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Human Rights in Myanmar: Hidden Truths

Too many eyes shut: The Rohingya genocide


Battling illness © Stefania Zamparelli

Just days after the presidential election in Myanmar (formerly Burma), our interview with photographer Stefania Zamparelli sheds light on the dehumanizing situation she saw in Sittwe's Internally Displaced Person (IDP) camps. She tells us about the indifference and inaction of human rights organizations.

On March 16th, months after the historic national elections that took place in November 2015, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon congratulated Htin Kyaw, the first civilian elected president by the Burmese parliament. The narrow win, a near split of 360 votes out of 652, ended more than half a century of military dictatorship.  It was “a victory of people and democracy,” according to the sixty-nine economists who will be assisted by two vice-presidents: Myint Swe, a military nominee, and Henry Van Tio, his fellow party member.


Htin Kyaw and San Suu Kyi

While some saw the situation as a loss for Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and leader of Myanmar’s National League for Democracy (NLD), Suu Kyi had ingeniously worked out a plan B. While her efforts to abolish a Constitutional amendment preventing her access the highest office – being wife and mother of foreign citizens – had failed, she managed to put Htin Kyaw, in charge of all reform policies she had promised to her people. Kyaw, a long time advisor to Suu Kyi, is well known as her veritable right arm.  He was also her Oxford University mate in the ’60s, as well as her driver in the years she enjoyed relative freedom. During the proclamation, Suu Kyi smiled and cheered. Then she spoke, affirming her seal of approval: “Kyaw was elected for his loyalty and has the necessary experience to do well.” It’s well understood that Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s Pasionaria, will be the éminence grise of Burmese politics, taking a place above the president. Kyaw’s appointment throws doors wide open to the Nobel Peace Prize winner as a Foreign Minister of the new government, which will assume full powers on March 30th.

At the moment, however, the Armed Forces (the Tatmadaw) still hold 25% of non-elected seats in Parliament and Ministries of Defense, as well as the Interior and control of borders. But above all, the militaries have veto power with respect to any proposed amendment to Myanmar’s constitution. So, despite the election victory, Kyaw and Suu Kyi will face difficulties leading the country towards democratic changes and breaking from the past.

Ban Ki-moon’s spokesperson welcomed Kyaw’s appointment as a significant achievement towards the democratic process of reform that the last government initiated. The spokesman added, “The Secretary-General hopes the people of Myanmar will continue steadfastly on the path of democracy and national reconciliation, and at this defining moment of transition, calls upon President-elect U Htin Kyaw, as well as all other significant stakeholders, to work inclusively towards a smooth and peaceful consolidation of unity and stability in the country”. Furthermore, he reiterated on “the readiness of the United Nations to continue to support efforts to advance peace, development, human rights and the rule of law for the benefit of all the peoples of Myanmar”.

While this statement optimistically ushers in a new era, critics and even ardent supporters of Suu Kyi, challenge whether or not these proclamations of democracy, peace and human rights will apply to Myanmar’s Muslim minority, the Rohingya people. In the aftermath of Kyaw election, we interviewed Stefania Zamparelli, an Italian artist and photographer living in New York, who has an inclination for reportage. Zamparelli just returned from Myanmar where she witnessed the situation first-hand.


Siblings, IDP Camp © Stefania Zamparelli

Your passion for travel and photography has taken you around the world. Recently you were in Myanmar. What reality did you come across?

“The reality of Myanmar is – degradation – from both an urban and human point of view. I’m referring to the situation of ethnic minorities, and especially that of the Rohingya, of which I had already learned. Unfortunately, the reality surpasses my imagination. Overall, I felt a horrible spiritual decay. It is ironic, indeed tragic, that Buddhism in Myanmar has become nationalist at the expense of another religious group. I tried to converse with some of the monks, but I encountered a wall of dullness: ‘It’s untrue that the Rohingya lived in Myanmar for 200 years! They are illegal! They entered the country during the British occupation and are originally from Bangladesh. That’s where they must return!’. This is what I was told by the Sayale of a monastery near Yangon. This same story was repeated dozens times by other Buddhist monks. I protested, ‘The British left Myanmar in 1948. Therefore, according to your version the Rohingya have resided here for at least 68 years, and that’s a long time!’.


