While airstrikes and landmines used in the bitter war between Myanmar military and ethnic Rakhine Arakan Army are imposing a heavy civilian toll, a government-imposed blackout on mobile Internet coverage is hampering aid and preventing locals from accessing information needed to protect themselves, say organisations monitoring the situation.
Heavy restrictions on Rohingya movement within Rakhine state, as well as bleak conditions in the refugee camps of Bangladesh where more than 700,000 Rohingya refugees live, have bred despair.
The situation is also prompting more to attempt to smuggle themselves abroad, landing them in the clutches of human traffickers.
“There was a slowing of trafficking of Rohingya in the years following 2014 and again following the (Rohingya militants’ attacks in Myanmar) in 2016 and 2017. This year has had far more activity,” says Kyaw Win, executive director of London-based Burma Human Rights Network who coordinates research from Myanmar-based teams.
“The (trafficking) networks are not being thwarted as often by the authorities in Bangladesh and Burma,” said Kyaw Win, referring to Myanmar by its former name.
“The demand is far higher now due to the massive population increase in the refugee camps and a widespread sense of hopelessness among many of the refugees who have no idea when they will have a place they can live freely.”
On Feb 11, at least 15 Rohingya drowned after an overloaded boat on its way to Malaysia sank off Bangladesh.
The next day, 48 Rohingya on a similar journey were detained by the Myanmar navy in the sea.
In an urgent statement issued on Tuesday (Feb 18), independent experts appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council sounded the alarm about the mounting civilian death toll and displacement caused by fighting between the military and the Arakan Army.
This came amid the information blackout caused by the suspension of mobile Internet services in huge swathes of Rakhine state as well as neighbouring Chin state.
“We are gravely concerned that children are being killed and injured, and that reports suggest weapons are being used indiscriminately, and precautions are not being taken to protect civilians and civilian objects such as schools and monasteries, in violation of international humanitarian law,” the experts said in the statement.
“We note that the International Court of Justice ordered the provisional measures in relation to the Rohingya minority and they must be followed.”
Rohingya Muslims, rejected in Myanmar as colonial-era interlopers from present-day Bangladesh, cannot travel freely around Rakhine state and the country, which severely limits their access to health facilities, education opportunities and livelihoods.
In 2017, Rohingya insurgents attacked security bases, triggering a brutal crackdown by the Myanmar military likened to ethnic cleansing which forced more than 700,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh.
Last year, the mostly Muslim African nation Gambia lodged a case with the International Court of Justice alleging that Myanmar committed genocide.
While the case may take years to conclude, the court last month ruled in favour of Gambia’s request for provisional measures to require Myanmar to protect the Rohingya from more harm.
Myanmar has acknowledged that war crimes took place, but insisted there was no genocide.
Myanmar’s Ministry of Transport and Communications, citing “security requirements and public interest”, suspended mobile Internet services in Maungdaw, Buthidaung, Rathedaung and Myebon in Rakhine State and in Paletwa in Chin State on Feb 3.
The suspension widened an Internet blackout that already applied to four other townships in Rakhine state.
Since then, the experts noted, at least seven civilians have been killed, including three Rohingya in Buthidaung, and up to 50 injured.
Those injured included 21 children who came under fire while at their school in Buthidaung.
More than 660,000 of around 850,000 people identified by the UN Humanitarian Coordinator in need of humanitarian assistance this year live in Rakhine state.
UN agencies face mounting hurdles trying to provide emergency food aid, primary healthcare services and education support in Rakhine state.
“Access to people in need is often constrained due to insecurity or bureaucratic issues, which complicates efforts to carry out assessments, provide assistance and monitor impact,” the UN told The Straits Times.
Meanwhile, restrictions on movement mean that the Rohingya are less likely than other groups to get the help they need.
“It’s been getting worse these two years,” said Hla Tun, 35, a Rohingya living in Maungdaw, in a phone interview.
“When the Rohingya get caught in the crossfire, we don’t even have the chance to send injured villagers to the hospital on time.” – The Straits Times/Asia News Network
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