These days, Burma is supposed to be on the road to democracy. And yet, in western Burma, conflict between radical Buddhists and a minority Muslim population has left thousands of people displaced. Aid agencies are being denied access to affected communities amid reports of a severely deteriorating humanitarian situation. By KHADIJA PATEL.
The plight of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group in the North Arakan State in western Burma, first made headlines in 2007 as the “boat people” who embark on risky sea journeys to escape oppression, discrimination and dire poverty. While hundreds of Rohingya have perished fleeing Burma by boat, others who do make it to Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia and other neighbouring countries expecting safety have instead been shunned by their host governments.
Despite the fledgling media interest in the Rohingya community, their plight is still not fully understood by the world community.
While the exact number of Rohingiya remains contentious, estimates suggest some one million live in Arakan State, while hundreds of thousands more live as refugees in neighbouring countries. There are disputes over the historical records, and whether the Rohingya are an indigenous group or whether in fact they began entering Burma in the late 19th century. And such is the contention around the Rohingiya that even the term “Rohingya” is disputed.
In his book The Burmanization of Myanmar’s Muslims, Jean Berlie points out that the term “Arakan” or “Rahkine” is better received by local Muslims than “Rohingiya”. The term “Rohingiya” was unheard of until the late 1950s, when it was developed in a claim to establish a separate ethnicity with political rights by university students in Yangon. Subsequently, several armed factions with alleged international assistance from North Africa and the Middle East sought to break away from Myanmar and form a separate state known as Arakanistan.
A second group of Muslims in Rakhine State are known as Arakanese or Burmese Muslims. They speak Rakhine, closely related to the Burmese language, and are said to share similar customs to the Rakhine Buddhists.
And while the terminology is still debatable, the Rohingiya, whatever you choose to call them, live lives fraught by conflict and repression in western Burma.
In 2010, the Irish Centre for Human Rights released a report claiming the Rohingya people have been victims of human rights violations amounting to crimes against humanity. “Every day, more Rohingya men, women and children are leaving Burma, fleeing the human rights abuses in the hope of finding peace and security elsewhere,” Professor William Schabas, director of the Irish Centre for Human Rights, said in a statement.
The Rohingya were stripped of the right to citizenship with the passage of the 1982 Citizenship Law and with it, all the rights of citizenship. They are a stateless people. The requirement of a permit for Rohingya to get married remains and has led to a backlog of applications, and years of delay before permission is granted. United Nations researchers say the hardening of restrictions of movement have disproportionately affected the Rohingya in northern Rhakine since 2005, as a pass is now required for any movement between villages, even for day trips to health clinics.
In a press release issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Myanmar on 26 February 1992, the government declared: “In actual fact, although there are  national races living in Myanmar today, the so-called Rohingya people is not one of them. Historically, there has never been a ‘Rohingya’ race in Myanmar.” In response to criticisms from the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in April 2004, the former military junta claimed that it had granted full and equal treatment to the Rohingya, as with other races, in matters relating to birth and death registration, education, health and social affairs. The junta emphasised that the Rohingya are listed as a Bengali racial group and recognised as permanent residents of Burma.
The reality of the lives of the Rohingya, however, begged to differ.
Human rights violations such as land confiscations, discriminatory restrictions on employment, education, access to forest resources and arable land, together with tighter controls of local economies and arbitrary taxes, have created chronic problems of poverty and food insecurity.
All this, too, while the world has been riveted on the dramatic fallout between Burma's military leaders and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Despite the fragile gains in democracy made by Burma over the last year and a half, fraught Muslim-Buddhist relations, which have frequently led to conflict, continue to colour politics in Burma.
In recent months, violence between Buddhists and the Rohingiya have claimed thousands of lives. Tensions between Muslims and Buddhists erupted in conflict when Muslims were accused of the rape and murder of a Buddhist girl. More than 70,000 Muslims fled their homes in the ensuing violence. Most of these internally displaced people are still in refugee camps. Another frisson of violence late last month left 89 people dead and displaced an additional 35,000, according to the United Nations.