Child at the door © Stefania Zamparelli

How can one speak of illegality when the Rohingya were disposed of their Burmese nationality by a military law enacted in 1982 that required evidence of their ancestors’ residence before 1823?  How many of us could provide such evidence? And how can Buddhist monks, who were persecuted by the military, now support the same government in the fight against Rohingya? I think these sons of Buddha, in reality, are following the footsteps of the head of the Tibetan theocracy. If you read the text The Reality of War, by the Dalai Lama, after 1000 words about the importance of peace you find the importance of the Second World War affirmed. In various interviews, the Dalai Lama has even exalted the need for a military attack on Syria! But this is another Buddhism. Going back to the Rohingya, these Muslims are oppressed by the government, persecuted by the ethnic Rakhine Buddhist minority who are also often at war with the government, and despised by Buddhist monks. In short, all are united against the Rohingya because of a horrible event in June 2012. Three boys raped and killed a young Rakhine Buddhist-woman, but imprisonment and a legal trial were not enough. The ethnic cleansing started and in three days all Rohingya were forced to leave their houses in Sittwe. Their lands were confiscated and the people were forced to move into IDP (Internally Displaced Person) camps. These are real concentration camps! Several sources confirmed that prior to this event, the relationship between Rohingya and Rakhine in Sittwe was one of peaceful coexistence”.

Why do you think there was such a violent reaction?

“Myanmar is rich in resources and has a military junta that ruled and abused for over 50 years. While it was dissolved in 2011, it is the de facto rule of the country, but in party disguise. The discontent in Myanmar is large: 150 ethnic minority groups are angry and their attention needed to be diverted by creating a common enemy, but there’s more. Western countries have an interest in Myanmar’s resources and they would never support a stable democracy because this would make any intervention unjustified. Moreover, its geographical position is strategically ideal because of its proximity to the Straits of Malacca. If you control Myanmar, you control a quarter of world trade!
In summary, the Burmese military fury against the Rohingya reinforces an albeit faltering status quo at a time when a hybrid government extracts all it can from tourism to mining, before deciding what to sell to the elite of globalists. Obviously, when the time is ripe, NATO will ensure its control of the area by intervening either militarily or supporting a democratic-like puppet government that will accept the ‘exchange of conveniences’ game”.

What stories did you photograph and to which extent were you able to express them? What did you feel?

“I think I failed in my attempt. As I said, the reality I came across was far worse than I could imagine and I was not emotionally ready to face that situation. The first visit to the IDP camps shocked me. I was taken to the shack of a young woman. She had her mouth covered with a cloth and a moment later when she realized the reason for my presence she revealed to me the horrible hardship she was living with. Her palate, gums and mucous membranes were spilling from her mouth, forcing her to keep her mouth constantly open. From that harrowing vision also came a constant wailing. She was nourished for the past two years only by juice through straws. I was paralyzed and did not feel comfortable photographing her.  I expressed my thought to the interpreter, and he replied that ‘no one will ever know about her’. For a few minutes I got lost in considerations and then I said, ‘ok, I will photograph her’.
I was embarrassed. I shot those two pictures blindly. I did not know what I was doing but I felt I had to. This visit, and the one following, showed me the reality of Sittwe’s IDP camps, a place where human beings are locked up until death. I photographed what I could but always with great discomfort. Besides, I was accompanied by the interpreter and although he was genuinely available, I did not want to bother him and ask for stops, especially during car trips.
I spent three days at the IDP camp and visited the entire zone in its 7km x 2km area up to the Rohingya port and its 400 boats!  I’ve even spent a long time at the window on the top floor of one of the Chinese buildings observing the daily goings on at the camp from above. In three days I did not see a single worker from a relief agency but only stickers from those agencies posted on shacks. Relief workers were a ghost presence. All the schools and clinics were closed, with the exception of one clinic that was open, but empty”.

Children in front of closed school © Stefania Zamparelli

Pharmacy © Stefania Zamparelli

Pharmacy © Stefania Zamparelli

‘People need real medications and they only give us Paracetamol and Burmeton!’, the camp residents told me. When I asked Rohingya residents, ‘why don’t you write a petition to the UN?’ They laughed at me as if I had proposed asking for help from the military junta. One man told me that the ‘Ingo are becoming like the Myanmar government’. A woman from the camp told me about the many critical medical cases and asked, ‘Why can’t they transfer patients to Sittwe general hospital?’. Another detainee said, ‘Forget about Sittwe. Some cases need the Yangon hospital!’. The interpreter told me that not long ago all the camps and villages went three weeks without rice. It finally arrived but only in two camps and that only happened when a CNN crew went to film those two camps! After four years of struggling, the general environment is one of apathy, helplessness and resignation.  The detainee’s perception of the UN is one of equal apathy, unhelpfulness and indeed, endorsement of the government’s inhumane treatment toward them.


INGO Partners Propaganda © Stefania Zamparelli

Ironically, the only schools working amazingly well are the Madrasa, the Koranic schools, which are divided into three levels: beginner, intermediate and advanced. These schools are self-managed by the Rohingya themselves! Among the students, I saw discipline and total dedication to and from the teachers”.


