Burma After the Flood
|Benedict Rogers||October 6th 2008|
Cutting Edge Burma Desk
|Rohingya refugee camp|
It is not often you meet someone who tells you that he is from “a people at the brink of extermination.” But the testimonies from refugees in a remote corner of southern Bangladesh, on the border with Burma, justify that assessment. For the Rohingya people, a Muslim minority in northern Arakan State, western Burma, are a stateless people whose very identity is denied.
All the people of Burma are suffering at the hands of one of the world’s most brutal, and illegitimate, military regimes. From time to time Burma’s crisis hits the headlines, as it did with protests led by Buddhist monks last September, and Cyclone Nargis in May this year. In between such events, however, Burma fades from the world’s attention.
If Burma as a whole is under-reported, the people on its western borders are almost unknown to the world. Journalists, activists and aid agencies who visit the region tend to head for the Thailand-Burma border, where access to refugees, displaced people and democracy groups is greatest.
Few visit Burma’s borders with India, where a famine is unfolding, or with China, where women are trafficked into prostitution, and fewer still make it to the Bangladesh border where a slow, forgotten genocide is taking place.
The Rohingya people are ethnically and culturally closely related to the Bengali people in the area surrounding Chittagong, but have lived in Burma for generations. While their precise history may be debated, there is no doubt that they are not newcomers to the country. Yet unlike all the other ethnic groups in Burma, which although severely persecuted by the regime are at least recognised as citizens, the Rohingyas are regarded as “temporary residents” and denied full citizenship status. They are required to obtain permission before marrying, and a permit can take several years to secure. Movement is severely restricted – Rohingyas must obtain permission to travel even from one village to another, impeding access to medical care and education. As ‘non-citizens’, Rohingyas cannot be employed as teachers, nurses, civil servants or in any public service, and in Rohingya areas teachers, mostly from the Buddhist Rakhine ethnic group, sometimes fail to turn up for an entire year, disrupting educational opportunities for the Rohingyas. Rape and forced labour are widespread, and Rohingyas are singled out by the authorities for extortion. Soldiers demand money from them, and when they cannot pay they are arrested and tortured.
On a visit to the Bangladesh-Burma border, I heard numerous accounts of these violations from Rohingya refugees. And they were confirmed by three defectors who had escaped from Burma’s military. The defectors, who had served in the Burma Army’s border security force known as the ‘Na Sa Ka’, said that the Rohingya were specifically targeted for extortion. One said: “Throughout my life in the Na Sa Ka, I was used to this system of arresting Muslims, asking for money, torturing them, every day. We only arrested Muslims, not Rakhines.”
The Rohingyas face religious persecution as well. It is almost impossible to obtain permission to renovate, repair, rebuild or extend mosques or other religious buildings. In the past three years, 12 mosques in northern Arakan have been demolished, and a large number were closed in 2006. Since 1962, I was told, not a single new mosque has been built. Religious leaders have been jailed for illegally renovating mosques.
A senior UN official, who has served in Darfur, Somalia and other humanitarian crisis situations and, in the words of a foreign diplomat, “knows misery when he sees it”, recently described the situation in northern Arakan State, western Burma, as “as bad as anything he has seen in terms the denial of basic human freedoms”.
For these reasons, it is estimated that at least 200,000 Rohingyas have fled to Bangladesh. In 1978 and 1991, there were significant influxes of refugees fleeing across the border, and even today Rohingyas trickle out one by one, in the hope of finding security in Bangladesh. However, even in Bangladesh, they are vulnerable. Only 27,000 are recognised by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and live in two official camps. Thousands more are unrecognised, and live either in Bangladeshi towns and villages or in temporary ‘makeshift’ camps where conditions are dire. In the makeshift camps they receive no access to health care or education, and no rations. Even in the official camps, there is no formal education beyond the age of 12. One 18 year-old is teaching in one of the schools, but has no opportunity for further study himself. “I am compelled to teach, but I would prefer to learn first,” he told me. “If I stay like this, with no further education, my future life will be ruined.”
A few years ago, the UNHCR forcibly repatriated at least 230,000 Rohingyas back to Burma, but many have returned, unable to survive in their homeland. One refugee said: “As long as human rights abuses continue in Burma, we cannot go back. We are caught between a crocodile and a snake. Where can we go?” Another expressed their dilemma, and statelessness, equally starkly: “The Bangladesh authorities say we are from Burma. The Burmese regime says we are Bengali. Where should we go?”
As part of its campaign against the Rohingyas, the junta regularly stirs up anti-Muslim sentiment among the Buddhist Rakhine and Burmans, with some success. “The regime uses the Rakhine against us as part of a divide-and-rule policy,” said one Rohingya. And so in addition to facing persecution from the regime, the Rohingyas face discrimination from Burma’s democracy movement too. Many Rakhine and Burmans in the democracy movement refuse to recognise the Rohingyas as an ethnic group, and they have been denied membership of the opposition Ethnic Nationalities Council. There is a dispute even over the term ‘Rohingya’, and many Rakhine prefer to call them “Arakanese Muslims”, “Burmese Muslims” or “Bengalis of Burma”.
Some Rakhine, however, have recognised the need to work with the Rohingyas against their common enemy, the regime. After all, the Rakhine are also victims of the junta. In schools, teachers use Burmese and the Rakhine language is banned. Forced labour is widespread. “The regime is carrying out an attack on our language, identity and culture,” said one Rakhine. The National United Party of Arakan (NUPA) has an alliance with the Arakan Rohingya National Organisation (ARNO). One NUPA leader told me: “When a people have been living this long through history, why should they be deprived of their citizenship rights?”
“The regime is trying to take away our identity,” a Rohingya leader told me. “We will not be there in the very near future. The disintegration of our society will take place. Our prime concern is that we must not be eliminated.” With that context, it is perhaps not surprising that some Rohingyas have been radicalised, feeling they have few allies in the world. Militant Islamist groups have preyed on their vulnerability. There are even suggestions that some Rohingyas have been linked to al-Qaeda. All the more reason, it seems, why it is essential to speak up for them, and encourage Burma’s democracy movement to be more inclusive. Not only is there a strong moral case to speak out against their persecution, but a powerful strategic incentive to do so as well. As one moderate Buddhist Rakhine told me: “We have to reach out to moderate Rohingyas, and work with them, because if we don’t, they will have nowhere else to go but radical Islamism.” Burma is troubled enough as it is, without that prospect to add to its woes.
Benedict Rogers is the author of A Land Without Evil: Stopping the Genocide of Burma's Karen People (Monarch, 2004), and has visited Burma and its borderlands more than 20 times. He also serves as Deputy Chairman of the UK Conservative Party's Human Rights Commission.
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