, the NUG is an exile shadow government that basically represents the NLD party, not necessarily all the ethnic communities," he told Al Jazeera.

"Right now, the goal is how to overthrow the military dictatorship. We need coordination among different ethnic communit[ies] as well as strong coordination with the NUG. But I think we haven't seen that much between the NUG and the ethnic community leaders."

Chin community member Rual Thang. He is seated and wearing a black long sleeved T-shirt. There are shelves of books behind him.Rual Thang, who is originally from Chin state, says the NUG and ethnic groups need to improve coordination to overthrow the military regime [Ali MC/Al Jazeera]Habiburahman, a Rohingya in exile. He is in his stop and standing with his arms folded. He is wearing a blue shirt. There are shelves stacked with goods behind him.Habiburahman, a Rohingya in exile, says he wonders whether the NUG is sincere in its intentions [Ali MC/Al Jazeera]

In an indication of potential differences, representatives from more than 170 PDFs from Sagaing who remain unaligned with the NUG held a two-day strategy meeting at the end of May without inviting NUG officials, Radio Free Asia's Myanmar service reported this week.

Need for 'trustworthy alliances'

Some Rohingya are also sceptical of the NUG's motives.

"[The NUG] have not let any Rohingya representative to be involved in their political administration," Habiburahman, who is living in exile in Australia, told Al Jazeera.

"We don't know whether [the NUG] are using us for political scapegoat or whether they are genuine and they are sincere."

Further compounding the complex situation in Rakhine state, where most of the country's remaining Rohingya live, is the separatist Arakan Army (AA), who Habiburahman believes controls about 70 percent of the area.

Caught between the military, the AA and the NUG, Habiburahman told Al Jazeera the situation was a waiting game to see who would take control of the area.

"We [the Rohingya] don't know whether the NUG will be successful or [if] the AA will be successful," he said.

Still, some analysts argue the NUG has made progress.

The NUG has "a deliberately diverse cabinet, compared to the blatantly Burman-dominated NLD", Nick Cheesman, from the Australian National University's Myanmar Research Centre, told Al Jazeera.

"The NUG cabinet has a lot of non-Burman members, including its acting president [from Kachin], and acting PM [from Pwo Karen], federal union minister [from Chin], labour minister [from Mon], women's affairs minister [from S'gaw Karen], international cooperation minister [from Chin] and natural resources minister [from Kachin]," he said, adding that while there is no Rohingya minister or deputy yet, the human rights minister has promised there will be.

Cheesman also acknowledges the immense challenges the NUG faces with respect to building trust and uniting the varied aspirations of the ethnic groups.

"There is no way that the NUG can or will unite all armed groups against the Myanmar military. Different groups have different interests," he said.

"The NUG needs trustworthy alliances with militarily and politically formidable groups. Mainly, it needs to be able to form its own command structure out of the PDFs. As many of them don't want to be ordered about, and the NUG is not able to offer them much, if anything, by way of support, this is a difficult task."

Wednesday 7 June 2023

Cash Incentives and Coercion: The Controversial Strategy for Rohingya Repatriation

Source TheDiplomat, 2 June

Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh report being offered $2,000 to return to Myanmar – and threatened with beatings if they do not.

Reports of coercive tactics and cash incentives being employed by the Bangladeshi government to induce Rohingya refugees to return to Myanmar have stirred concern among human rights advocates and humanitarian agencies. The authorities in Bangladesh are reportedly utilizing misinformation, threats of violence, and financial incentives as part of a larger strategy aimed at facilitating the repatriation of Rohingya refugees, roughly 1 million of whom are currently residing in camps in Bangladesh.

Beginning on May 30, Bangladeshi authorities reportedly initiated a campaign on Bhasan Char, a silt island serving as a makeshift refugee camp, promising Rohingya families a cash incentive of $2,000 if they agreed to return to Myanmar. According to two refugees who have come forward to speak about the offer, a similar proposal was extended in Teknaf on May 29. 

By May 31, around 300 Rohingya families had expressed their intention to participate in the pilot repatriation program. By June 1, there was a significant surge of families, not initially listed for repatriation, lining up in Bhasan Char to avail of this offer.