Self-managed Koranic School © Stefania Zamparelli

Did you report the IDP camps situation to some authority? If so, what was their reaction?

“When I arrived in Sittwe, I went to the office of UNOCHA and met the head of sub-Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Gianluca Salone. I asked Mr. Salone for facilitation of my access to the IDP camps. He replied that it was impossible and that I would need a special permit issued exclusively by the military. The only way to get that permit, he claimed, was to leave Myanmar and then re-enter on a business visa. A few days later I managed to obtain the necessary permission to access the camps, without leaving the country and without help from the UN!
After my experience at the IDP camps, I felt the urge to do something to help that woman, but I did not know how. I was concerned that the photo I took of her would not receive media attention because it is too disturbing.

Anjuma Begum © Stefania Zamparelli

Back in New York, I decided to send an email to Salone, with the patient’s picture and I included her address. I wrote that she needed to be visited by doctors specialized in pathology, and probably required hospitalization for several reconstructive surgeries. I underlined that this case was twenty minutes away from his office. I Cc’ed different human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch and other UN officers. No one answered me! The next week I received the sad news from the IDP camps that Anjuma Begum had passed away. At this point I sent a second email to Salone and to all those I had previously Cc’ed, saying that I was informed that Anjuma Begum had died.
I also wrote that I saw many other cases that required urgent medical attention and that I hoped that UNOCHA would strive to provide the necessary help. Salone has never answered me. Instead, I received an email from the UNOCHA Press Officer in Yangon, Mr. Pierre Peron. It is worth to note that he only copied UN officers on his reply, and not the organizations that I had included. In the email, Mr. Peron expressed his sadness over this news, and ‘the urgent need to improve access to healthcare for stateless people in Rakhine State’. He stated that  ‘OCHA was working closely with humanitarian organizations and with the Myanmar authorities to work towards improving access to basic services, including healthcare’. The email included some links with a couple of UN reports populated by numbers and statistics. He also informed me about a press release in which was ‘highlighted another tragic case involving a 27-day-old baby in another IDP camp who died before she could get to (a) hospital’. A link was added as evidence of what he had just written. Then he endeavored to reassure me by including a WHO (World Health Organization) list in which notes 11 clinics in the IDP camps – one offering 24/7 service! Finally, he told me he would forward the details I had provided about Ms. Anjuma Begum’s case to WHO for appropriate follow-up, and thanked me for my important reporting.

The only open clinic – empty and unstaffed © Stefania Zamparelli

My reply was direct and candid with the facts that I have just told you. I pointed out that there is no 24/7 clinic in the camps, and that even if there was one this would be inadequate to the seriously ill.  To this end I sent him photographs of other patients, asking provocatively if that one clinic was equipped to treat these types of patients.
I wrote him that I believe that the Sittwe’s concentration camps are handled as a study of numbers. I asked him to please refrain, if he could, from reporting the case of Ms. Anjuma Begum to the WHO, because by referring her emergency case to him and his partners, my intention was to bring her support and not make her a “1” case.  By reporting her death I meant to bring help to other people in need. In the end I said that Anjuma would have probably died if she had received the necessary surgery, but at least she would have had some morphine and peace. Nobody ever answered me, but this time my tone made the silence predictable. Now, I’m getting a lot of photos from camp residents of people in a serious state of illness. I promised them that I will manage a blog where I will upload their pictures along with all the information they send me. Luckily, these residents have smart-phones.  I assure you, those phones and the Chinese buildings are the only elements of modernity in the camps”.

Mother & Son. Background: Two empty office buildings donated by the Chinese government, which have never been activated. © Stefania Zamparelli

Do you think there is enough information about the Rohingya?

“Media reports on them – but confusedly. Anyway, words are not effective, especially when genocide is going on. A strong diplomatic approach is needed and real aid. Those structures that are already on the field must be activated.  Furthermore, restoring all Rohingya peoples’ rights and letting them go back to their houses should be the objective”.

Did this experience change your approach to photography? How?

“I think it did. I always preferred the images of the voiceless, but I put emphasis on the love for life that asserts itself with smiles in spite of the misery, which many are forced to live with. Maybe now I realize that showing the suffering ones can have a much more noble purpose”.

Malnourished Child © Stefania Zamparelli

Malnourished Child © Stefania Zamparelli

Do you think Buddhists will reconnect with the universal humanity so peculiar to their philosophy?

“Maybe if they read Tolstoy’s Forged Coupon, they’d be forced into an awareness of conscience. At the moment I think they will be the falling victims of their own Karma”.
English translation ed. by Madelena Montiel

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