Rohingya Muslims had been fleeing long-term persecution in Myanmar for decades, but the speed combined with the scale of the September 2017 crisis was unprecedented. United Nations officials describe the outflow as ethnic cleansing. Never before have so many arrived in so short a time. This exodus started after insurgents from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked police posts on 25 August 2017, killing at least 12 members of the security forces and sparking a brutal crackdown similar to one that occurred in October 2016 after a smaller assault on outposts that initially killed nine officers.
By 15 September 2017 the humanitarian situation in parts of Bangladesh sheltering hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees continued to deteriorate, making the crisis one of the fastest growing refugee crises of recent years. According to estimates, some 400,000 Rohingya refugees, fleeing violence in Myanmar, have crossed the border into Bangladesh since 25 August 2017. Refugees continue to arrive daily outside of the two established camps which are already substantially overflowing, and many people have received little meaningful help to date.
Marixie Mercado, a UNICEF spokesperson, highlighted that refuges had little protection from the elements and lacked drinking water. “There is nowhere near enough latrines, and extreme mosquito activity has been forecast for the coming days. It is important to note that even before the crisis, half of the children in Rakhine state [in Myanmar] had suffered from chronic malnutrition, meaning they were vulnerable to disease," she said.
On 13 September 2017 United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres reiterated his call for Muslims from Myanmar's Rakhine state to be granted nationality or at least a legal status that would allow them to lead a normal life. “I call on the Myanmar authorities to suspend military action, end the violence, uphold the rule of law, and recognize the right of return of all those who had to leave the country," the Secretary-General said in his first press conference since the opening of the 72nd session of the General Assembly. Guterres repeated his call for “an effective action plan" to address the root causes of the situation, which he said he been left to fester for decades and has now escalated beyond Myanmar's borders, destabilizing the region.
The Bangladesh government has appealed for international support to move the Rohingya to Bhashan Char, also known as Thengar Char, a barren Bangladeshi silt island that floods every year. Bhashan Char is located in Hatiya Upazila, in the estuary of the Meghna river. Bangladesh authorities first proposed settling Rohingya refugees there in 2015. But the plan was apparently shelved in 2016 after reports that the silt island, which emerged from the sea only in 2006, was uninhabitable due to regular tidal flooding. By late 2017 the Bangladesh government was speeding work at Bhashan Char with a view to building a 10,000-acre facility that can house hundreds of thousands of Rohingya.
The island, used sporadically by fishermen and farmers seeking to graze their animals, was susceptible to tidal flooding once or twice a year. The Bangladesh Navy, involved in developing the island, deterred pirates who had operated in the seas around Bhasan Char. The Navy set up two helipads and by September 2017 was building roads and a shed for their use. It spans 115 square miles or 300 Sq Km, or 30,000 hectares. It is under water from June to September annually because of the monsoon, and it has no flood fences. Mangrove trees have been planted on about a third of the island as part of an ongoing development plan. The trees are designed to shore up the land, to make it more inhabitable.
The popular revolutionary peasant leader from South Asia Abdul Hamid Khan (1880-1976) was known as "Moulana Bhashani". Maulana came from his religious standing, and folk tale suggests that the name “Bhashani" came from the name of the place called Bhashan char. He had settled on this silted islet after being "externed from Bengal on the pretext of preserving peace in the Province" as he was organizing peasant movements in the early 1920. Other accounts relate that Bhashani refers to Bhashan Char in Assam, India, where he lived before the partition. The word "char" to means "island" in Bangla, the local language.
Yet another account relates that "Bhashan was a river island in Brahmaputra River Valley, literally meant the place overflowed by the mighty flood making people destitute. Abdul Hamid Khan as a young peasant leader led the destitute to settle in Bhashan Char. That is how he earned his famous title, ‘Bhashani’ by settling the unsettled and the landless."
The Meghna Estuary system is a uniquely dynamic estuarine and coastal system. The sediment discharge from the lower Meghna River is the highest among all river systems in the world, and the water discharge is the third highest. The changes in tidal flow direction, channel topography, the occurrence of new channels, accretion of new lands and abandonment of old ones are the unique features that exists in the Meghna estuary. The Meghna Estuary Study from the year 2000 concluded that the accretion rate has increased to 18.8 sq. km per year. Bhashan char seems to be accrediting land on the northern part but eroding on the South.
