Around 21,000 Rohingya have sought refuge in Bangladesh over the past two months, as Burmese forces launched what one U.N official says is “getting very close to what we would all agree are crimes against humanity.” TIME reports from the Bangladesh border, where the full horror is only just emerging
If the Naf River could talk, which horror story would it tell first?
The narrow waterway marks the border between Burma and Bangladesh. On its western bank is the Bangladeshi province of Chittagong. To the east, Burma’s Arakan state, also known as Rakhine, home to the Buddhist-majority country’s Rohingya people, a Muslim minority described over the years as stateless, friendless and forgotten.
But if the river could remember their stories, it might speak, for example, of the night in late November when Arafa, a 25-year-old Rohingya woman, entered its waters with her five children.
She used to have six. As she talks, sitting on the threshold of a hut in a makeshift refugee camp on the Bangladeshi side of the Naf, she is surrounded by her son and four young daughters. They are a lively bunch, noisy, restless, yet shy, hiding behind their mother’s back or running in and out of the hut, as she recounts what happened to her second son.
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“With each passing day, the current government is starting to look more and more like the pre-2010 government”
A curtain fell on western Burma on Oct. 9, the moment after police said Islamic militants attacked three security outposts along the border with Bangladesh, killing nine officers. Since that announcement six weeks ago, more than 100 people have been killed, hundreds have been detained by the military, more than 150,000 aid-reliant people have been left without food and medical care, dozens of women claim to have been sexually assaulted, more than 1,200 buildings appear to have been razed and at least 30,000 people have fled for their lives.
Humanitarian workers and independent journalists have been banned from affected areas as the Burmese army, known locally as the Tatmadaw, carries out what it calls “clearance operations.” The government, which is headed by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, said that those killed were jihadists — information that was gleaned, it said, through interrogations. The government said the rape allegations were false. It said that Muslim terrorists burned down the buildings themselves in an attempt to frame the army for abuse and claim international assistance.
Counterterrorism operations are still under way in Maungdaw, the northernmost township of Arakan state, also known as Rakhine. The township is mostly populated by Rohingya Muslims, a minority that is denied citizenship and is viewed as one of the world’s most persecuted peoples. Elsewhere in the state, as in much of Burma, Buddhists are the majority. There are an estimated 1.1 million Rohingya in Burma. They are systematically denied political representation. They are demonized in the national media. They are so geographically and economically isolated that tens of thousands have fled on dangerous boat voyages, attempting to reach Malaysia.
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It was late November—two weeks after the elections—and Nura Din needed to escape the They Key Pyin Internally Displaced Persons Camp. The monsoon season was over—there had been no heavy rain for weeks—and the Bay of Bengal was becoming calm again. The smuggling networks were already rumored to be kicking back into gear: Soon small fishing boats would take members of the escaping Rohingya—a Muslim community in Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma—out along the Kalaman River, where they’d connect with bigger boats in the bay. Anywhere was better than here. “Wherever the boat lands,” he said, was good enough.
His parents agreed that he had to get out. Nura Din is only 13 years old, but he has four younger siblings and the international aid agencies, which are under strain dealing with refugee crises around the globe, are cutting back their food allotments to Rohingya refugees. He had heard about Myanmar’s recent national election, from which the Rohingya had been excluded, but he didn’t know anything about it. “I don’t want to live here anymore,” he said. Recently the Burmese government authorities have entered camps and punished Rohingya who speak with journalists. He was hungry in class, he said. He was hungry now, chatting with a journalist.