One year after brutal attacks by the military that drove more than 700,000 Rohingya from their homes in Myanmar, life remains precarious for those who didn’t flee.
Rohingya in Rakhine state, where the violence took place, are locked out of healthcare, work and education. Denied citizenship cards, they must apply for permission from the government if they want to travel and face daily discrimination.
The situation is especially hard for young people.
Ko Lwin*, 21, comes from Rakhine. Of his nine friends who passed their exams, he was the only one to be accepted into university. He was accepted because his parents are a Rohingya and Mon inter-race couple and therefore he holds a citizenship card.
But just when Ko Lwin was about to start studying law, attacks were launched last year in August by Muslim militants in northern Rakhine State,killing 12 members of the security forces. In response the Myanmar army began brutal attacks killing at least 6,700 Rohingya and razing their villages. Human rights groups have documented cases of widespread torture and rape of women and the United Nations say these crimes could amount to genocide.
“I felt helpless hearing the news,” Ko Lwin told the Guardian. Instead of taking up his place at university, he decided to start an informal tutoring program connecting Rohingya students to volunteer teachers.
Like Ko Lwin, the remaining 600,000 stateless Rohingya who didn’t flee to sprawling refugee camps on the Bangladesh border remain scared and marginalised.
A Rohingya student from Buthidaung, Lu Min*, said since last year’s attacks many students stayed home, fearing for their safety. “Sometimes they throw rocks, other times with slingshot or bottles.”
On a recent government-guided visit to northern Rakhine state, United Nations humanitarian coordinator Knut Ostby said “a lot of villages have been burned, a lot of land looks empty”.
Since last year the Burmese government has bulldozed scores of Rohingya villages and details remain opaque about the building of new houses.
Aung Kyaw Moe, a Rohingya leader working in an non-governmental organisation, said one of the biggest challenges was that Rohingya in Myanmar cannot freely move around.
Visiting neighbours, walking to the market or playing in public spaces are forbidden. Mob violence or unlawful arrest is also a threat. “You are kind of put in a cage that you did not dream of,” he said.
The restrictions are not entirely new, but they have been tightened over the years, especially in the past 12 months, to the extent that Rohingya cannot travel in Rakhine without permission.
The Rohingya in Yangon and other parts of the country keep a low profile. Finding jobs that don’t discriminate is a challenge and they can’t open bank accounts or access government hospitals without a citizenship card. They fear arrest for travelling to see their family in Rakhine without a permit, or being blocked from returning to Yangon.
Despite calls from the UN for the Rohingya to be granted citizenship, the plight of the Muslim minority is ignored by the government, which continues to refuse to use the word Rohingya or acknowledge their identity.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s government has said it would allow “verified displaced people” to return to Rakhine from Bangladesh, but the situation inside the state remains unclear. Media access is largely blocked and restrictions on aid agencies that were brought in 12 months ago remain in place.
Benoit De Gryse, operations manager for Médecins Sans Frontières in Myanmar, says three of their clinics in northern Rakhine have been burned down and the one remaining clinic is an empty shell.
Staff cannot access vulnerable communities to conduct needs assessments. Last year the malnutrition rates were desperate and since the attacks De Gryse concludes “it can only be worse”.
Lifesaving referrals to the government hospitals were already a complicated process before the attacks – convincing the authorities to give permission and to convince the Rohingya they would be safe – but now De Gryse says that has completely come to a halt.
“I wish I could say how many kids [are in need], but I cannot say how many as they will not let us access.”
Aung Kyaw Moe says the anniversary of the attacks has brought fears and rumours of another crackdown. One of the quickest improvements to implement, he believes, is to allow children to access education equally and safely. Not letting the Rohingya become literate or educated is “pouring water on a huge risk that will grow in a longer time”.