BANGKOK – The Myanmar government has been accused of crimes against humanity and breaches of international law over “long running persecution and discrimination” against Muslim Rohingya citizens.
The claims were made by an independent human rights group, which told a press conference in Bangkok Tuesday night that it had obtained rare copies of Myanmar government documents outlining state policies against the Rohingya – a minority of about 1.3 million people who mainly live in Myanmar's western Rakhine state.
Matthew Smith, head of the Fortify Rights group, said the eight “never released before” documents – dating from 1993 to 2008 – revealed orders from the top level of government designed to control the Rohingya population.
He said they detail “restrictions on movement, marriage, childbirth and aspects of everyday life.” This included a limit of two children on Rohingya women, which had forced many to have unsafe abortions, some of which had caused deaths.
“All government officials refer to Rohingya as ‘Bengalis’ despite the fact they’ve lived in Myanmar for hundreds of years,” Smith said, adding that most Rohingya were stateless due to a highly controversial citizenship law imposed in 1982.
“Couples can’t live together without permission, which can be difficult to obtain,” he said. “People are subject to demands for bribes and often have to wait for up to three years for approval from local officials.”
The report implicates the state and central government officials as perpetrators of the crime against humanity of persecution.
Smith said the Thein Sein government had shown no inclination to soften policies toward the Rohingya despite awareness that communal upheaval in Rakhine state – and violence against Muslims which has flared in other parts of Myanmar over the past 18 months – threatened to destabilize the civilian government’s reform process.
A spokesman for the Thein Sein government failed to respond to the allegations, which were detailed in an 80-page report entitled “Policies of Persecution.”
However, presidential spokesman Ye Htut, in an interview with The Myanmar Times yesterday, described Fortify Rights as a “Bengali lobby group” and refused to comment on “baseless accusations.”
Tens of thousands of Rohingya were displaced during riots in Rakhine state in June 2012, forcing many into refugee camps, where conditions have been described as bleak.
Rohingya refugees arriving in Thailand have claimed the new government is seeking to force them out of the country. Thousands have fled in boats down the Andaman Sea to try to get work in Malaysia.
A support group for Rohingya in Thailand known as the Arakan Project has said as many as 10,000 boat people – both Rohingya and Bangladeshis – were thought to have landed on Thailand’s western coast in November when the “sailing season” was at its peak, but the number had dropped over the past two months partly because of reports of people dying in illegal camps in southern Thailand run by traffickers secretly ferrying people into Malaysia.
Smith said this exodus of Rohingya had been a burden on all of Myanmar’s neighbors for many years, but the root cause was Myanmar’s treatment of these citizens.
He saw little prospect for change, saying these policies were “supported by the highest level of the Myanmar government” as well as Buddhist citizens in Rakhine state, who had also “struggled under military rule” and “feel oppressed.”
Some citizens in Rakhine had also voiced a desire “to get back traditional lands” from the Rohingya, he said, lamenting the “absence of moral leadership” in the western state.
Fortify Rights is based in Bangkok and registered in the United States and Switzerland. Its has an international advisory board that includes Phil Robertson, the Asia director for Human Rights Watch.