On Oct. 3, while sitting at home in an isolated village close to Myanmar’s border with Bangladesh, Farid Alam, a 36-year-old businessman and community leader, was summoned by the local border police to one of its bases in a nearby camp. On arrival, he was arrested and quickly driven to the agency’s headquarters. There, he was brutally tortured to death — a visitor from out of town who saw his body noted that one of his legs was broken, his penis burned, and his testicles smashed.
Alam’s murder is part of a recent escalation of violence in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state perpetrated by state forces against an ethnic minority known as the Rohingya, according to the Arakan Project, a Bangkok-based rights-monitoring group. Since September, the group has documented a spike in abuses, such as arbitrary arrests and even torture, by the Border Guard Police (BGP), a government agency that deals with suspected illegal immigrants, and by the military. At least four people, the group says, were confirmed to have been either beaten or tortured to death in custody.
The spike in violence has driven thousands to flee Myanmar via the sea in what has been described by the Associated Press as “one the largest boat exoduses in Asia since the Vietnam War.” Some 16,000 Rohingya have fled the country by boat since mid-October, according to the latest estimates by the Arakan Project — a figure nearly double that which it recorded during the same period last year.
U.S. President Barack Obama, who is visiting Myanmar this week, has claimed the country as one of his chief foreign-policy successes. However, Myanmar’s transition has been undermined by ongoing human rights abuses, particularly in Rakhine. The predominantly Muslim Rohingya community has faced dire circumstances since sectarian conflict broke out between the group and its largely Buddhist ethnic Rakhine neighbors in June 2012. According to Human Rights Watch, pogroms committed against the Rohingya in 2012 at the hands of ethnic Rakhine mobs and state forces amounted to a “campaign of ethnic cleansing.” Following this, the Rohingya endured a series of deadly sectarian attacks perpetrated by groups of Rakhine, typically with impunity. In all, as a result of these events, several hundred have died, and around 140,000 Rohingya remain confined to squalid camps for the displaced. Yet in the months leading up to Obama’s visit, as documented in a series of Arakan Project reports given exclusively to Foreign Policy, the Rohingya have faced perhaps the most sustained campaign of targeted abuse by security forces in years.
In mid-October, Abu Tayab, a 27-year-old man, was arrested by the BGP after returning to Myanmar from a visit to neighboring Bangladesh. Brought to an immigration facility in Nga Khu Ya, his dead body, riddled with signs of torture, would be released the next day to a medical clinic for a postmortem, according to the group.
About a week after this incident, another man was found dead. Locals had witnessed the 42-year-old man being apprehended in Kyauk Pyin Seik village. Showing signs of assault, his body was later found in a river.
In addition to the killings, the Arakan Project has documented 144 arbitrary arrests in 28 locations in recent weeks. (Ye Htut, spokesman for Myanmar President Thein Sein, did not respond to a request to respond to the allegations.)
The allegations have emerged as Myanmar’s government has begun to implement its recently announced “Rakhine State Action Plan.” The strategy’s exact details have not been made public, but leaked drafts outline the government’s plans. The policy offers members of the minority group two options: either present official proof of their family’s long-term presence in Myanmar while self-identifying as “Bengali” — in line with the government’s belief that the minority is largely composed of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh — or face confinement to internment camps and eventual resettlement abroad. Those who comply will be granted the chance to achieve a form of second-class citizenship. (Rohingya would be granted what amounts to citizenship, though the government could revoke it at any time pursuant to controversial junta-era legislation.)
Currently, very few look likely to assent to the government’s plan. Lewa reported that communities have been subjected to beatings, looting, and blockades by the security forces for not complying with “family list verification” exercises led by visiting immigration officials.
“It seems that the authorities may have been trying to get some Rohingya to classify themselves as Bengalis without their consent,” as per the requirements of the Rakhine State Action Plan, she noted.
With the issue of Rohingya migration being placed center stage in media coverage of Obama’s trip to Myanmar, the president has taken the opportunity to speak out against the Rakhine State Action Plan and emphasize his support for full citizenship rights for members of the group.
Yet it is unlikely that these statements can stem what Lewa calls “new surges of violence.” Matthew Smith, executive director of Bangkok-based NGO Fortify Rights, amplified these concerns, observing that attempts to force some Rohingya into referring to themselves as Bengalis, combined with the abuses outlined by Lewa, are likely to continue, contributing significantly to the increases in Rohingya maritime flight.
The persecution, he said, represents “various forms of ethnic cleansing at work.”
To some advocates, the timing of the recent abuses suggests some sort of coordination. Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, observed that “an escalation of these attacks, especially at the outset of the traditional sailing season, when the weather in the Andaman ocean calms down, is far too convenient to be a complete coincidence.”
“It appears that the ethnic Rakhine and their allies in Burma’s security forces are doing what they can to empty Rakhine state of the Rohingya,” he added, “one boatload at a time.”