Located mainly in Arakan State, Burma's Muslim Rohingya minority is subjected to "severe legal, economic, and social discrimination," in addition to the forced labor and other abuses commonly faced by the country's other ethnic minority groups, according to the U.S. State Department human rights report.
Rohingyas lack citizenship, making them ineligible for public education beyond the primary level and for most civil service jobs. The government denies citizenship to Rohingyas on the ground that their ancestors did not live in Burma at the onset of British colonial rule in 1824, as required by Burma's restrictive citizenship law. It says the Rohingyas are Bengali migrants from neighboring Bangladesh who came to Arakan State to find work.
Moreover, Rohingyas must get permission from township officials to leave their village areas. Authorities generally do not allow Rohingyas to travel to Rangoon, although some Rohingyas obtain permission by bribing officials.
Rohingyas also face particularly harsh demands for forced labor. The Shan Human Rights Foundation and numerous Rohingya men say male Rohingyas must provide the army with up to 10 days of labor each month, the U.S. State Department report said. They are forced to carry food and ammunition under brutal conditions or, occasionally, to build Buddhist pagodas. Rohingya do not dispute their origins from present-day East Bengal but hold that they have resided in present-day Burma for decades if not centuries and thus deserve citizenship. Authorities usually referred to Rohingya as “Bengali,” claiming that the Muslim residents of northern Rakhine State were illegal immigrants from Bangladesh or descendants of migrants transplanted by the British during colonial rule.
The most comprehensive flow of Rohingya refugees to Bangladesh took place during 1991 and 1992. The State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) increased its military presence in northern Rakhine State. The junta justified the exercise as a fortification against Rohingya Muslim extremist insurgents. Construction of military establishments and roads sprawled throughout northern Rakhine and the border with Bangladesh. The build-up was accompanied by compulsory labor, land and property confiscation, and forced relocation, as well as rape, summary executions, and physical torture.
Two lesser forms of citizenship exist, associate or naturalized citizenship; these citizens are unable to run for political office, inherit land or money, or access the full range of educational opportunities. Sources reported that Rohingya in northern Rakhine State who applied for naturalization with all required documents did not receive replies. Lawyers and activists noted that some Rohingya could also secure naturalization or “associate” citizenship through bribery or by registering themselves as a recognized ethnic group such as the Kaman.
Rohingya experienced severe legal, economic, and social discrimination. The government required them to receive prior approval for travel outside their village of residence; limited their access to higher education, health care, and other basic services; and prohibited them from working as civil servants, including as doctors, nurses, or teachers. Authorities required Rohingya to obtain official permission for marriages and limited the number of children that could be registered. Authorities singled out Rohingya in northern Rakhine State to perform forced labor and arbitrarily arrested them. Restrictions impeded the ability of Rohingya to construct houses and/or religious buildings.
Certain townships in Arakan State, including Thangwe, Gwa, and Taung-gut, are "Muslim-free zones" in which Muslims may not live, according to the U.S. State Department's October 2001 report on international religious freedom. In these areas, security forces have destroyed mosques and confiscated land from Muslims.
In 1991 and again in 1997 and 1998, tens of thousands of Rohingyas from Arakan State fled to Bangladesh to escape abuses. Most have since returned, although 22,000 Rohingyas reportedly remain in refugee camps in Bangladesh. More than 100,000 other Rohingyas live outside the camps with no formal refugee papers.
Muslims have been targeted in riots in both Arakan State and other areas. Offering evidence of what it called a "sharp increase in anti-Muslim violence" in Burma, the State Department religious freedom report said that government security and firefighting forces reportedly did little to contain attacks on Muslim mosques, businesses, and homes during February 2001 riots in Sittwe, the capital of Arakan State, that killed and wounded both Muslims and Buddhists.
Outside Arakan State, rioting in the town of Taungoo in Pegu Division in southern Burma in 2001 targeted Muslim interests and killed some 10 Muslims and 2 Buddhists. The government responded to the violence by further restricting freedom of movement for Rohingyas and other Muslims, according to Human Rights Watch.