In February 2017 the district administration's report stated "Thangar is a barren island in the Meghna estuary near Noakhali Island Upazila. The area of this island is 10 thousand acres during high tide and 15,000 acres of the time of recession, the committee constituted by the district administration mentioned. Forestry started officially since 2010-11. The char is now used as a cow-buffalo pasture. There is no scope to travel without engine powered boat. The island's distance from Hatiya is approximately 20 kilometers. It takes three to three and a half hours for an engine-driven boat to go from Hatiya."
The forest department's ranking officer, Jamal Uddin, said Thangarchar has no source of drinking water. With continuous tidal drift of the island, the elevation of the island is still not stable, and the height of the water is equal to the level of mud and the cause of various natural disasters. This island is still not suitable for people living in the Meghna estuarine area. If there is an accessory infrastructure, there will be no problem in settling the habitat.
The name "Bhashan char" is ambiguous. Faridpur district (zila) was established in 1815, roughly in the middle of what is now Bangladesh. The area now constituting Faridpur zila was formerly sadar subdivision of the then Faridpur district. The zila consists of 9 upazilas, 79 unions, 1022 populated mauzas, 1899 villages, 4 paurashavas, 36 wards and 100 mahallas. The upazilas are Alfadanga, Bhanga, Boalmari, Char Bhadrasan, Faridpur Sadar, Madhukhali, Nagarkanda, Sadarpur and Saltha. It includes a Bhashan Char union, part of the Sadarpur upazila.
Often termed as the world's longest beach, Cox's Bazar has yet to become a major tourist destination. The name Cox's Bazar originated from the name of a British East India Company officer, Captain Hiram Cox who was appointed as the Superintendent of Palonki (today's Cox's Bazar) beginning afterwards Warren Hastings became the Governor of Bengal afterward the British East India Company Act in 1773. Captain Hiram Cox was appointed British Resident at Rangoon in 1796. On his arrival at that port he experienced the most disrespectful neglect. He proceeded to the court, where, after being wheedled out of all his presents, he was treated with marked indignity.
The Burmese had pushed their conquests to the north and east, from about the time of the rise of the British rule in India. The State of Aracan, stretching southwards from nearly the top of the Bay of Bengal down the coast, and bordering on the British province of Chittagong, had been subjugated by them.
The Burmese conquerors were cruel. Emigrations took place to the British territories, to the number of thousands, in 1797 and 1798. There was no other instance of immigration on a large scale into British territory in India. They were at first sought to be kept out; a large body refused to return, saying that they would rather be slaughtered at once than return. Not less than 10,000 "rushed to the frontier" towards the end of 1798, and the number of immigrants went on increasing, till more than two-thirds of the population left Aracan; the capital being nearly depopulated, while the road was "strewed with the bodies" of the old, and of women with infants at the breast, and hundreds found no subsistence but on leaves and reptiles. The British Government determined to settle them upon some large tracts of waste land in Chittagong, and employed Captain Hiram Cox, who had been on a mission to Ava, for the purpose.
On 25 August 2016 the office of State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi announced the appointment of former United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan to chair the nine-member commission, which includes three international representatives, four Buddhist and Muslim members from Myanmar, and two Myanmar government representatives.
Rakhine nationalists in Myanmar rejected the proposal for former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to head a commission to discuss ethnic conflict and clashes in Myanmar's Rakhine state. In a letter to the government, the Arakan National Party (ANP), which represents the interests of the ethnic Rakhine people in Rakhine state and in the commercial capital Yangon, demanded that the commission be disbanded. Arakan National Party vice chairperson Aye Nu Sein said the creation of a commission led by foreigners with no background knowledge or capacity to understand the circumstances in Rakhine state would undermine the rights of all of Burma's ethnic groups, as well as Myanmar's sovereignty. She said it was not necessary to form another commission, since the administration of former President Thein Sein had created a Rakhine affairs investigating commission.
More than 100 people were killed in Rakhine in 2012 and 100,000 remain in camps following clashes between the Rohingya Muslim minority and the Buddhist majority. The Myanmar government and the country’s Buddhist majority call the Rohingya “Bengalis" because they consider them to be illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh, and deny them basic rights, freedom of movement, and access to social services and education.
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?"
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