Myanmar/Bangladesh: Older people denied dignity in camps after facing military atrocities


By Amnesty International
Jun 18 2019 (IPS-Partners)

Tens of thousands of older women and men from ethnic minorities across Myanmar who faced military atrocities and were forced to flee their homes are being let down by a humanitarian system that often fails to adequately address their rights and needs, Amnesty International said in a report published today.

Fleeing my whole life”: Older people’s experience of conflict and displacement in Myanmar is the organization’s first comprehensive investigation into the specific ways older people’s rights and dignity are not respected amid armed conflict and crisis, as well in the provision of humanitarian assistance.

“For decades, Myanmar’s ethnic minorities have suffered recurrent abuse at the hands of the military. Many older people racked by atrocities amid recent military operations lived through similar crimes as children or younger adults. Their experience lays bare the military’s longstanding brutality, and the need for justice,” said Matthew Wells, Senior Crisis Advisor at Amnesty International.

“Tens of thousands of older women and men are among the more than one million people displaced to camps as a result of conflict and military abuse. The humanitarian community has responded admirably to crisis after crisis, saving many lives. But older people are slipping through the cracks, their specific needs often overlooked. The humanitarian response must become more inclusive.”

The report is based on 146 interviews with older women and men from the Kachin, Lisu, Rakhine, Rohingya, Shan, and Ta’ang ethnic minorities. They were conducted during three missions to Myanmar’s Rakhine, Kachin and northern Shan States, as well as to the refugee camps in southern Bangladesh, between December 2018 and April 2019. Those interviewed range from 54 to more than 90 years old.

Military crimes against older people
As the Myanmar military has committed atrocity crimes during operations in Kachin, Rakhine, and Shan States, older people confront particular risks. Some older people stay behind as villages empty at word of a military advance, often due to their strong ties to home and land or to being physically unable to flee. After finding them, soldiers arbitrarily detain, torture, and at times kill older women and men.

A 67-year-old ethnic Rakhine farmer who stayed behind when most of his village fled in March 2019, in part because a severe hearing impairment meant he had not heard fighting nearby between the military and Arakan Army (AA), described what Myanmar soldiers did after forcing him out of his home: “When I got to where the captain was, the soldiers tied my hands… behind my back, with the rope that’s used for cattle. They asked me, ‘Did the AA come to the village?’ I said no, I’d never seen [the AA]… and then the soldiers beat me.”

During the military’s attack on the Rohingya population in 2017, many older women and men were burned alive in their homes. Mariam Khatun, an ethnic Rohingya woman around 50 years old, fled to the nearby forest with her three children when Myanmar soldiers entered her village in Maungdaw Township. “My parents were left behind in the home,” she said. “I had two young children, how could I take them as well? … My parents were physically unable to move.”

As she and her children reached the river next to the village, Mariam Khatun looked back and saw the village burning, knowing her parents were still inside their home.

Amnesty International’s review of lists of people killed from different Rohingya villages indicates older people often suffered disproportionately. A quantitative study by Médecins Sans Frontières found similarly, showing that in the month after the military began its brutal operations on 25 August 2017, the highest rates of mortality – by far – were among Rohingya women and men age 50 and older.

For older people in Rakhine and Kachin States who have fled, the journey through Myanmar’s mountainous borderlands was often difficult, worsened by the military blocking main routes and restricting humanitarian access. Amnesty International documented several cases of older people dying as they tried to flee to safety, unable to access health care.

Humanitarian assistance falls short
UN agencies and humanitarian organizations have responded to enormous needs in Bangladesh, where more than 900,000 Rohingya live in camps, and in Myanmar, where more than 250,000 people are displaced. Insufficient donor funding and government restrictions in both countries – particularly severe in Myanmar – create further challenges. But, even amid the constraints, the humanitarian system has too often neglected older people.

In the Bangladesh refugee camps, many older Rohingya women and men are unable to regularly access the most basic of services, including sanitation, health care, water, and food. The camps’ congestion and hilly terrain make for a difficult environment, particularly for older people with limited mobility.

Many older Rohingya report being unable to access latrines and having to use a pan in their shelters – a major loss of dignity. Mawlawi Harun, an ethnic Rohingya man in his 90s, said, while sitting in his shelter in Camp #15 in Bangladesh: “I go to the latrine here, I eat and sleep here. I have become like a cow or goat. What more can I say? Cows defecate and urinate in the same place where they eat… Now I’m sleeping in a latrine.”

Older women and men also struggle to access health facilities, due to the distance and terrain. Even when they can, they find some clinics cannot treat even common chronic diseases – such as high blood pressure and chronic respiratory illness – that disproportionately affect older people. Many older people are forced to buy medication from market stalls that should be part of the health response.

Gul Bahar, around 80 years old, said she spends 5,000 taka (US$59) per month on medication, including pills for high blood pressure, as the camp clinic near her generally provides only paracetamol. To pay for her medications, she said, “We sell part of our food ration and cooking oil. We also sold our blankets.”

In northern Myanmar, where many ethnic Kachin have been displaced since 2011, some humanitarian programmes, particularly for livelihood support, under-include older people. Older people also face discrimination in accessing work, which has a cascade of negative effects, compounded by the decrease in humanitarian assistance in recent years, due to donor fatigue and an expectation that people in the IDP camps can access work in surrounding areas.

“I’ve approached the employers and said I want to work,” said Zatan Hkawng Nyoi, a 67-year-old ethnic Kachin woman who spent a lifetime farming before being displaced to an IDP camp. “They said I’m too old, that I won’t be able to walk that far to [the paddy fields].”

Older people in general, and older women in particular, are also under-represented in camp leadership, denying them a voice in decision-making.

