Rohingya, Myanmar’s Stateless Muslims, Seek Deliverance

ANALYSIS

on April 13 2012 8:44 AM
Young Myanmar refugees from the Rohingya ethnic minority attend their English class in Kuala Lumpur
Young Myanmar refugees from the Rohingya ethnic minority attend their English class in Kuala Lumpur Reuters

Not everyone is happy with impending moves by western powers to ease sanctions against the government of Myanmar, also known as Burma.

An official representative of the country's Rohingya minority – an ethnic Muslim group that has long suffered in Buddhist-dominated Burma and who have long complained of persecution and abuse by its repressive military – has asked the United States to base a relaxation of sanctions on perceived improvements on human rights issues.

Dr. Wakar Uddin, chairman of the Burmese Rohingya Association of North America, urged circumspection with regard to Myanmar while meeting with figures from the U.S. state department, the Senate foreign relations committee and the House of Representatives human rights commission.

In recent weeks, U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, British Prime Minister David Cameron and the European Union have indicated they may loosen sanctions against Myanmar after more than 50 years in the wake of historic elections that saw the entry of longtime democratic activist Aung San Suu Kyi into parliament.

While Myanmar's President Thein Sein – the first civilian leader of the country in more than half a century -- has enacted certain reforms, Uddin wants him to do more, including the release of Rohingya political prisoners.

If somehow the Burmese government [manages] to get sanctions lifted and the Rohingya issue is not resolved, we are finished, Uddin told the BBC.

There is no hope because they will not revisit this. Whatever needs to be done about the Rohingya, it has to be done before the sanctions are lifted.

Clinton reportedly discussed the Rohingya problem during her meeting with Sein in Rangoon a few weeks ago, leading the state department to request that Myanmar takes concrete steps to address the Rohingya' legal status and to immediately end human rights abuses inflicted upon them.

Meanwhile, the Rohingya remain in limbo. The Myanmar government claims they are migrants from India who are not eligible for citizenship. Western nations, the United Nations and India assert the Rohingya are indigenous to Myanmar.

In Burma’s northern Rakhine state, some 800,000 stateless Muslims, mostly Rohingya, account for 90 percent of the region’s population.

Uddin declared that the state's persecution of his fellow Rohingya has only intensified in recent weeks.

The human rights situation - has gotten worse since the election, he said.

The government is trying to show the West that they are dealing with the Karen [another aggrieved ethnic group] and other groups by giving rights and making a truce. But they are showing the carrot in one hand and the stick for us [the Rohingya] in the other. It's a distraction and a diversionary tactic.

Similarly, Nurul Islam, president of the London-based Arakan Rohingya National Organization, told the IRIN news agency: “There is no change of attitude of the new civilian government of… Thein Sein towards Rohingya people; there is no sign of change in the human rights situation of Rohingya people. Persecution against them is actually greater than before.”

According to the United Nations, the Rohingya who live in Burma are forbidden from owning property, marrying or even traveling without state permission. Many are subject to forced slave labor and extortion by authorities.

Many Rohingya have also moved to neighboring Bangladesh, where they are also unwanted.

Jennifer Quigley, of the US Campaign for Burma, an advocacy group, told BBC: The U.S. and the international community need to make citizenship and the treatment of the Rohingya a benchmark for lifting sanctions The U.S. is giving too much too fast. It doesn't give any incentive to keep the reform process going.

Indeed, Burma has one of the worst human rights records of any nation on earth. The military-led abuse and mistreatment of its ethnic minorities remains a sordid, black mark on the country’s psyche.

About 2-million Rohingya live in the northwestern parts of Burma, near the Bangladesh border.

Mizzima, the India-based Burmese news agency reported a few years ago that Rohingya women in Burma are frequently subject to sexual abuse and rape by Burmese soldiers. Reportedly, Burma’s military continues to commit atrocities against the civilian Rohingya population.

