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Human Rights

Rohingyas At Home and Nowhere

BANGKOK, May 3 2013 (IPS) - Rendered the nowhere people in their own homeland, thousands of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar are fleeing inhuman living conditions, lack of humanitarian aid and rising sectarian tensions in their country. And the very state that is supposed to protect them now stands accused of ‘ethnic cleansing’.

The Muslim Rohingyas and Rakhine Buddhists have had a history of conflict dating back to World War II. The latest round, however, was ignited in June 2012 when 10 Rohingya Muslims were killed by ethnic Arakanese, following the rape of a 28-year-old Arakanese woman. It sparked off a cycle of violence in which an estimated 200 non-Rohingya Muslims, Rohingya and ethnic Arakanese have been killed and more than 125,000 displaced.

The horror peaked in October last year when security forces assisted ethnic Arakanese in razing villages in nine of the 21 townships in Arakan, in western Myanmar or Burma. The Rohingyas were disarmed of the sticks they were carrying to defend themselves. At least 70 of them were reportedly killed, including 28 children, nearly half of them under the age of five.

“Since the state-sponsored pogrom against the Rohingya started in June 2012,” says student, activist and Rohingya blogger team member Mohammed Sheikh Anwar, “their living conditions have deteriorated. Access to humanitarian assistance such as food and medicines has been blocked, their properties are looted and vandalised on a daily basis.

“In addition, the internally displaced Rohingya and Kamans have no shelter, clean water or clothing. Many are suffering from pneumonia, diarrhoea and other infectious diseases. Women and under-aged girls are subjected to rape at the hands of security officials, the men have to face inhuman torture in secret jails.”

This plight of the Rohingyas was the subject of a 153-page report by the New York-based Human Rights Watch last week. Titled ‘All You Can Do is Pray’, it accuses the Myanmar authorities of ‘ethnic cleansing’ by failing to prevent the violence, conducting mass detentions and blocking humanitarian aid.

So desperate is their situation that it has sparked off an exodus where more than 13,000 of them – according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHRC) – have fled Myanmar by sea in overcrowded dinghy boats.

They are headed mostly to Thailand, but if they have been hoping for refuge here, the country is not extending it. Instead, in a bid to protect its own shores, Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra called on Myanmar President Thein Sein to assist in the repatriation of the more than 1,000 detained Rohingya in Thailand.

Confirming Thailand’s unwillingness to take in the Rohingyas, Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of HRW told IPS, “Thailand absolutely refuses to let the Rohingya have access to the UNHCR to file a claim for refugee status. In fact, Thailand has a special policy created by the National Security Council, which sees the Rohingya as a national security threat to Thailand.”

“UNHCR and other human rights organisations need to come forward and rescue these individuals fleeing persecution,” says Anwar. “If the Thai authorities send them back to Myanmar, they could be killed or imprisoned.”

There are an estimated 800,000 stateless Rohingya in western Burma’s Arakan state, which borders Bangladesh. “History tells us that in the early 1950s a few Bengali Muslim intellectuals of the northwestern part of Arakan began to use the term ‘Rohingya’ to identify themselves,” says historian Aye Chan of Kanda University of International Studies in Japan and author of ‘The Development of a Muslim Enclave in Arakan (Rakhine) State of Burma’.

“They were, in fact, direct descendants of immigrants from the Chittagong district of East Bengal, who had migrated into Arakan after the province was ceded to British India under the terms of the Treaty of Yandabo. Most of these migrants settled down in the Mayu Frontier Area, near what is now Burma’s border with modern Bangladesh. Actually, they were called ‘Chittagonians’ in British colonial records.”

Arakan saw a great deal of bloodshed during World War II and after 1948, at the beginning of Burma’s independence, Chan goes on to say. “One of the underlying causes was the zamindari system, under which the British administrators granted Bengali landowners thousands of acres of arable land on 90-year leases. The Arakanese peasants who had fled Burmese rule and returned after British annexation found themselves deprived of their inherited land.”

Things only got worse after the British left. “Some people in the Mayu Frontier, who are now in their 70s and 80s, still remember the atrocities they suffered in 1942-1943 during the short period of anarchy between the British evacuation and Japanese occupation of the area,” says Chan. There was an outburst of ethnic and religious tensions that had been simmering for a century.”

Most Burmese still consider the Rohingya illegal Bengali immigrants. A 1974 Emergency Immigration Act, initiated by former dictator General Ne Win, stripped Rohingya of their Burmese nationality. Further, under Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law, Rohingya are not considered part of the country’s 135 ethnic groups unless they can prove their ancestors lived in Myanmar before independence from Britain in 1948. Although some Rohingya carry temporary registration cards, many lack documentation.

“Rohingyas, as is well known, have been persecuted by different regimes in Myanmar due to their ethnic origin and religion,” says Anwar. “As their situation stands today, it will not be an exaggeration to say that they are one of the most discriminated, oppressed and persecuted people in the world.”

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