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BANGKOK, Jun 15 2012 (IPS) - Reports of sectarian violence in western Myanmar have exposed the plight of 800,000 Muslim Rohingya, a persecuted minority that a regional human rights body described in 2006 as facing a “slow-burning genocide”.
By Thursday, clashes between the Buddhist Rakhine and the Rohingya in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar (formerly Burma) had resulted in 29 deaths, of which 16 were Rohingya and 13 were Rakhine, and 30,000 displaced, according to official accounts of the worst communal violence in the Southeast Asian country in years.
Over 2,500 houses have been torched and nine Buddhist monasteries and seven mosques destroyed since riots broke out.
On Jun. 3, a mob of 300 Buddhists intercepted a bus carrying Muslim pilgrims and beat 10 of them to death. Rights groups have pointed to the event as symbolic of the hostility swirling in the Rakhine State, for decades a tinderbox of ethnic tensions.
The spark for this latest attack on the Rohingya was a story that had spread around the province about a 27-year-old Rakhine woman being raped and murdered by three Muslim men in the Rambree Township.
Reports of the police detaining the three Rohingya men did little to calm Rakhine anger, which was further fanned by anti-Rohingya leaflets calling for revenge on the “Kalar,” a derogatory racial epithet for people with darker complexions and South Asian features.
“We are now getting calls daily from Rohingya living in fear and not knowing what will happen next,” a desperate-sounding Nurul Islam, an exiled political leader of the Rohingya, told IPS on a telephone call from London. “Piles of bodies have been noticed in the houses of the Rohingya and many people have (gone) missing.”
A curfew imposed by the reformist government of President Thein Sein has failed to rein in the mobs, revealed a 29-year-old Muslim from the affected areas who goes by the name of Htike and has been monitoring the violence from her room in Bangkok.
“The curfew has only been for the Muslim people to stay at home. The mobs are free to set fire to our houses,” she said.
But the terror on the streets is not all that the Rohingya have had to endure. Websites, blogs and Facebook pages based in and outside of Myanmar are brimming with hate speech calling for the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya.
“One day, after we solve (our) political issues, we will drive them away and never let them step on our soil again,” one poster proclaimed.
This online outburst by Buddhists inside the country and in the diaspora, “openly asserting that action tantamount to genocide is acceptable”, has surprised even long-time human rights champions in Myanmar.
“We have never seen it this bad online,” admitted Debbie Stothard, head of the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma (ALTSEAN), a regional advocacy group. “Some have called for the rape of female Rohingya activists.”
“The Rohingya are one of the most threatened communities in the world,” added Stothard, whose organisation first raised the alarm of the “genocide-like conditions” faced by this minority six years ago.
“The repression they have faced for decades falls within the conditions identified in the international convention to prevent genocide.”
The anti-Rohingya rage has exposed a troubling side of Myanmar’s ethnic politics that could worsen, warns Richard Horsey, an independent political analyst who has authored many reports on the political situation in the country. “(Inter-communal) tensions exist in many parts of Myanmar (but) Rakhine State is one area where tensions are highest.”
“There is a serious risk of the violence worsening, and spreading beyond Rakhine State,” Horsey told IPS. “The government has acknowledged this, which is why the president has personally taken a very visible role in addressing the situation.”
But the government’s supposed efforts to restore calm and ensure the international community that its reform agenda launched last March is still on track are belied by the ever-lengthening catalogue of abuses the Rohingya are being forced to ignore.
“The government has actually confirmed existing discriminatory polices implemented against the Rohingya by previous military regimes,” Chris Lewa, head of the Arakan Project, an NGO that advocates for Rohingya rights worldwide, told IPS.
“This was evident as recently as March this year during parliamentary sessions, when Rohingya MPs asked ministers if the government had plans to lift the restrictions imposed on the Rohingya and were informed that the policies will not be changed.”
The government has long failed to recognise the Rohingya as one of Myanmar’s 135 ethnic communities. Ever since the 1962 military coup, the Rohingya were violently and systematically targeted by the army, which resulted in widespread killings of civilians, rape and torture.
In the 1980s, the ruling military junta stripped this Muslim minority of its citizenship, deprived them of identity cards and effectively created a stateless community.
Last January, Lewa informed the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, “Myanmar blacklists Rohingya babies as part of its continuing oppression of a stateless minority.”
The lead researcher of the Arakan Project revealed that an estimated 40,000 Rohingya children have been condemned to a life of forced labour, denied access to health services and the formal job market and stripped of the freedom to travel beyond their villages – a fate shared by adults, too. Rohingya couples are even banned from getting married unless they get official permission.
In 1978 the military launched its ‘King Dragon Operation’ to drive out the Rohingya, prompting over 200,000 to flee the Rakhine State to neighbouring Bangladesh, where they lived in squalid refugee camps for decades.
A similar campaign followed in 1991-1992, forcing over 250,000 to flee as refugees. Persecution has pushed the number of Rohingya living in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, India, Malaysia and Bangladesh to 1.5 million.
The Rohingya last hit international headlines in 2009, when Thai authorities intercepted boatloads of exhausted men in seas close to Thailand’s southwestern coast. Rights groups said at the time that the fate of over 1,000 Rohingya, who were driven back to the seas by the Thai military, remained unknown.
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