Critics are wary of the motivations behind the cash incentive, equating the amount – even the very few educated refugees working for NGOs might take two years to earn $2,000 – to coercive tactics that exploit the desperate financial situations faced by these refugees. Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia director of Human Rights Watch, tweeted, "#RohingyaRefugees in Bangladesh were promised cash, livelihood, health, education to relocate to Bhasan Char—many risked drowning to flee. Now similar promises are dangled for repatriation to Myanmar where conditions remain unsafe, with no guarantee of rights protection." Providing first-hand insight, Sayed, a resident of Bhasan Char, recalled an unexpected announcement over the mosque's loudspeaker on May 30. The announcement asked families to report to the Camp-in-Charge (CiC) office the next day if they were willing to return to Myanmar. The announcement promised a cash incentive of $2,000.




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Notably, Sayed said that the announcement specified that both spouses, along with their children, had to agree to return. Furthermore, Sayed found that the announcement hadn't been broadcast on loudspeakers in all clusters; instead, majhis, or camp wardens, had informed certain clusters door-to-door.

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Alongside these financial incentives, other tactics reportedly used to encourage repatriation have raised alarm. Refugees claim that they are receiving misinformation about conditions in Myanmar. A video circulating on social media allegedly shows a staffer of the CiC telling a refugee that Rohingya are now a recognized ethnic group in Myanmar, among the existing 135 groups. Paired with threats of violence by Bangladeshi authorities, such misinformation has led to heightened concerns about potential coercion. Critics argue that these practices undermine the principle of free and informed decision-making, a cornerstone of any voluntary return process.

A Rohingya refugee, requesting to maintain anonymity, agreed to record a video detailing an encounter with an official known as Anwar, who reportedly threatened refugees with beatings if they refused to return. The official was quoted in the video as saying, "Is this your father's country? You have to return. You cannot stay here. If you do not go, after three days, we will beat you. You absolutely have to go."

In another recorded testimony, an elderly woman shared her experiences with Bangladeshi authorities and National Security Intelligence (NSI) officials. Maintaining her anonymity, she detailed instances of threats, intimidation, and the potential of physical violence. In the video, she is heard saying, "The authorities informed us that we would be 'forcefully sent back to Myanmar,' regardless of our objections or concerns, by 'beating us.'" She also mentioned an incident where an individual's ration card was photographed, suggesting the possibility of ration card cancellation if Rohingya refuse to return.


Jeff Crisp, formerly the head of Policy Development and Evaluation Service at UNHCR, said the pressure on these refugees to return to an unsafe country under the guise of "voluntary repatriation" is disturbingly reminiscent of tactics that have been used in other parts of the world. The "experience in other parts of the world indicates that some refugees accept such 'repatriation grants' as a means of paying off the debts they have accumulated. Which means that they have little or none of the money left by the time that they get back to their own country."

Throughout this complex issue, the recurring themes have been coercion and financial incentives – tactics that many argue exploit the vulnerable position of Rohingya refugees. The motivations behind the Bangladeshi government's approach, and the impacts it has on the refugees' rights and their welfare, are under intense scrutiny from refugee advocates and human rights organizations.

However, despite the criticisms and concerns, the Bangladeshi government and the international community have yet to find a solution that adequately addresses the safety, welfare, and rights of the Rohingya refugees. As Maung Zarni of the Free Rohingya Coalition aptly put it, "Bangladesh's decision to offer such financial incentives to return refugees to the killing fields of Myanmar raises questions about the true motivations behind the program's sponsors and the respect for the refugees' rights and well-being."


Shafiur Rahman

Shafiur Rahman is a journalist and documentary filmmaker currently working on Rohingya issues. 

Wednesday 24 May 2023

UN not given access to Rohingya refugee camps after Cyclone Mocha

Source TheGuardian

UNHCR says it's awaiting permission from Myanmar government to distribute health supplies in Sittwe, where an estimated 90% of Rohingya homes have been destroyed

A Rohingya woman sits by what remains of her home at Basara refugee camp in Sittwe after Cyclone Mocha hit the region. Photograph: Sai Aung Main/AFP/Getty Images

UN staff say they have not been given permission to help thousands of Rohingya living in displacement camps in Myanmar who are in urgent need of food, medicine and shelter in the aftermath of Cyclone Mocha, which struck the west of the country on Sunday.

People living in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state, said they estimated that about 90% of homes of Rohingya people had been destroyed and more than 100 people killed when winds of more than 150 miles an hour hit the region. However, the refugee agency UNHCR said the Myanmar government had not yet granted access to the camps in Sittwe, home to about 100,000 people. "As yet, UNHCR has not been granted access to carry out needs assessments."

