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U.N. Delegation Visits Myanmar


We have a glimpse now at what may be happening in Rakhine state. That's the part of Myanmar where the Rohingya people are concentrated or where they had been. Many people in that Muslim minority have been driven out during a military crackdown after incidents of violence. Kenneth Roth is the executive director of Human Rights Watch, and he just returned from Myanmar's capital. Welcome to the program, sir.

KENNETH ROTH: Thanks for having me, Steve.

INSKEEP: Having gone into the country, having heard - through your people - from refugees, what is happening in Rakhine state right now, as best you can tell?

ROTH: Well, obviously, this past August and September - because of killing, rape and arson by the Burmese army - some 700,000 Rohingya Muslims fled for their lives into neighboring Bangladesh. And the U.N. Security Council just visited really to see, you know, what would it take for them to return - because the monsoons are approaching. They're living in makeshift accommodations. You could have a cyclone there. So there are big risks in Bangladesh, and everybody wants them back. Now...

INSKEEP: Everybody in Bangladesh wants them to go back to Myanmar is what you're saying. I guess the question is, though, does the government in Myanmar want them back?

ROTH: Well, they say that they do, but then they don't act that way. So for example, what the Rohingya want is - first of all - citizenship. Myanmar has 135 recognized ethnic groups as citizens. Essentially, the Rohingya are the 136th, and they're not recognized as citizens. So one thing they want is a relatively rapid path to citizenship. And the real test to that, frankly, would be not the 700,000 in Bangladesh but the 450,000 Rohingya, who remain in Burma's Rakhine state, whom the government refuses to give citizenship to. So in a sense, a test of their credibility is, how do you treat the people who are still within Myanmar? So far, there's no good answer to that.

INSKEEP: Well, you're reminding us of something that we have covered on the program. This is an ethnic group that was accepted as citizens at one time, if I'm not mistaken, and they've sort of lost that in recent decades. Are you able to get any reliable information on how those 450,000 people are being treated on a day-to-day basis? Is the military still moving around, setting villages on fire, driving people out?

ROTH: The people there are treated absolutely miserable. We're not seeing active ethnic cleansing at this point. But what we are seeing is that these 450,000 are basically confined either to their villages or to displaced persons camps. And they're terrified to leave for fear that they will be attacked - so no access to humanitarian aid, to livelihood, to education, to medical care. And, you know, it's a dire situation for them. So while the Burmese government talks a good game about trying to enable safe, secure return for the refugees - in fact is not treating the people still in Rakhine state in any way that their brothers and sisters in Bangladesh would want to return to.

INSKEEP: I know that the government has said there was a genuine insurgency that sparked many of its activities that have been so criticized. When you were meeting with officials - any officials you met - did anyone give you any explanation that made sense to you for the way they have treated this minority in the last few months?

ROTH: Well, there was an attack on August 25. Approximately 30 border posts and police officers were attacked, but those were by particular insurgents - not the entire civilian population. And ethnic cleansing is obviously collective punishment against an entire people, which is a crime against humanity.

INSKEEP: And that's still the direction that they seem to be heading.

ROTH: Sadly, yes.

INSKEEP: Kenneth Roth, thanks very much - really appreciate it.

ROTH: Thank you.

INSKEEP: He's executive director of Human Rights Watch and just back from a trip to Myanmar. He traveled with the U.N. Security Council.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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