Older people denied dignity in camps after facing military atrocities in Myanmar
“I’ve fled so many times in my life.”
Zatan Hkawng Nyoi was first displaced by conflict and abuses by the Myanmar military in 1966, when she was a teenager. She remembers her family deciding to kill several chickens they carried when running into the jungle, afraid that if soldiers heard the chickens, they would find and harm the family. Now 67 years old, she has lived for the last eight years in a camp for internally displaced people in Kachin State, in the north of the country, after conflict forced her to flee her home again in 2011.
“I don’t even know how to express my experiences,” she told Amnesty recently. “I don’t know what will happen in the future. I’ve had to run my whole life, and now I’ve had to run again. I’ve never been able to build up [my life].”
A new report from Amnesty International chronicles how common Zatan Hkawng Nyoi’s experience is among older people from ethnic minorities across Myanmar. Many have suffered at the hands of the Myanmar military as children, younger adults, and again now in older age.
Their experience lays bare the institutional nature of the military’s brutality — and its longstanding impunity. And it shows precisely why Congress must swiftly pass HR 3190, otherwise known as the BURMA Act of 2019, and advance efforts toward justice and accountability for the military’s atrocities.
Our investigation shows older people face particular risks during Myanmar military operations. Many remain in their village when others flee. Some remain because of the deep connection to their home and land, while others because they are physically unable to run. When soldiers discover older people who stayed behind, they sometimes murder them or subject them to torture or other ill-treatment.
During the military’s attack on the Rohingya population from August 2017, the medical humanitarian organization Médecins Sans Frontières estimated the highest rates of mortality — by far — were among women and men age 50 and older. Most died as a direct result of the military’s violence. Many were burned alive in their homes when the military torched hundreds of villages.
When older people do flee, they face risks of illness, injury, and death when trying to survive Myanmar’s mountainous borderlands, worsened by the military blocking humanitarian access and escape routes. Tens of thousands of older women and men are among the more than one million people currently living refugee camps in Bangladesh and internally displaced persons (IDP) camps across Myanmar as a result of conflict and military abuses.
Confronted with these crises, the humanitarian community has delivered life-saving assistance amid challenging environments. But older women and men are often falling through the cracks. Donor countries — and especially the United States, as the largest donor to the humanitarian response in Bangladesh and Myanmar — need to use their power to ensure that assistance is distributed inclusively to respond to older people’s specific needs and risks.
The humanitarian response in Bangladesh must respect the rights and dignity of older people fleeing conflict in addition to providing shelter, food, water, sanitation, and health care. Many older people struggle to access latrines amid the camps’ hilly terrain, as there has been insufficient attention to ensuring that people with limited mobility can reach them. Camp health services are also difficult to reach and some clinics do not provide medication for common chronic conditions like hypertension, which disproportionately affect older people.
Meanwhile, in IDP camps in northern Myanmar, older people often experience discrimination in accessing work and humanitarian livelihood programs. Zatan Hkawng Nyoi, who has been a farmer her whole life, said employers have told her she’s too old to hire for work in the fields. Older people — in particular older women — are also underrepresented in camp governance. As a result, they are left out of decisions impacting their day-to-day lives.
The U.S. must ensure that any assistance it provides is implemented in a way that is inclusive, non-discriminatory, and respects older people’s rights. At the same time, the U.S. must ensure there is accountability and justice for all those in Myanmar who have suffered the military’s crimes, including older women and men. Sen. McConnell — who remains the main obstacle to passage — needs to signal his support to the BURMA Act of 2019. This legislation would help obtain justice for what the UN has said amounts to war crimes, crimes against humanity, and possibly genocide.
Less than two years ago, the world failed to act decisively as the Myanmar military’s atrocities forced more than 740,000 Rohingya women, men, and children to flee their homes and country. It is long past time to act. Congress must stand with the people of Myanmar and immediately pass the BURMA Act of 2019.
Francisco Bencosme is the Asia Advocacy Manager for Amnesty International USA. He is based in Washington, DC.