fFive years ago, Mohammed*, his wife and two children were placed in their home, terrified when they learned of violence raging through nearby villages. Myanmar’s military had launched so-called “clean-up operations” in the northern state of Rakhine, forcing huge numbers of Rohingyas to flee to neighboring Bangladesh.
“Remembering those times, frankly, it’s hard to eat or sleep,” he says. “August 25 was one of the black days for Rohingya.”
Rohingyas who had fled across the border gave harrowing accounts of mass rapes, murders and houses set on fire. The events shocked the world and led to charges of genocide in the UN’s highest court, a case the UK announced Thursday it will support.
About 700,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh, where they reside in squalid and overcrowded camps. But an estimated 600,000 Rohingya remain in Myanmar, facing conditions that Human Rights Watch has described as crimes against humanity of apartheid, persecution and deprivation of liberty.
‘I can’t express the suffering’
Mohammed’s village was spared. Together with the neighbors, his family decided it was safest to stay for two months and share vegetables and supplies for as long as possible. “It was like a prison, we couldn’t get out of the village, we couldn’t get food,” he says.
When they were finally able to leave their village, their region was irrevocably changed.
Today, communities continued to face severe restrictions on their freedom of movement, including incarceration in camps and no access to livelihoods or basic services such as education and health care. According to Human Rights Watch, an estimated 2,000 Rohingya, including hundreds of children, have been arrested by the military for “unauthorized travel” since the coup.
‘We are human in name, but we live like animals,’ says Mohammed. “Even animals are happy…I can’t express the suffering.”
Even medical treatment in a hospital is almost impossible because of the travel permits required and the exorbitant costs and discrimination they face.
Zaw Win, a human rights specialist at Fortify Rights, said the Rohingya were also under pressure to obtain National Verification Cards (NVC) that would identify them as “foreign Bengalis” rather than legitimate Myanmar citizens. The military is not actively campaigning to let people get their hands on the cards, he added, but in practice they are needed for essential tasks such as opening a bank account or working for an international NGO. “People will inevitably have to accept the NVC, even if they don’t want to,” he said.
Within Rakhine State, Rohingya are caught between two rival groups, the military and the Arakan Army, a pro-Rakhine ethnic armed group. The latter fought the military in 2019 and 2020 and now controls large parts of Rakhine state.
Many Rohingya, including Mohammed, say they should pay taxes to both.
The Arakan military, previously hostile to Rohingya, has changed its approach, including by calling Rohingya “Muslims” instead of “Bengals,” which is considered offensive by the Rohingya because it suggests they are foreigners. The group has also reportedly relaxed the military’s strict restrictions on movement in the areas it now controls.
More broadly, the brutal violence being inflicted on communities by the military has led to signs of a shift in public opinion, with some lamenting that they failed to show greater solidarity with the Rohingya in 2017. Still, skepticism among Rohingya communities remains.
“They tell by mouth, not from their heart,” said Kader*, who lives near Maungdaw, north of Rakhine state, and was one of the few people to remain in his village after 2017.
Rising food prices
While Arakan’s military and military agreed an informal ceasefire in November 2020, fighting has erupted in recent months, residents say. Even for those living far from the conflict, this means road closures and higher food prices.
Romida*, one of 120,000 people living in Rohingya camps in Rakhine state set up in 2012 after community violence, said the cost of basic goods has skyrocketed. Three years ago, she had to pick up her two teenage boys from school so they could work. “I had no alternative,” she says. She worries about her sons leaving the camp for work; others have been attacked and robbed by Rakhine youths, she added.
Romida said the cost of a 50kg bag of rice had already doubled to 50,000 kyat. Others told the Guardian that price increases elsewhere have been even more extreme and they don’t know how communities will cope if the increases continue.
That day, Romida said she only ate in the morning. “I can handle some vegetables or snacks, at least some spinach. But there are so many families who can’t even stand spinach or chili or whatever. The young children have been at home since morning, many families were unable to feed their children,” she adds. The shelters in which families reside are thin and cramped; in the rainy season, their tin roof leaks, allowing heavy rains to get in, while in the warmer months the heat is unbearable.
According to Human Rights Watch, the military has blocked aid sent to Rohingya camps and villages after the coup, adding to the desperation.
The difference between her life now and when her family lived free is “like the sky and the earth,” she says.
* Names changed to protect their identities
Additional reporting by Nurul Hoque