Myanmar Boasts of Tourism Boom As Visitors Ignore Rohingya Violence

Tourism in Myanmar is booming in spite of widespread violence that has led hundreds of thousands of people to flee the country, according to reports.

Myanmar, also known as Burma, has been accused of committing widespread abuses against its Rohingya Muslim population, a minority group that lives in segregated conditions, mainly in Rakhine state.

The government has rejected the allegations, but human rights groups and the United Nations have repeatedly claimed systematic violence could amount to "ethnic cleansing" against the Rohingya.

In spite of the crisis, which began last August, officials said tourist arrivals increased by 18 percent last year. The country recorded 3.44 million visitors in 2017, compared to 2.9 million the previous year.

"I think the figure increased as we held many promotional events, and the government has allowed tourists to travel to previously restricted areas," U Myint Htwe, deputy director general at the ministry, said in an interview with Bloomberg.

He added the country expects "more than 3.44 million this year." The World Travel and Tourism Council estimated that Myanmar would attract "5,573,000 international tourist arrivals" in 2017.

Rohingya crisis
In this picture taken on September 27, 2017, a Hindu woman reacts next to dead bodies in Ye Baw Kyaw village, Maungdaw in Myanmar's northern Rakhine state. Rohingya militants on September 27 denied the Myanmar army's allegations that they had massacred scores of Hindu villagers, whose bodies soldiers displayed to the press after exhuming them from mass graves in northern Rakhine state. Major clashes between the army and the Muslim insurgents erupted last month, triggering a dire refugee crisis with nearly half a million Rohingya fleeing across the border to Bangladesh. STR/AFP/Getty Images

Rohingya crisis explained

More than 655,000 Rohingya have fled since the start of the military operation last August, which the U.N. has described as a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing."

The exodus began last August due to the army's "clearance operation" launched after Rohingya insurgents killed at least 11 people in Rakhine.

The military has been accused of committing human rights abuses, including mass rapes and extrajudicial executions, against the Rohingya, whom Burmese authorities regards as stateless citizens.

U.N. rights chief Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein said the violence against Rohingya may amount to genocide.

The army has strongly denied accusations of excessive force against the Rohingya and only admitted to being responsible for a mass grave containing the bodies of "10 Bengali terrorists" discovered in Inn Din village last year.

Rohingya refugees
A Rohingya refugee child plays with skipping rope at Hakimpara refugee camp in Bangladesh's Ukhia district on January 27, 2018. The repatriation of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who fled violence in Myanmar will not begin as planned, Bangladesh said January 22, with authorities admitting 'a lot of preparation' was still needed. MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP/Getty Images

Earlier this year, an AP investigation led to the discovery of five mass graves in Rakhine. Survivors and relatives of the victims said those killed were Rohingya Muslims, and the death toll could be as high as 400. They accused security forces of being behind the massacre and trying to cover it up.

This is not the first time that mass graves have been discovered in Rakhine, where rights groups say thousands have been slaughtered.

Myanmar's de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has faced scathing criticism for her prolonged silence and perceived inaction regarding the ongoing crisis.

Suu Kyi's power over the military is limited, however she has been criticized for failing to address the situation and publicly condemn the massacres. The leader refuses to use the word "Rohingya" in her public addresses, arguing it is too contentious for an already affected population.

In December, Myanmar indefinitely barred access to the U.N. independent investigator on human rights.

U.N. special rapporteur Yanghee Lee said she had been scheduled to travel to Myanmar in January. However, Myanmar told her it would not cooperate with her or grant access to the country for the rest of her tenure.

Myanmar and Bangladesh reached a deal to repatriate the refugees, but rights groups and the U.N have expressed skepticism over the agreement, calling for greater clarity.

Some have pointed out Rohingya will unlikely return voluntarily, unless Myanmar guarantees them safety and full recognition of their rights as citizens.

In its annual report on the state of human rights worldwide, Amnesty International said: "The horrific military campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya people in Myanmar caused an exodus of some 655,000 people into neighboring Bangladesh in a matter of weeks, the fastest-growing refugee crisis of 2017.

"The warning signs in Myanmar had long been visible: massive discrimination and segregation had become normalized within a regime that amounted to apartheid, and for long years the Rohingya people were routinely demonized and stripped of the basic conditions needed to live in dignity. The transformation of discrimination and demonization into mass violence is tragically familiar, and its ruinous consequences cannot be easily undone."