Between being blamed for a second wave of infections, and being denied access to healthcare, the Rohingya are stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Myanmar is seeing a second wave of Covid-19 cases that is spiralling out of control. Ahead of upcoming elections on November 8, the ruling party is accused of using the Rohingya as scapegoats to address the growing concern over the handling of the pandemic.
In a speech on September 2, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi gave a speech threatening legal punishment against “reckless and unsympathetic” violators of Covid-19 restrictions. She also reminded people that past violence had made Myanmar a world “embarrassment.”
The party line
With looming elections around the corner, Myanmarese media outlets quickly adopted the government's narrative in their coverage.
Rohingya activist Nay San Lwin spoke to TRT World to give some specifics.
“Politicians in Myanmar are always trying to take advantage of the situation we are in. Although there were no Rohingya victims in the second [Covid-19] wave, some politicians began propagating against us,” says San Lwin.
“With the election closer, they’re using this card to gain support by spreading hate against Rohingya,” he adds.
San Lwin adds, that even though the first and second victims who triggered the second coronavirus wave were Rakhine Buddhists, Muslim Rohingya are still blamed for the sudden second wave, being framed for bringing the virus from Bangladesh.
Racism is widespread, San Lwin relates. Rohingya are called “interloper Bengalis”, politicians write articles that “dehumanise” them in newspapers.
“We are defenceless in Myanmar. The laws do not protect us, we can’t confront any situation there,” says Nay San Lwin.
Kyaw Win, Executive Director of the Burma Human Rights Network, spoke to TRT World and got into the gritty details behind the intensifying racist rhetoric in Myanmar.
“The root cause is the citizenship system in Burma,” Win says.
“What they’ve done is a create a deeply racist, very apartheid citizenship system that can easily target any community to undermine their history or credibility, letting them do whatever they want by law,” he adds.
Painting a lurid picture, he goes on to describe the dystopian reality of life in Myanmar.
“There are three social levels in Burma. If you’re Burmese and Buddhist, you’re at the top. If you’re not Buddhist, Christian perhaps, but you’re ethnically Burmese, you’re a second-class citizen. But if you’re Muslim, whether or not you’re Burmese, you’re at the lowest tier of society,” he explains.
But what does that actually look like?
“If anything happens to you, there’s zero tolerance from authority. You’re treated with brute force. You’ll be crushed. Finished. You live either in an open-air internally displaced person camp, and if you still haven’t been uprooted you can’t even visit a neighbouring town. If you run away, you’re jailed, arrested and tortured.”
In this respect, the Myanmarese government’s fears of the spread of coronavirus may very well be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
It’s only policy
Living in cramped, harsh conditions only makes the likelihood of contracting the virus that much higher.
Kyaw Win thinks it’s a matter of state policy.
“Returning Rohingya are arrested and jailed for six months. Anyone else returning from any country is left alone,” he points out.
But matters have only gotten worse with restrictions on the Rohingya movement.
“They have to bribe people, pay smugglers money if they even go to the hospital. There are many cases where they can’t make it to a hospital, and die on the way because it takes one to two weeks to get permission to go to the hospital,” says Win.
“As terrible as it is, the risk of contracting coronavirus is a possibility for the Rohingya. You can still avoid that. But you can’t avoid the oppression that’s part of their life. The risk of torture and death has been established long ago,” he admits.
Money to be made
Activist Nay San Lwin believes local authorities are using Covid-19 as a pretext to extort money from the Rohingya.
It’s no surprise to be targeted by authorities in the Northern Rakhine State, he points out.
“Extorting money from the Rohingya is normal. No one takes action against local police or Border Guard Police or departmental officers,” San Lwin notes.
But under lockdown, local authorities found a lot more chances to get paid.
“If police see any Buddhists violating lockdown rules, they take no action. But even if the Rohingya strictly follow the law, they’ll still get extorted with no law to protect them,” he says.
Asked for an example, he points out, “the fine for not wearing a mask if 1,000 Kyat ($0.75) in towns where Buddhists live, and 10,000 Kyat ($7.75) in towns with Rohingya majorities. In the past weeks alone, dozens of Rohingya were detained in Maungdaw township, and only released after ransom was paid.”
But everyone’s doing it
Shortly after Aung San Suu Kyi’s call for punishment, hate speech against the Rohingya took off.
Myanmar media outlet The Voice ran a racist caricature showing a Rohingya man crossing the border carrying Covid-19 with him, accompanied by the denigrating label “illegal interloper,” which is frequently used to describe the Rohingya.
Racist cartoon by @voicemyanmar today depicting an "illegal" immigrant crossing the border & bringing COVID19 w/ him -- obsly referencing recent govt statements of a few Rohingya who allegedly entered #Myanmar illegally & have been tested positive. Shame. pic.twitter.com/Nb47Hvr07Z— Zaw Htun Lat (@zawhtunlat) June 15, 2020
Shortly after, a local Rakhine official publicly outed a Rohingya Covid-19 patient, posting pictures of his home on Facebook, before calling them Rohingya ‘cows’.
One #Rohingya has tested positive for the #coronavirus today in #Buthidaung.— Ro Nay San Lwin (@nslwin) June 15, 2020
This #Facebook account owner 'Mg Zan' has posted the details of the patient including the photos of the patient's house. Mg Zan is a nickname. His real name is Min Thiha Htun and is .. 1/2 pic.twitter.com/HIuHSmsvVN
Rohingya are being actively targeted, says Win. “Shops don’t want to sell food to them. Neighbors inform authorities which houses belong to Rohingya. It’s getting difficult for the Rakhine to survive,” he says.
The widespread dehumanisation has a very real effect on the Rohingya.
“It’s four-tiered,” says Kyaw Win, “Deprive them of food, funds, information, and manpower. Their ‘catchy’ phrase for it is ‘kill all, destroy all, finish all’,” he relates.
“That means when they come to your village, they round everyone up, kill everyone. People run, and are displaced. The population is destroyed to eliminate the possibility of support for the insurgency. They rape women. They kill children,” shares Win.