Though Rohingya had been victims of state-sponsored discrimination for decades, conditions started deteriorating in 2012 after the predominantly Buddhist country of 50 million began its bumpy transition from a half-century of dictatorship to democracy. Taking advantage of newfound freedoms of expression, radical monks started fanning deep-seated societal hatred for the religious minority. Hundreds were killed by machete-wielding mobs and a quarter million others now live under apartheid-like conditions in camps or have fled by boat -hundreds of dehydrated, hungry Rohingya washing onto Southeast Asian shores in recent weeks.
Months of ethnic and sectarian violence displaced tens of thousands until security forces moved in and imposed tight controls. Authorities want these people to first identify themselves as Bengalis before the government determines whether they can become citizens.
Since violence erupted in June 2012, the Burmese Government forced people into relief camps so that it could confiscate their land, homes, and property for redistribution to the Buddhist Rakhine. The investigative commission convened by President Thein Sein to look into the causes of the June 12th violence did little more than recommend further segregation of the Rohingya, deploying more security personnel into the Rakhine state, and instituting a family planning program to reduce the growth rate of the Muslim population. Further exacerbating the situation, most Burmans classify the Rohingya as ``Bengali Muslims'' and would prefer they return to Bangladesh. However, Bangladesh does not accept the Rohingya population as Bengali and refuses them citizenship rights as well.
Samantha Power, Special Assistant to the President, Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights, National Security Council, stated on November 15th 2012: "The peril faced by the stateless Rohingya population in Rakhine State is particularly urgent, and we have joined the international community in expressing deep concern about recent violence that has left hundreds dead, displaced over 110,000, and destroyed thousands of homes. There is much work to be done to foster peace and reconciliation in other ethnic conflicts, develop the justice sector, and cultivate the free press and robust civil society that are the checks and balances needed in any stable democracy. But we also see an historic opportunity both to help Burma lock in the progress that it has made so far — so that it becomes irreversible — and to meet the many challenges in front of it. "
The UN and US called for an investigation of the Rohingya Muslims that are being trafficked by Thai officials into human trafficking rings and held hostage in camps near the Malaysian border until relatives pay ransoms to release them. Some have been beaten, while others have been killed. Nonetheless, the Burmese Government was reportedly doing little, but rather supporting Burma's anti-Islam movement.
A crisis began in May 2015 when Thailand disrupted longstanding human trafficking networks that targeted Rohingya. The people smugglers fled, leaving thousands of boat people adrift at sea. By mid-May 2015, thousands of refugees and migrants, mostly Rohingya from Myanmar and Bangladesh, had been rescued or swam ashore in Southeast Asian countries after being abandoned at sea by human traffickers. Thousands more were thought to be adrift, with dwindling supplies. After initially refusing to help the so-called boat people, Indonesia and Malaysia on 20 May 2015 agreed to provide humanitarian aid and temporary shelter to the estimated 7,000 stranded migrants, provided they are resettled within one year with the assistance of the international community.
In June 2015 Myanmar resumed a process that could end up granting citizenship to the Rohingya people who for years had been without a country. But the plan was controversial and would be scrutinized far from impoverished Rakhine state, the epicenter of the ethnic conflict that has sent thousands fleeing throughout Southeast Asia.
The ethnic conflict can be boiled down to two words: Rohingya or Bengali. The two names signify a fight over something much larger in Myanmar; identity, citizenship and a sense of belonging.
Chief Minister Muang Muang Ohn said the term Rohingya implies an ethnic claim that involves territory and is much more complicated than just citizenship. He said ultimately, they must make a choice. “If those people, Bengali, participated in the citizenship verification process and if they got citizenship status, they would get automatic rights as a citizen to travel freely,” he said. “But some people are still resisting to accept the term and participate in the process," he said. "So the question is, do you want citizenship or do you want Rohingya ethnicity?”
|Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list|