In Myanmar, Rohingya Refugees Imprisoned Then Dumped Far From Home
Muslim prisoners 'treated like dogs' according to ex-detainees
The Rohingya inhabiting Thet Key Pyin Camp outside Sittwe, capital of Myanmar’s westernmost state, never planned to live there. For several months in 2012, a wave of sectarian violence expelled thousands from their homes in Sittwe’s city center.
Today, many Rohingya — a Muslim minority — live in segregated squatter camps such as Thet Key Pyin with “wholly inadequate access to basic services including health, education, water and sanitation,” according to the United Nations.
A dozen former detainees from Buthidaung, a town many kilometers north of Sittwe, were even more shocked to find themselves stuck in the camp. During a recent research trip to Myanmar, the ex-prisoners told me how they had traveled so far.
In March 2012, 40 refugees from Buthidaung and another northern town, Maungdaw, tried fleeing to Yangon. Joining them were 60 Bangladeshis who had entered Myanmar as illegal immigrants.
The Rohingya planned to continue eastward with the Bangladeshis, who, posing as Rohingya, would attempt to make their way to Malaysia or Thailand. “The government arrested us and tried us for illegal immigration, calling us ‘Bengali trespassers,’” Sha Nar Ar Li, 21, said.
On April 3, 2012, a local court in Buthidaung sentenced the 21 Rohingya from Buthidaung to five years in prison and the 19 from Maungdaw to 6.5 years for violating the 1982 Citizenship Law and the Immigration Act, transporting all 40 to a jail in Buthidaung because of overcrowded prisons elsewhere in the north.
Police officers and soldiers returned the Bangladeshis to their country because, unlike the Rohingya, they lacked Myanmarese documents.
The Buthidaung jail proved overcrowded, and the Myanmarese government then moved 13 of the 21 Rohingya, including the 12 former detainees I interviewed, to a prison in Sittwe’s city center. The prisoners expected the Myanmarese government to release them by Sept. 21, 2018.
“We had no idea what was waiting for us in Sittwe,” Reed Sel, 25, remembered. “The policemen and soldiers didn’t tell us anything, and we had no way of contacting our families to tell them what happened. We never even had a chance to say goodbye. They likely thought we were dead.”
When a guard gave one of the detainees tobacco only to rearrest and retry him for smuggling it into the prison, the 13 prisoners became 12. Those remaining would spend the next three years in that prison.
“We saw the true extent of the Myanmarese government’s cruelty in Sittwe,” Hu Saung A Li, 21, said. “We can provide eyewitness testimony to its crimes against humanity.”
Guards and wardens targeted prisoners who participated in the intercommunal violence of 2012, according to the former detainees. The prison’s supervisors spared the detainees — they were fleeing persecution — but beat several dozen Rohingya at least once a week for hours, six to death, according to witnesses. This number could not be independently confirmed.
Other guards forced prisoners to eat food from the floor, forbade them from wearing clothes and using their hands. “They were treated like dogs — except with worse masters,” Du Zaw Mun, 25, said.
Above — a Rohingya refugee camp in Myanmar. Austin Bodetti photo. At top — police checkpoint in Sittwe, Myanmar. Adam Jones/Flickr photo
The wardens segregated prisoners according to birthplace and religion. Buddhists, treated the best, maintained a cordial relationship with the wardens and stayed in the prison for three or four months at most.
For Muslim prisoners, the situation was very different. Nearly 20 Muslims from Buthidaung and Maungdaw had resided there for three or four decades for criticizing the Myanmarese government.
Buddhist prisoners would often join the guards and wardens in beating the Muslims in their cells, according to the former detainees. “When we were there, it didn’t matter whether you were a prisoner or the imprisoner,” Naw B You Saung, 19, said. “It only mattered whether you were a Buddhist or a Muslim, and the Buddhists were in control.”
“We were imprisoned on charges of illegal immigration, so the guards never treated us particularly badly, just the ones who were in prison because of the fighting,” A Bardula, 25, said. “The Buddhists in the prison did not hate us for being Muslims or Rohingya like the Buddhists on the outside do, and they never prevented us from practicing our faith.”
