Nowhere to run
FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa (The Philippine Star) - August 29, 2020 - 12:00am

The story I’m about to tell requires a little more than just decoding this jumble of letters.

There is so much misinformation and disinformation online and through social media that’s designed to make fools of us all, that I read anything and everything with an extra layer of discernment. I ask myself why I am reading something: is it for entertainment? Information? Insight? Analysis? If it’s entertainment and the article is a parody, or and opinion piece, a short story or novel, then facts aren’t going to be as important as its effect. Too often, readers interpret information with a confirmation bias: the tendency to interpret new evidence (whether or not it’s true) as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories.

I also check what it is the piece I’m reading wants me to think or do and who benefits if I do so. That’s easy enough when the text says “Sale Now On” but perhaps a bit trickier when it says “Miracle cure for COVID-19 discovered.” The pandemic is being used as a peg on which to hang political views right across the spectrum.

As I write, I bear all this in mind. I expect discernment, if not outright skepticism, from my readers. I don¹’t want to pretend this world is a fraction less complex, subtle and multifaceted than it is. I don’t  believe there are any easy answers to the challenges that face us today, or that have ever faced humankind.

All of this comes to mind because of a new report launched by the Burma Human Rights Network. I moderated the online launch event for the report and it struck me that the extreme hardship and de-facto apartheid for Rohingya in Rakhine State, Burma has been reported on many times over the years. Despite the existence of those reports by teams of experts and researchers on the ground who risk imprisonment for reporting, it’s only got worse. Upfront I fully admit it is something I am deeply committed to informing the world about because it goes against humanity itself.

Three years ago this week the military cracked down violently on civilians in a wildly disproportionate collective punishment for attacks carried out against security forces. Of the 1.1 million Rohingya that lived in the state more than 700,000 fled their homes to seek refuge across the border in neighboring Bangladesh. There are fewer Rohingya still at home than in the refugee camps. I spoke to many women who were raped by soldiers before they managed to get away, mothers and fathers whose children had been killed. There are hundreds of thousands of children who have been denied an education and safety. They are not allowed to leave or seek livelihoods, have severely limited access to healthcare and education.

So here is another report coinciding with the anniversary. As I write, I realize it’s not enough just to put another article out there. This time, for these fellow humans’ sakes, I ask that readers not only exercise discernment but empathy. Discernment, because of the online battle against hate speech targetting Rohingya. The mis- and disinformation surrounding Rohingya for being “terrorists” and “foreigners” must be seen for what it is. Empathy, because the only way that this situation can end is by people fully understanding it and saying: “Enough is enough.”

Rohingya in Burma are being convicted and imprisoned as criminals for exercising their right to freedom of movement both within Rakhine State and outside it. The new report by the Burma Human Rights Network (BHRN) documents how Rohingya have been stripped of citizenship, denied the right to their identity under domestic laws, and subjected to severe travel restrictions. When Rohingya travel across Burma to seek better lives, they face being criminalized for moving without identity documents, or travel authorizations that are virtually impossible to obtain.

In 160 separate cases amounting to the arrests of at least 1,675 Rohingya Muslims between October 2016 and March 2020, the report finds most were sentenced to the harshest possible penalties under Burmese law: from two to five years. The cases include Rohingya children, who not only received similar sentences, but are also separated from their parents or relatives and detained in either juvenile detention centers or youth training centers.

In 2016 and 2017 large-scale military operations and atrocity crimes perpetrated against the Rohingya forced almost 800,000 people to flee Rakhine State and seek refuge in overcrowded refugee camps in neighbouring Bangladesh. All of the estimated 600,000 Rohingya remaining in northern Rakhine State are confined in conditions of apartheid in the villages they live in, surrounded by armed security forces and checkpoints. More than 120,000 Rohingya Muslims who were evicted from towns in other parts of Rakhine State following the 2012 anti-Muslim violence have been confined to camps for internally displaced persons for the past eight years. These resemble internment camps, fenced off with barbed wire with security forces stationed throughout.

“The report provides clear evidence of Burma’s weaponization of its legal system against an entire ethno-religious group born and living in the country for generations. By demonizing the Rohingya as “illegal Bengalis” and punishing them simply for leaving the apartheid-like conditions in Rakhine State, the authorities are denying their right to their identity and their rightful place in Burmese society,” said BHRN’s Executive Director Kyaw Win.

The report highlights the impossible choices faced by most Rohingya. In recent weeks, faced with the risk of contracting COVID-19 in the overcrowded refugee camps in Bangladesh – versus an insecure and uncertain future in their places of origin – small numbers of Rohingya refugees have sought to return to northern Rakhine State. However, they have been arrested on arrival, detained and, in some cases, sentenced to six months in prison under the same laws.

Imagining a situation in which you literally cannot leave your neighborhood isn’t too hard nowadays because of the pandemic. But it is an extraordinarily cruel thing that Rohingya cannot even travel to another town only a few kilometres away for urgent medical care without papers that cost more than they can afford in bribes and months to be issued. Teenagers can’t go to college. Families cannot meet. There are multiple military checkpoints at which only people who look like Rohingya are asked to leave the vehicle to be checked, harrassed, asked for bribes and arrested.

It is a stark choice: the open air prison of their neighborhoods or jail.

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