“Older people need to be better included in all aspects of humanitarian response – from having their voices inform initial assessments to being involved in assistance programmes. Responding more effectively to older people’s rights begins with engaging their unique skills and perspective,” said Matthew Wells.

Repeated trauma

For many older people from ethnic minorities across Myanmar, the current displacement is the latest in a lifetime of conflict and military oppression. Amnesty International interviewed several dozen older people, including ethnic Kachin, Rohingya, and Shan, who had fled their homes three or more times – often as children, as younger adults, and again in older age. The repeated upheaval has caused economic hardship in addition to psychosocial harm.

“I’ve fled so many times since I was nine years old… I’ve had to be alert all the time. It doesn’t matter what I do – on the farm, in the orchard – I’ve never had peace of mind,” said Nding Htu Bu, 65, a Kachin woman living in an IDP camp.

Some older people have also witnessed one or more of their children being murdered or raped by the Myanmar military.

Yet, despite the acute and chronic harm, very little psychosocial care is targeted at, or even inclusive of, older people.

Amnesty International requested responses from the Bangladesh offices of the UN Refugee Agency and the International Organization for Migration to questions about the organization’s main findings. Both agencies cited challenges, especially during the early crisis period; the enormous progress in the overall provision of aid; and initiatives that are underway or planned to make assistance more inclusive for older people.

“The improvements in the camps are notable, but, for many older people, they have been much too slow and remain insufficient. Older people’s rights should inform humanitarian response and resourcing from a crisis’s first days, not as an afterthought. Anything else fails to meet core humanitarian principles: respond based on need, and leave no one behind,” said Matthew Wells.

“For their part, donor governments must provide greater support for the response in both Myanmar and Bangladesh and ensure that implementing partners are assessing and meeting older people’s specific needs.”

To download B-roll of original footage from refugee camps in Bangladesh, including GVs of the camps, interviews and GVs with Rohinyga older people, and an interview with report author Matthew Wells, please visit:

To download professional still photography of older refugees in Bangladesh and older internally displaced people in Myanmar, please visit:

As Sudan Struggles, AU Should Press for Justice and Accountability

On June 6, the African Union (AU) suspended Sudan from the 55-member group with “immediate effect.” The move came in response to a deadly crackdown on peaceful protesters in Khartoum, in which government forces, led by the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), tore through a sit-in in the capital killing at least 108 people, and wounding hundreds.

View of the Headquarters of the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Credit: UN Photo/Antonio Fiorente.

By Carine Kaneza Nantulya
WASHINGTON DC, Jun 18 2019 – On June 6, the African Union (AU) suspended Sudan from the 55-member group with “immediate effect.” The move came in response to a deadly crackdown on peaceful protesters in Khartoum, in which government forces, led by the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), tore through a sit-in in the capital killing at least 108 people, and wounding hundreds. The AU’s decisive action has been widely applauded, but suspending Sudan is not enough.

The crackdown came amid stalled negotiations between the Transitional Military Council  (TMC) and opposition groups over formation of a civilian-led government following the April 11 ousting of former president Omar al-Bashir.

The AU had earlier called for a swift transition to civilian rule and threatened the TMC with sanctions if it fails to hand power to a civilian-led government.

To avoid further deterioration of the Sudan crisis, and to mark a shift from the Burundi precedent, the AU should take further measures beyond the suspension of Sudan, including speedily setting up of a commission of inquiry into human rights violations against protesters by government security forces under the control of the military council

These statements underscore the AU’s role in promoting democratic transitions, citizens’ rights to freedom of expression, political participation, and other associated rights. The Transitional Military Council’s blatant disregard of the AU’s initial calls, and of Sudan’s human rights obligations, represent a direct challenge to the authority and influence of the regional body as a critical platform for promoting peace, security and human rights on the continent. It is thus imperative for the AU and its agencies to take further steps to hold the leadership of the TMC accountable.

Sudan, a  signatory to the African Union charter since 1956, is also a party to important regional human rights instruments — notably the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, which guarantees the right to peaceful protest, among other things.

On June 7, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which monitors compliance with the human rights charter’s provisions, also called for prompt investigations into the attacks on protesters and urged redress for victims and their families.

But the crisis in Sudan is a stark reminder that the road to full respect for human rights requires much more than agreeing to uphold human rights standards.

The AU has struggled in the recent past to find solutions to human rights situations in member countries and to consistently enforce sanctions. In just one example, In 2015, the AU Peace and Security Council authorized the deployment of a 5,000-strong African Prevention and Protection Mission in Burundi to protect civilians.

The move came after an attack on military installations around the capital, Bujumbura, led security forces to kill scores of civilians. But the Assembly of Heads of State ignored the authorization and later overturned it, leaving the crisis in Burundi unresolved.

To avoid further deterioration of the Sudan crisis, and to mark a shift from the Burundi precedent, the AU should take further measures beyond the suspension of Sudan, including  speedily setting up of a commission of inquiry into human rights violations against protesters by government security forces under the control of the military council.

This could be done in collaboration with the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, as provided by Article 19 of the AU Protocol on the Peace and Security Council. It should also consider additional measures such as targeted sanctions against leaders of the military council  implicated in the attacks under Articles 23 and 30 of the Constitutive Act of the African Union.

The  African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, the union’s flagship rights body, has previously carried out fact-finding missions and commissions of inquiry in similar situations. Its decisions on these situations have built important principles that could be applied to Sudan.

As the search for a negotiated settlement continues in Sudan, the AU should make accountability for crimes and human rights violations, which underpin the crisis, front and center of its intervention. This would be an important signal of the AU’s increasing commitment to justice and accountability for violations of its norms and values.


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