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Apartheid In Myanmar: Rohingya Muslims Trapped In 'Open-Air Prison'

Myanmar’s brutal and internationally-condemned purge of Rohingya Muslims amounts to “dehumanizing apartheid,” Amnesty International said in a scathing report released on Tuesday.

Security forces in the Buddhist-majority country have waged a gruesome crackdown against the minority Muslims living in Rakhine State over the past three months, driving well over half a million refugees into neighboring Bangladesh. Amnesty has documented violent persecution of Rohingyas including rape, torture and other forms of abuse by state officials.

“In the case of the Rohingya this is so severe and extensive that it amounts to a widespread and systemic attack on a civilian population, which is clearly linked to their ethnic (or racial) identity, and therefore legally constitutes apartheid, a crime against humanity under international law,” the human rights organization explained in its report.

It describes the bloody campaign against Rohingya villages as an “unlawful and grossly disproportionate” response to coordinated attacks on government security posts by the armed group the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army in late August. “Instead of attempting to bring the assailants to justice, it targeted the entire Rohingya population on the basis of their identity,” Amnesty said.

The humanitarian situation in Rakhine State ― which the United Nations describes as a “textbook example” of ethnic cleansing ― is deteriorating on a staggering scale. The crisis has drawn international attention to the state-sanctioned discrimination Rohingyas have endured for decades by successive governments in Myanmar, where they are denied citizenship and many basic rights.

Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, said Tuesday that she was working toward an agreement with Bangladesh for the “safe and voluntary return” of Rohingyas to Rakhine State. The Nobel laureate has come under fire for her conspicuous silence and inaction as the crisis has worsened.

Tensions in Myanmar flared between Buddhists and Muslims in 2012, which led to deadly riots as well as mass arson and displacement. In the intervening years, Rohingyas have been systematically segregated and abused in an “open-air prison,” Amnesty charged in its report, which concluded a two-year investigation into the Rakhine State crisis.

“Since 2012 there has been such a lack of everything. We don’t have access to healthcare, to education, there are restrictions on traveling. We can’t go anywhere on the road because there are checkpoints along the way. We are struggling for survival, our children are struggling for their future,” a 34-year-old Rohingya man told Amnesty. “It’s like being caged without a roof.”

Rohingyas have long been targeted by openly discriminatory laws in Rakhine and beyond, including arbitrary curfews and a regulation that states “foreigners” and “Bengali races [a pejorative term for the Rohingya]” need special permits to travel between townships.

Such restrictions of movement often create barriers to education and health care services, and push Rohingyas “to the brink of survival,” according to Amnesty. One Rohingya man told the organization that he was forbidden from traveling to a hospital in Myanmar, so he had to seek medical care in Bangladesh, which was very expensive.

“I was lucky,” he said. “Most people cannot afford this, so they just end up dying.”

The system appears designed to make Rohingyas’ lives “as hopeless and humiliating as possible,” said Anna Neistat, Amnesty’s senior director for research. “The security forces’ brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing in the past three months is just another extreme manifestation of this appalling attitude.”

Learn how you can support Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims here.

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