21 September 2017 – The conflict in Rakhine state in Myanmar has taken many lives and created a vast humanitarian crisis. The United Nations estimates there are now 380,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, and the Bangladeshi Government is preparing for more. India has offered assistance and UN experts are calling on the Myanmar army to act with restraint.
Myanmar is a complex society with 135 official ethnic groups, many of which have fought years of battle with the government, seeking autonomy or independence. The conflict is layered, involving ethnicity, language, religion, and party affiliations. Truth is often the first casualty during the fog of war, and Myanmar is no exception. In her speech to the nation, Myanmar’s state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi described her country as a fragile democracy riven by many conflicts.
In Rakhine alone, the conflict involves Rakhine, Mro, and Diagnet communities, Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim faiths, and hundreds of villages are affected, displacing thousands of people. Northern Rakhine has been under military control since at least 2012. Neighbouring Bangladesh too is militarised; the Chittagong Hill Tracts, which border Myanmar, has in the past seen repression against Chakmas and other Buddhist communities, which places civilians on both sides at danger.
The statistics of villages and people affected that the Myanmar Government offers do not tally with the reports of aid workers and international agencies. State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi has also said that the military forces are instructed to act as per the law and she wants to know why the exodus is happening.
Military presence in Rakhine and the control the military exercises over sources of information has made it hard for media professionals, journalists, aid workers, human rights experts, and representatives of international organisations to move around freely, observe the situation on the ground, or make independent assessment of what exactly is happening.
Myanmar’s citizens have the right to seek, receive and impart information. Myanmar’s neighbours and the international community too have the right. By controlling access to information and preventing journalists and others to report freely, the Myanmar military is making the situation worse. The army cannot be the sole source of information.
PEN International calls upon the Myanmar Government to allow international and domestic press free access to Rakhine state. It should also permit aid workers, human rights investigators, diplomats, and representatives of legitimate international organisations to visit the state so that they can independently and fairly witness, observe, and report what they see.
Myanmar government should also take steps to ensure that anyone offering testimonies to journalists, aid workers, diplomats, or human rights investigators is able to do so without fear of reprisals.
These are essential first steps to find out facts, to establish peace, to reduce the flow of refugees, to make people feel safe and live peacefully, and to ensure accountability so that those responsible for human rights abuses are ultimately brought to justice.