A major human rights group said Myanmar is carrying out a policy of apartheid against Rohingya Muslims languishing for eight years in internal displacement camps, accusing civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi of complicity in their persecution weeks before national elections.
Myanmar is facing multiple legal challenges over a deadly 2017 military campaign in northern Rakhine State that drove 740,000 Rohingya men, women and children to Bangladesh and prompted calls from United Nations fact-finders for a genocide investigation.
But in a 170-page report released Thursday based on 60 interviews, Human Rights Watch refocuses attention on the 130,000 mostly Rohingya Muslims trapped in fenced off settlements in central Rakhine since spasms of anti-Rohingya violence in 2012.
Torture and other abuses suffered by Rohingya found outside designated camps as well as the denial of freedom of movement through overlapping policies, checkpoints and barbed-wire enclosures amount to crimes of apartheid and persecution, according to the group’s findings.
"Rohingya said life in the camps is like living under house arrest every day," Human Rights Watch said. It added that the pandemic has made the already "hopeless" situation worse as overcrowding, lack of access to healthcare and aid blockages make Rohingya more vulnerable to the virus.
The apartheid designation is the first by Human Rights Watch in Asia though other monitors have described the situation for Rohingya in Rakhine State in similar terms.
Today there are about 24 internment camps and camp-like settlements mostly around the Rakhine State capital Sittwe. The report describes them as "beyond the dignity of any people" where the Rohingya are segregated from the rest of society and lack hope for the future.
"The only difference between a prison and the Rakhine camps is that in prison at least they know how long their sentence is," a Rohingya man living in a Sittwe camp told researchers.
The Myanmar government has pledged to close the camps but Human Rights Watch called the move a "smokescreen" as it still does not not guarantee freedom of movement and better living conditions.
Many international humanitarian organizations have also reevaluated their engagement with the government and the military, fearing they might be indirectly aiding the system of permanent segregation, the report added.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, told VICE News that leader Aung San Suu Kyi "will have to be considered culpable for what is happening here."
The former democracy champion has had her international reputation shattered over the treatment of the Rohingya, but she has largely escaped calls for personal accountability leveled at top generals in the country.
She remains popular domestically as Rohingya are viewed as outsiders by most of the public despite the historical record. Their mistreatment generates little sympathy, they are disenfranchised, and several Rohingya candidates were blocked from running in the Nov. 8 vote.
The release of the report comes nearly a month after two former soldiers with the Myanmar military said in bombshell video testimony recorded by an insurgent group that they killed an estimated 180 Rohingya civilians during the 2017 crackdown. The two former soldiers have reportedly been brought to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
A senior Myanmar government official declined to comment when contacted by VICE News.