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World

Rohingya Trapped In 'Dehumanizing' Conditions, Report Says

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We have a glimpse of an ethnic minority group written out of the story of their own country, the Rohingya that lived in Myanmar for generations. Now most are gone, refugees in a string of countries around the Indian Ocean. Those who remain had been told for years they're not even part of the country where they were born. The military's latest crackdown came after an attack that was blamed on Rohingya insurgents, but repression stretches back decades. Laura Haigh is a Myanmar researcher with Amnesty International and author of a new study released today that declares the Rohingya live under an apartheid system, separate and unequal. Haigh has visited some of the 100,000 Rohingya who live inside ghetto-like camps in their country.

LAURA HAIGH: And the conditions there are just appalling. They live in these squalid camps where, you know, they've been for five years. They're not allowed to leave. They're guarded by two military check posts.

INSKEEP: And what did you hear from people there?

HAIGH: The main thing people would speak to us about was the restrictions on their movement, you know, the fact that they were confined to these camps. What we then found as we started researching the situation in other parts of Rakhine State was that they were also trapped and that the government was basically confining them to these villages. That meant they couldn't access their hospitals, their kids couldn't get to the nearest high school. In some cases, farmers were telling me that they couldn't get to their fields. And, you know, obviously that's had a massive impact on their ability to support their families, put food on the table. And as a result, many are relying on humanitarian aid, which, unfortunately, the government restricts.

INSKEEP: So let me circle back to that word apartheid, which you applied to this situation - loaded word, very strong word. What makes it the right word in your view?

HAIGH: Well, we've been investigating the situation in Rakhine State for the last two years, and we're very clear that what's happened over the last three months in the north constitutes crimes against humanity. The military have committed rape, torture, murder. But we found the denial of rights of the Rohingya very clearly fits the denial of rights elaborated in the apartheid convention, and that is the denial of a nationality.

INSKEEP: OK. So this is a legal term...

HAIGH: Yes.

INSKEEP: ...For people who essentially should be treated equally in the situation that they're in but are kept separate and unequal, and that's something that you feel that the government has not only done but been pretty overt about.

HAIGH: Yes. As I say, it's a crime against humanity. It's also a system. All of this is done through different state institutions, and that's what's led us to believe that this is a systematic as well as widespread attack on the Rohingya that amounts to apartheid.

INSKEEP: Just following the news, I've heard the Myanmar government effectively say it's not as bad as you claim and it's none of your business. Have you heard any more, from your point of view, constructive response from the Myanmar government to what you're finding?

HAIGH: I think the Myanmar authorities have issued a number of denials, dismissals of allegations of human rights violations in Rakhine State. I mean, they don't stand up to scrutiny. And, to be honest, if they really were serious about sharing their full situation as they say it, they would allow international observers into the area. They're not doing that at the moment so all we can assume is the worst, which is not just something that we've documented in this report today, it's something that you can see on the bodies of the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who have fled to Bangladesh in recent months.

INSKEEP: What do you mean by see on the bodies?

HAIGH: I mean gunshot wounds. I mean bands, women who have been raped. The trauma that people have in their eyes - you know, clearly they're fleeing an appalling campaign of violence. You know, 600,000 people didn't just leave for no reason.

INSKEEP: Is there a Rohingya person you've met in your travels whose story sticks with you?

HAIGH: One of the people who I think about a lot is a 16-year-old girl who I met early last year in northern Rakhine State, actually where a lot of the violence is taking place now. And the day I met her, she'd actually just sat a physics exam, and she was telling me that she actually wanted to be a doctor. But she's Rohingya so she's not allowed to go to the university in Sittwe. And Rohingya need special permission to leave Rakhine State in the first place. So she couldn't go anywhere else, and she basically had to abandon that dream. And for me that was just heartbreaking that someone 16 years old who is getting amazing grades at school didn't have the opportunity to reach her full potential.

INSKEEP: I think you're telling me that even if someone doesn't get shot, even if someone's village doesn't get burned, that their life is profoundly affected by what's happening.

HAIGH: The way that this system of apartheid works and affects people's lives, it's not as visible as the terror in people's eyes, the scars on people's bodies as they cross the border to Bangladesh, but it doesn't make them any less serious.

INSKEEP: Laura Haigh of Amnesty International, thanks very much.

HAIGH: Thank you.

INSKEEP: She joined us via Skype from Bangkok. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.