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UN envoy warns persecution of Myanmar's Rohingya could amount to 'crimes against humanity'

Reported by: Associated Press
Reported: Tuesday, April 8, 2014 5:48 AM EDT
YANGON, Myanmar

Severe shortages of food, water and medical care for Rohingya Muslims in western Myanmar are part of a long history of persecution against the religious minority that could amount to "crimes against humanity," a U.N. human rights envoy to the country said in a statement.

Hundreds of local and international aid workers fled Rakhine state — home to almost all the country's 1.3 million Rohingya, tens of thousands of whom are living in crowded displacement camps — after their offices and residences were attacked by Buddhist mobs late last month.

Some have tried to return, but have been denied necessary permits.

"Recent developments in Rakhine state are the latest in a long history of discrimination and persecution against the Rohingya community which could amount to crimes against humanity," said Tomas Ojea Quintana as he approaches the end of his six-year tenure as U.N. Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar.

The evacuation of aid workers, who serve as lifeline for members of the religious minority, "will only increase the vulnerability of this community," said the statement, which was released Monday in Geneva.

There was no immediate response from the government.

Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist nation of 60 million people, only recently emerged from a half-century of military rule. Despite international praise from the international community for sweeping democratic reforms implemented by the nominally civilian government in the last three years, the United States and others warn that progress could be undermined by growing religious intolerance.

In the last two years, up to 280 people have been killed and another 140,000 forced to flee their homes by rampaging Buddhist mobs.

Most of the victims have been Rohingya, living in apartheid-like conditions in camps just outside the state capital, Sittwe.

Water availability in some of the camps could reach critical levels within a week, particularly in Pauktaw, which is accessible only by boat, aid workers say. Food stocks are also running low.

Emergency medical services have come to a near standstill since the forced eviction in February of Medicine Sans Frontier — in part because the Nobel-prize winning group hired Rohingya staff — and the subsequent evacuation of almost all other international aid workers following attacks in late March.

"These workers were in Rakhine State providing essential life-saving support, including health services, water and food to internally displaced persons, isolated villages, and other affected communities," Quintana said. "The withdrawal of these workers will have severe consequences on the enjoyment of fundamental human rights, including the right to life."  

The Rohingya have been described by the United Nations as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. Though many were born in Myanmar to families that arrived generations ago, the government considers them to be illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh. Denied citizenship by national law, they are not allowed to travel outside of the state. There are also restrictions on the jobs they can hold, how many children they can have, and access to education.

Buddhist extremists have staged frequent protests against humanitarian aid groups working in Rakhine, saying they are biased in favor of Muslims. They have threatened staff, and others who work for them, by posting the aid workers' names and addresses on social networking sites.


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