WASHINGTON – A former U.S. congressman who visited camps housing tens of thousands of people displaced by communal violence in western Myanmar is warning that minority Rohingya Muslims face a life-threatening lack of medical care and live in fear of attack.
Tom Andrews, president of the U.S.-based activist group United to End Genocide, was issuing a hard-hitting report on Monday after a monthlong trip to the country also known as Burma. The former Democratic lawmaker is calling for President Barack Obama to use his leverage with Myanmar's government to demand protection for the stateless Rohingya.
"Clearly the danger signs are very present and growing that we could be seeing a catastrophe. There's been significant loss of life already," Andrews told The Associated Press. "It's not because of anything these people have done. It's because of who they are, their ethnicity and the God they pray to. That's why they are being targeted."
"The building blocks of genocide are there, and the warning signs of mass violence are there," he said.
Since mid-2012, close to 280 people, mostly Rohingya, have died in Buddhist-Muslim clashes in Rakhine State, casting a shadow over Myanmar's rapid transition toward democracy after five decades of direct military rule. Some 140,000 Rohingya have been forced into overcrowded camps, and tens of thousands have fled by boat. Andrews said the rate of departure by sea has doubled so far this year, despite the hazardous voyage and bleak chances of winning asylum elsewhere.
Myanmar considers the estimated 1.3 million Rohingya to be immigrants who moved to the country illegally from neighboring Bangladesh, though many were born in Myanmar in families that have lived there for generations.
Last month, the international aid group Doctors Without Borders was forced to stop working in Rakhine State, where it provided health care to about 700,000 people, including almost 200,000 displaced people living in camps and isolated villages. The government accused the Nobel peace prize-winning aid group of providing more care to Muslims than Buddhists.
Andrews said he spent four days at the camps near the state capital, Sittwe. He said that according to camp inmates, guards turn a blind eye if they choose to flee by sea but inmates wanting to reach Sittwe general hospital must pay bribes for their security. He said acutely sick people were running out of medicine, and some had resigned themselves to dying.
Doctors Without Borders has also expressed fears that shutting down its operations could endanger lives. Its chief last week visited Myanmar, and in a statement Monday the group said that high-level discussions were continuing with the government on restarting medical activities, beginning with life-saving services such as emergency hospital referrals and treatment of HIV and tuberculosis patients.
The Myanmar Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The government has said its priority is law and order in Rakhine State.
The U.S., which has led the international diplomatic effort to encourage Myanmar's democratic transition over the past three years, has called for unfettered humanitarian access and for the government to address Rohingya demands for citizenship.
Andrews said there's little domestic pressure on the Myanmar government to address the escalation in ethnic and religious tensions, amid rising Buddhist nationalism ahead of elections in 2015. But he said foreign governments, particularly the U.S., retain important leverage because of Myanmar's desire for integration into the world community.
Andrews served in Congress from 1991-1995, representing a district in Maine. His visit to Myanmar was unofficial, his second trip there since last June.
United to End Genocide also campaigns on Sudan, South Sudan, Syria and the Democratic Republic of Congo.