As such, desperate Rohingya pour across the borders into Bangladesh every year – although they are Muslims like the overwhelming majority of Bangladeshis, the Rohingya are despised and rejected there as well. Bangladesh, already impoverished and overpopulated, simply cannot cope with the influx.

Mojibar Rahman, a Rohingya refugee living in a United Nations camps in Bangladesh, told Agence France Presse: We thought that after the election [of a civilian government in Burma], the situation would improve for Rohingya in Myanmar, but it hasn't… no one wants to go back.”

Indeed, Rohingya are trapped in a hopeless Catch-22… unwanted in Bangladesh, and rejected by Burma since they lack Burmese citizenship.

Some Rohingya refugees have made it as far as Malaysia to the east or the Arab countries towards the west. Many are also in Thailand. But wherever they are, Rohingya remain vulnerable.

Refugees International has reported that “in both Bangladesh and Malaysia, repressive government policies and lack of adequate international support force the Rohingya to struggle for survival in both countries. The inability of the Rohingya to access basic services in both Bangladesh and Malaysia is further compounding their vulnerability.”

An elderly Rohingya refugee living in a camp in Kutupalong, Bangladesh, told BBC: We have nothing in Burma. We are disabled people, like slaves. We cannot work because our hands and feet are cut off. If we don't permission to travel we are sent to jail. We are really like slaves there.”

A younger Rohingya at the same camp lamented: If I stay in Bangladesh, what will I do? Even if I build a house here people will treat me as Burmese... this is a hated word. I have a ray of hope in my heart that one day there will be peace in Burma and my people will get back all their lives.

Panchali Saikia, a research officer at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in India, wrote of the Rohingya: “After providing shelter to the Rohingya for nearly three decades, Bangladesh is now concerned about the annual increase in their numbers. Apart from being an economic burden, the Rohingya’ involvement in insurgent activities along the Myanmar-Bangladesh border is feared by the government. Hence to reduce the influx, the government has declared that it will no more consider any asylum seeker as refugee.”

She further stated: “Anti-Rohingya communities in Bangladesh have also pressurized the government to repatriate the Rohingya. Due to the denial of protection, assistance, and fear of repatriation, the Rohingya are now escaping to Malaysia through the sea route. Malaysia is seen as the best destination because of the religion factor. Also, the Malaysian government’s permit to access the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has attracted asylum seekers.”

Saikia added: “The plight of the Rohingya and the growing concern over their influx is not only confined to Myanmar, Bangladesh and Thailand. Other regional powers like India, Indonesia and Malaysia must also engage themselves considering its security implications. The forcible push-backs are a major threat to the maritime as well as border security of these countries. Left with no other option, the Rohingya are vulnerable to being recruited by sea pirates and involved in arms and drug smuggling.”

Now, with the election of Suu Kyi into Myanmar's parliament, some Rohingya are optimistically cautious.

Islam of The Arakan Rohingya National Organization told IRIN: “Obviously she [Suu Kyi] is ignoring the Rohingya problem, a key human rights issue in Burma. However, still the Rohingya have high expectations of her. Rather than avoiding the Rohingya people and their problem,... Aung San Suu Kyi should take all measures to formally accommodate Rohingya into the family of the Union of Burma, with full ethnic and citizenship rights, as one of the many ethnic nationalities of the country.”

Tin Soe, the editor of the Bangladesh-based Rohingya newsgroup, Kaladan Press Network, told IRIN that the establishment for democracy in Myanmar would set a precedent for the rights of his people.

“We Rohingya will fight for our rights in the parliament if democracy comes to Burma,” Soe said. “Then we will lobby the parliament, hold demonstrations, and show them the results of our fact finding. Now you basically have the armed forces still in power - with them you cannot do anything.”

Soe also pointed out, however. that when Burma transitioned from a military government to a civil leadership in 2010 with the election of Thein Sein, Rohingya saw their hopes dashed.

“After the 2010 election the Rohingya situation is going from worse to worse,” said Soe, citing that Rohingya received voting rights in that poll and were promised citizenship if they voted for the military regime's candidates. Promises that were hollow and unfulfilled.

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