Preface in Light of the COVID-19 Crisis
March 31, 2020
As the world reels from the spread of COVID-19, it would seem like a strange time for IRI to share a report on Freedom of Movement in Rakhine State. The release of this report, which has been more than one year in the making, has unhappily coincided with a global crisis in which governments around the world are imposing limits on movement for the sake of public welfare. As we note in our analysis, restrictions on freedom of movement can be justified if they are limited and proportionate; the COVID-19 crisis provides a case-in-point for why such restrictions can be considered legitimate. As a Yangon- and Sittwe-based project, we are supportive of the efforts of the Government of Myanmar to limit the spread of the virus and mitigate its impact on its population.
It is precisely for this reason that we have chosen to release this report now. While our data collection and analyis pre-date the peak of the COVID-19 crisis, our findings and recommendations remain more relevant than ever. In combatting the virus, it is necessary to ensure that individuals from all communities – especially those from extremely vulnerable communities, including undocumented individuals, IDPs, and conflict-affected people – have free and equitable access to healthcare. Those seeking care should not be burdened by discriminatory permission requirements or extortion at checkpoints. Curfews should not be used as rationale for denying healthcare access, township hospitals should not bar people from entry because of their religion, and Muslims should not have to pay for security escorts to accompany their ambulances to health care facilities. Humanitarian access should be permitted for non-governmental organizations seeking to provide critical necessities including healthcare, food, water and other life-saving assistance. Blanket bans on internet access that prevent community access to critical information about COVID-19 should be lifted. And the government should clearly communicate the risks of the virus and mitigation measures through public health and awareness-raising campaigns.
These recommendations and others are listed in our Roadmap for Lifting Restrictions on Freedom of Movement. But while the COVID-19 crisis will clearly require a rebalancing of some of the measures we have proposed in the Roadmap with new public health realities, this does not mean the government is justified in keeping in place the existing set of restrictions, particularly those targeted at Rohingya communities and undocumented individuals. Instead, the Government of Myanmar should use the crisis as an opportunity to work more closely with national and international partners to lift unnecessary movement restrictions and ensure the healthcare needs of all communities are met.
“They used to take documents away from people, they took national ID cards. After a few years, people didn’t have documents and they started asking us for Village Departure Certificate. We also needed Form 4 from around this time to cross into other towns. They increased the restrictions one by one. It became worse and worse year by year.”
Rohingya, Buthidaung Township
‘‘At the checkpoints if the women aren't ready with their veil removed, they'll say that you're disrespecting us, and they will ask us for money or beat us. They will rip off our burkas and slap us in the face, or take any goods that they want.... Less than a month ago, in the Latha village station, I was going into town and there was a new checkpoint that I didn't know about and so when I got there they said, “Why didn't you already have your burka off?” And they slapped me in the face. So, they made me pay 1,000 MMK (0.69 USD). I was in the car and the driver wasn't ready either so they beat him too.’’
Rohingya, Maungdaw Township
“Our travelling depends on Tatmadaw troops’ movement. If they are deployed near our village, no one can go outside. If we hear the information of military troops movement, all men over 18 and under 50 ages flee the village to safe places due to fear of arbitrary arrests by Tatmadaw.”
Rakhine, Buthidaung Township
“When a person has to move with an emergency at night, we actually need to pay the police at the checkpoint or they don’t allow to cross and go for also emergency issue even. For example, when a patient is taken to the clinic at night, we are not allowed to go without paying them. If we can give some charges, we can go to the clinic with the patient.”
Kaman, Sittwe Township
“We have a school in our village tract, but we are not allowed to study because the elders want to avoid the problem between Rakhine and Muslims in the school... The school is about a half mile away, and the children cannot use the main road because the [Rakhine] people throw stones and empty bottles at the students, when they are using the main road.”
Rohingya, Minbya Township
“In the past we have only one kind of travel constraint - now we have two kinds of travel constraint. We are also too afraid of the AA and Government. In the beginning the government together with the Rakhine people gave trouble to us. Now the conflict between them has started so now we are squeezed by both majority. Now Rakhine people come and we cannot recognise them – if they ask for money we don’t know if they are Rakhine, AA or Government. There is no rule of law anymore.”
Rohingya, Minbya Township