“The guards and the prisoners who worked with them were just taking revenge for what, in their minds, the prisoners from the violence had done to their people in 2012.”
The former detainees completed only three years of their five-year sentence. On July 1, 2015, policemen arrived to collect all 12, releasing them in Thet Key Pyin, several miles from Sittwe and hundreds of miles from their homes, without explaining what had happened or why.
The Myanmese government gave the former detainees’ certificates of release, which detailed their addresses, release dates, heights, names, fathers’ names and other personally identifiable information.
“This was all we had to prove we weren’t from this camp or anywhere near it,” A Du Zaw Mun, 25, said. “This place is for internally displaced people. We weren’t internally displaced. We were imprisoned, and we want to go home.”
A Tatmadaw banner outside Mandalay Palace, Myanmar. Adam Jones/Flickr photo
As residents of Buthidaung, the former detainees had no way to register for the humanitarian aid provided by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and its allied international non-governmental organizations, or INGOs.
“The UNHCR and INGOs aren’t able to provide for them because they can’t register according to the policy of the Myanmarese government,” Rohingya activist Saeed Arkany said. “So we have been caring for them with what little extra food and supplies we have with us.”
“We have become somewhat experienced with this problem because it is quite common. The policemen cannot or do not want to bring the released detainees all the way back to the north of Rakhine state, so they drop them off at the nearest Rohingya camp instead.”
The detainees had been staying at one of the camp’s mosques, overseen by a foreign-educated cleric, while waiting to return to Buthidaung.
“We have approached the policemen inside this camp repeatedly to bring us back, but they keep telling us to wait.” Sha Nar Ar Li said. “We would go to the city center to petition the government, but we would need a police escort or else the Buddhist extremists would attack us.”
Arkany reassured the former detainees that the process usually lasts a few weeks. Several weeks later, on July 17, the Myanmarese government returned the former detainees to Buthidaung. A July 30 presidential pardon ensured the release of another 70 detainees from Sittwe’s prison, some from Sittwe but most from the north of Rakhine state.
Shamsho Anwar, a Rohingya from Maungdaw, recounted how the Myanmarese government arrested, then transferred prisoners from the north of Rakhine state to Sittwe.
“After the 2012 conflict, police and Nasaka [border] security forces arrested over 1,300 Rohingya,” he said. “Almost all the people were young men. Even in our village 35 Rohingya were arrested by Nasaka security forces.”
“Every so often Myanmar’s border guard police arrest Rohingya suspected or accused of being RSO [Rohingya Solidarity Organization] members and send them to Buthidaung prison. After arresting people, they are kept in police custody or prison. People imprisoned for a long time are sent to Sittwe.”
Wai Wai Nu, a former political prisoner from Buthidaung, confirmed his and the former detainee’s account. “There were some transfers in 2012,” she recalled. “When they were released, I think they were able to go back to the north of Rakhine state.”
The problem of detainees being released into camps away from their home villages surprised human rights activist Chris Lewa from Project Arakan, which monitors abuses against the Rohingya.
“After being released from prison, Rohingya detainees are usually sent back to their villages of residence with a laissez-passer to be shown to checkpoints,” she emailed me, referring to travel documents. “This is very strange and this issue should have been brought to the attention of UNHCR in Sittwe and they should be able to address this issue with immigration authorities.”
Khin Maung U, once a program manager for the UNHCR and a regional director for the International Committee for the Red Cross in Rakhine state, noted the difficulties of Rohingya northerners released outside Sittwe.
“If Rohingya are not registered in the camps in Sittwe, they have to live in cardboard houses. Sometimes, families share food with them, but not always,” he acknowledged. “Rohingya from the north could only enter Sittwe conditionally — for medical reasons or for an INGO but only for 45 days.”
The Myanmarese government seems to respect this time limit of 45 days when relocating former detainees to their hometowns. However, this problem continues to burden the residents of Thet Key Pyin.
“We can barely feed our own people,” said the cleric who had helped care for the 12 former detainees. “How are we supposed to care for Buthidaung’s as well?”