Asia-Pacific / Myanmar

Burmese Rohingya Can’t Stay But Can’t Leave

Since late August, the Burmese government and its military forces have carried out a variety of coordinated attacks involving arson, rape, murder, and other abuses against the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority who live predominantly in Myanmar’s western Rakhine State. The majority Buddhist nation views the more than one million Rohingyan men, women, and children as illegal immigrants unworthy of citizenship and many basic rights. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, has referred to the recent attacks against the Rohingya as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” As a result, almost five hundred thousand Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh in just over a month.

The mass exodus has been inhibited by the Burmese government’s placement of anti-personnel landmines along the Bangladeshi border to prevent the Rohingya from fleeing. According to a report from the Bangladeshi Border Guard, over five people have been killed and over a dozen wounded from landmine blasts.  Since their creation, anti-personnel landmines, which are specifically constructed to detonate upon contact, have killed and wounded roughly one hundred million people worldwide.

A coalition of non-governmental organizations, having recognized the indiscriminate nature of the weapons and their arduous removal process, set out to rid the world of anti-personnel landmines and cluster munitions. Their work resulted in the 1997 Ottawa Treaty, also known as the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. Those who comply with the treaty must not only halt the production and and advancement of anti-personnel landmines, they must also eradicate their landmine stockpiles within four years of signing. Over eighty percent of the world’s nations, including Bangladesh, have signed the treaty. Myanmar remains one of the few that has not.

For decades, the Burmese military has been accused of employing landmines against a variety of groups, often targeting civilians. In the few years before the start of the Rohingya crisis, however, there was a decline in the usage and placement of landmines in the region; it was, for many, a sign of hope. But the recent mass exodus has sparked a resurgence in landmine usage that has provoked outcry from leaders around the world. Not only do the landmines obstruct many major crossroads between Bangladesh and Myanmar, they have also forced the Rohingya to seek alternative, often perilous methods of escape.  Due to the re-emergence of landmine threats, many have resorted to poorly-constructed boats that are cheap and unstable; on September 29 and October 8, two vessels carrying dozens of Rohingyan men, women, and children capsized, killing most of the people on board.

International leaders worldwide have attacked Myanmar’s de facto leader and 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who has done little to address what prominent figures, such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, are calling a genocide. Many have also stressed the future repercussions of landmine usage on Myanmar’s infrastructural and agricultural development and the safety of its people; landmines, which cost roughly three to four dollars to manufacture, cost over one thousand dollars to locate and safely remove from the ground. Not only have these indiscriminate weapons intensified the suffering of the Rohingya, but they will continue to affect generations of innocent civilians well into the future.