Refugee Month 2020: Arakan & Rohingya Refugees

Featured Image: Let Kar in Rakhine State’s Mrauk-U Township, Western Myanmar, AP

In light of June being Refugee Awareness Month with World Refugee Day on June 20th, the US Campaign for Burma would like to highlight the history of refugees and internally displaced peoples in the various states of Burma. This installment will cover Arakan state, following the first installment on Chin state. 

To start, the refugee and internally displaced peoples crisis in Arakan state stems from the plight of the Rohingya and ethnic Arakan. In August 2017, fighting broke out in Arakan state and the Burma Army began a violent crackdown against the Rohingya. The Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic group residing in Burma, a predominately Buddhist state- however, being Buddhist would not prevent abuse from the Burma Army, as other Buddhist ethnic groups are not given special treatment in Burma, making the Rohingya’s main issue violence from the government and military as opposed to a difference in religion. The Rohingya have suffered from rape, unjust arrests, the destruction of villages and homes, and have been limited from education, health and mobilization. The Burma Army openly fired on fleeing civilians, planted landmines, and pursued other violent forms of human rights abuses with genocidal intent. Between August and September 2017, at least 6,700 Rohingyas were killed, while over 742,000 Rohingyas have fled as refugees as of 2019. An exodus of Rohingya refugees reached neighboring Bangladesh and settled primarily in Kutupalong and Nayapara of Cox’s Bazaar district, with a majority being women and children and at least 40 percent under 12 years old. 

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Displaced people arriving in Sittwe from military related conflict, AFP

The Rohingya refugees in these camps suffer from overcrowding and lack of sanitation, the possibility of landslides and other natural disasters with each approaching monsoon season, as well as lack of food, water, medicine, and other basic necessities. Rohingyas have also fled to India, where at least 40,000 currently reside and constantly fear India’s deportations of Rohingyas back to Burma. Thailand has offered little hope to Rohingya refugees, commonly sending Rohingya boats nearing Thailand to Malaysia or Indonesia. As recently as May 1, 2020, boats with Rohingya refugees leaving Bangladesh have been drifting at sea, stuck in the Bay of Bengal after being rejected by Malaysia. Many refugees are at risk of human traffickers and other forms of abuse, and represent the result of the long and discriminatory past of the Burmese government.

Additionally, ethnic Arakan in Arakan state suffer as IDPs. This is due to violence and clashes perpetrated by the Burma Army, who commonly incite fighting with the Arakan Army, an ethnic armed group in Arakan state. In December 2018, renewed fighting broke out in Arakan state, where estimates state that clashes have displaced over 160,000 as of January 2020. Many civilians flee their homes out of fear of the Burma Army entering their village, artillery shells falling near the village or hearing nearby gunfire, and general instability on the ground. The Burma Army’s indiscriminate attacks have caused more suffering amongst civilians than amongst the Arakan Army. For instance, in February 2020, an Arakan state school was hit by artillery shelling that wounded 19 children. In May 2020, two children were killed and another injured due to a landmine explosion in Buthidaung Township, Arakan state. A viral video in mid-May showed the Burma Army detaining five ethnic Arakan men with their hands behind their backs, being beaten by soldiers on a naval ship. Although the Burma Army has since made a statement declaring that the soldiers who detained the men will be held accountable, these instances of violence and human rights abuses show the extent to which innocent lives have been ruined and taken by the Burma Army. 

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Near Maung Daw, Northern Rakhine State, Myanmar, VOA News

Arakan people who flee their homes reside in IDP camps across Arakan state. BNI Multimedia Group reported that 3,250 people were being held in Tein Nyo IDP Camp, Mrauk-U Township, yet the camp only had enough rice to last one day. Over 800 IDPs in Ann Township are facing a similar problem, where necessary resources such as medicine, food, and water are scarce, and space is cramped and overcrowded. The added challenge of COVID-19 means that IDPs are particularly vulnerable, where the virus can easily spread amongst camps’ meager provisions and limited movement. Camp conditions, paired with a government-imposed internet ban, have made for an increasingly dire situation for Arakan state’s thousands of IDPs. 

The US Campaign for Burma implores the US government and civilians to continue educating themselves on Arakan and Rohingya issues to bear witness to the true abuse that is incurred every day. Both groups have been long targeted by the Burma Army, whose violence and indiscriminate attacks see no end in sight- even in a global pandemic. 

For more information on conflict and IDPs in Arakan State, click here to access UCSB’s Crowd Map and read articles from each state.


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