Bright Islam, a 28-year-old Rohingya activist, said: "The cyclone destroyed everything we had. We have nothing to eat, and people have to sleep on the road. Injured people don't have access to medical treatment."

It really is a nightmare scenario for this cyclone to hit areas with such deep pre-existing needs
Ramanathan Balakrishnan, UN humanitarian coordinator

He said he witnessed people drown in the flood water in Sittwe, "mostly children and older people", and counted about 110 dead bodies when the waters cleared. "I cried because I was afraid, I could also be dead," he said.

Habibullah, who only wanted to be known by one name, said his 55-year-old aunt died in the storm because she was too scared to leave her home in Dar Paing camp in Sittwe. "She didn't expect that it would be that bad," he said.

He said he had to leave her in her house while he helped others. After the cyclone, he found her body. "I am very sorry to leave her there. But I had no other choice. If we had early warning and precaution in time, she would still be alive."

Cyclone Mocha hit Myanmar on its journey across the Bay of Bengal. Sittwe was the worst affected area, but the category 5 storm also damaged towns further east in Chin, Sagaing and Magway regions.

The UN said on Thursday that 17 townships in Rakhine and four in Chin had been declared natural-disaster-affected areas by the government. Images on social media show trees, buildings, and electricity poles toppled, and debris piled on the ground. The UN said health supplies and water purification tablets for 200,000 people have been sent to Sittwe.

ThekayPyin camp in Sittwe, as Cyclone Mocha approaches.
ThekayPyin camp in Sittwe, as Cyclone Mocha approaches. Photograph: Screengrab/Obtained by Reuters

On Tuesday, Ramanathan Balakrishnan, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Myanmar, said 5.4 million people were thought to live in the cyclone's path. "Of these, we consider 3.1 million people to be most vulnerable to cyclone impacts by taking together indicators of shelter quality, food insecurity and poor coping capacity.

"It really is a nightmare scenario for this cyclone to hit areas with such deep pre-existing needs," Balakrishnan said.

The Rohingya live in internal displacement camps after being forced from their homes in Myanmar by numerous military attacks since the 1970s. A military "clearance" in 2017 pushed a million Rohingya to seek refuge in Bangladesh.

Reuben Lim, the chief communications officer for UNHCR Myanmar, confirmed that "deaths by drowning have been reported in displacement camps with many others missing".

Ro Nay San Lwin, a Rohingya activist in Europe, said he expected high casualties. He said early warning announcements of the cyclone made by the military through loudspeakers in the camps were "just for show" as no logistical support, shelters or transport, were provided and Rohingya were not allowed to leave the camps.

"People lost their lives because they had no freedom of movement. The junta has been committing serious international crimes against the Rohingya for many decades. Their aim is to eliminate the entire population from the country."

A Rohingya woman holds her baby next to her destroyed house at Basara refugee camp in Sittwe.
A Rohingya woman holds her baby next to her destroyed house at Basara refugee camp in Sittwe. Photograph: Sai Aung Main/AFP/Getty Images

Islam said they were "living in hell". "We got more affected by the cyclone because our camp is close to the sea and our movement is under control," he said. "If we could stay in our original homes, it wouldn't have been that bad."

In Bangladesh, about 60,000 people were displaced and 30,000 homes damaged or destroyed in Cox's Bazar district, where more than 1 million Rohingya live in refugee camps.

Rohingya Refugee Response, which coordinates humanitarian support for more than 900,000 refugees in Bangladesh, said 5,800 shelters were damaged and 400 destroyed. Health and education centres and water points were damaged by landslides. UNHCR said it has been providing emergency shelter and other services in Bangladesh.

The worst conditions were on the southern-most tip of mainland Bangladesh and in the Nayapara refugee camp, where refugees who lost their homes to a fire two years ago again saw homes damaged.

"Our block was already burned down and so the shelters were only light plastic and bamboo," said Amir Hossain, whose shelter was damaged. "People were worried before the cyclone hit the camp. As soon as the strong winds started, most of the tarpaulin roofs were blown away and only the frames of the homes were left.

"People are struggling to rebuild again, we have not got the materials to rebuild the shelters. Some people are living in community centres and schools for now," he said.

Amid the destruction, seven babies were born in one of the refugee camps further north, on Sunday, according to the NGO Friendship.