The Burmese government initially said that more than 2,800 houses were burned down in the new violence and that 112 people were killed, an estimate they later reduced to 64. Human Rights Watch, however, believes the death toll is far higher. The rights group says allegations from witnesses fleeing scenes of carnage, together with the government’s well-documented history of underestimating figures that might lead to criticism of the state, may have influenced the lower death tolls.
The initial fury was focused on the Rohingya, but now members of at least one other group, Kaman Muslims, have also been forced from their homes, raising concerns that the violence could spread to other parts of Burma, where Muslims make up about 4% of the population.
Human Rights Watch last week implored the Burmese government to facilitate the safe passage of aid agencies to communities affected by the conflict.
This week Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) reported that its teams were being prevented from accessing affected communities in Rakhine. MSF’s projects in Rakhine State used to be one of the organisation’s biggest programmes worldwide for the past 20 years, but MSF teams are facing ongoing antagonism seeded by the ethnic violence. Joe Bellveau, MSF’s Operations Manager, spoke to Daily Maverick from Amsterdam, explaining that there were currently three layers of medical needs in Arakan.
Those affected by violence in the last two weeks form the first layer. Bellveau explained that an unknown number of men, women and children got into to boats sailing north in the hope of finding refuge, setting up makeshift settlements along beaches and paddy fields when they found safety.
“These people are very exposed. They’ve left their livestock and good behind.” He says this group of recently displaced people currently face urgent food and water shortages, and are also in urgent need of medical assistance. “There is a whole range of medical needs. We’ve seen gunshot wounds, stab wounds, burn victims; and then it is also peak season for malaria,” he said.
“A woman told us about her sister who began bleeding while heavily pregnant on a boat,” Bellveau said. “She bled to death.”
Another set in need of aid and medical attention are the 75,000 people who were displaced in June. “These people are housed in camps with no prospect of returning home,” Bellveau said. According to him, these internally displaced people are highly dependent on government and international aid. The Ministry of Health, however, is overstretched.
“Then there are those who have not been directly affected by the violence but face restrictions on their movement and have no access to healthcare in their villages,” he said.
MSF’s current difficulty, Bellveau explained, was in scaling up its operations to the affected communities. He was careful to point out that the government had been “fairly accommodating” to MSF, but that the challenge lay in MSF staff being too afraid to work in Arakan. “We have received threats and are being intimidated by a small group of people who believe MSF has sided with the Muslims in the conflict.”
Burmese president Thein Sein appointed an investigative commission earlier in 2012 to determine the causes of violence, but has yet to propose any policies to address those causes. More worryingly, he has at times called for the segregation of the Rohingya and at other times even called for their expulsion from Burma, further feeding popular antagonism against the Rohingya.
Aung San Suu Kyi has called for establishing the rule of law in the Arakan State, but has failed to urge reconciliation or end discriminatory treatment of the Rohingya under Burma’s nationality law.
Last month, UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, Tomas Ojea Quintana, stressed the need for the underlying causes of the tension and conflict between Rakhine’s Buddhist and Muslim communities to be addressed.
“Buddhist and Muslim communities continue to suffer from the violence in Rakhine State, so it is imperative that the government pursues a policy of integration and long-term reconciliation between the two communities,” he said. “This will necessarily involve addressing the underlying causes of the tensions, which includes the endemic discrimination against the Rohingya community.”
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, concurs. “Unless the authorities also start addressing the root causes of the violence, it is only likely to get worse,” he said.
And with the current flare-up of violence continuing without addressing the underlying economic, political and property issues, a bleak future for this ethnic minority group looks assured. DM
- Aung San Suu Kyi’s Buddhism Problem in Foreign Policy
- In Rakhine, mistrust deepens divide in The Hindu
- In Burma, violence against Muslim minority stumbles into the spotlight in The Guardian
Photo: Ethnic Rakhine men hold homemade weapons as they walk in front of a house that was burnt during fighting between Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya communities in Sittwe June 10, 2012. REUTERS/Staff