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Rights Group Presses Bangladesh on Rohingya Refugees

June 20, 2012

by Danielle Bernstein

BANGKOK - Human-rights activists are stepping up calls for Bangladesh to stop turning back Rohingya refugees fleeing violence in Burma. The struggle over the stateless status of the Rohingya remains an un resolved issue in Burma’s political reforms.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch is calling for Bangladesh to open its borders to Rohingya refugees in a statement marking World Refugee Day.

The group says Bangladesh authorities have conducted more than 140 “push backs,” in which authorities bar Rohingya traveling by boat from landing in Bangladesh. Human Rights Watch Asia Deputy Director Phil Robertson says his group has had representatives observe the practice.

"The Bangladeshi coastguard was keeping journalists and other people away from the Rohingya refugees, and pushed them back and included in that group were women and small children. It is unclear what happened to them after they were pushed back that is a very good question and that is something that the Bangladeshi government should answer for," Robertson said.

He also called for the Burmese government to provide protection to Rohingya who are returning to Burma and to give his group access to conflict-hit areas.

The World Food Program estimates about 90,000 people have been displaced by the fighting and authorities have administered aid to more than 66,000 people in the past week.

The violence began earlier this month when three ethnic-Rohingya Muslim men raped and murdered an ethnic-Rakhine Buddhist woman. Two of the three have been tried and sentenced to death. The third was found dead in his jail cell, hung by his own sarong.

Human Rights Watch says it has not been able to review details of the case, and further investigations into the parties responsible for the violence are not being conducted in an open and transparent manner.

Burmese state media report that reprisal attacks from the incident have killed about 50 people and wounded scores more.

Democracy icon and member of parliament Aung San Suu Kyi addressed the controversy this week while touring Europe. She stressed the importance of clarifying the issue of citizenship for the stateless, roughly 800,000 members of the Rohingya minority.

"Bangladesh says that they are not ours and Burma says they are not ours and these poor people get shuffled around. So we have to have rule of law, we have to know what the law is and we have to make sure that it is properly implemented," she said.

Rohingya were denied citizenship under Burma’s 1982 citizenship law. There are 135 officially recognized ethnic groups in Burma, a list that does not include groups such as the Rohingya or Gurkhas.

The 1983 census counted the Rohingya as foreigners, and the minister of population and planning in charge of supervising the next census in 2013, Myint Kyaing, says there are no plans to change their status by then.

"We will count everyone in this country whether they are our nationalities or foreigners. Maybe it will not be as Rohingya maybe we will define them as foreigner or something like other races, something like that," Kyaing said.

Analysts say addressing ethnic disputes like the Rohingya issue is a key test for Burma’s government.

Amnesty International Burma researcher Benjamin Zawacki says his group supports a political solution in which the Rohingya can be citizens of Burma.

“They have experienced no appreciable improvement in their human rights since the reform effort got underway about a year ago. As one person told us, it is as if all these changes are for someone else, but not for us. And again, the first thing they could and should do is amend the 1982 citizenship act to make Rohingya citizens,” Zawacki said.

Because Burma’s majority Buddhists largely oppose granting Muslim Rohingya citizenship, analysts say the issue remains politically divisive for Aung San Suu Kyi and other opposition lawmakers, who may be the ethnic group’s best hope.

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