May 26, 2009

Conditions for Rohingya Inside Burma

The Rohingya come from Burma, but for many years have fled repression there to Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. In total, the Rohingya number about two million people. Approximately 800,000 remain in Burma, primarily in western Arakan State and Rangoon. About 200,000 live in Bangladesh, of which 30,000 live in squalid refugee camps. An estimated half million live in the Middle East as migrant workers, 50,000 in Malaysia, while others are scattered throughout the region. Some make it to Japan, while others attempt the long sea voyage to Australia. Primarily because the Burmese government denies them citizenship, most are stateless.[10]

Even in Burma’s dreadful human rights landscape, the ill-treatment of the Rohingya stands out. For decades they have borne the brunt of the military government’s brutal state-building policies. The Rohingya are descended from a mix of Arakanese Buddhists, Chittagonian Bengalis, and Arabic sea traders. They speak a dialect of Bengali, but one that is distinct from the Bengali spoken across the border in Bangladesh, and many urban Rohingya also speak Burmese. Centuries of coexistence with Arakanese Buddhists was bifurcated by British colonialism, when the boundaries of India and Burma were demarcated. As a result, the Rohingya became a people caught between states, with the majority situated in newly independent Burma in 1948.[11]

Burma’s treatment of its Muslim minority has generally been characterized by exclusion, neglect and scapegoating.[12] In the 1960s, the military-socialist regime of General Ne Win expelled hundreds of thousands of South Asians from Burma during its “Burmese Way to Socialism” nationalization program. Successive military governments have subjected Rohingya to particularly harsh treatment, possibly more than any other ethno-religious minority in Burma.[13]

In 1978, the Burmese army mounted a murderous “ethnic cleansing” campaign called Operation Dragon King (Naga Min) that drove more than 200,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh. After staying for a year in such squalid conditions that 10,000 of them died from starvation and disease because the Bangladeshi authorities withheld food aid, most of the survivors returned to Burma.[14]

In 1983 the Burmese government completed a nationwide census in which the Rohingya were not counted, rendering them stateless through exclusion. The 1982 Citizenship Act legalized this exclusion, creating two categories of people, full citizens of Burma, including most ethnic groups, and then “associate” citizens, such as the South Asian and Chinese minorities. The government disqualified the Rohingya from both groups because they could not prove their lineage as “associates” before 1948.[15]

In 1991, the Burmese army repeated its expulsion, driving more than a quarter million Rohingya out of Arakan State into Teknaf and Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh. The Burmese army killed hundreds as soldiers slashed and burned their way through villages to force them out. Bangladesh was hostile to the new refugees and herded them into squalid refugee settlements. In 1995 the Bangladesh government forced most of them back over the border in a UN-supported repatriation process, which was marked by excessive force, including killings, by Bangladeshi security forces and Burmese troops receiving the Rohingya.[16] In 1995, some of the returnees were granted Temporary Registration Cards (TRC), which gave them only limited rights to movement and employment in western Arakan.

The survivors of this experience, and the remaining Rohingya in Arakan State, have been largely kept alive by international humanitarian agencies such as UNHCR and the UN World Food Program (WFP). A stark indicator of living conditions in western Arakan State is contained in the WFP’s recent food security survey in Burma, where more than half of young boys and girls were seriously malnourished, and most households had no independent sources of food.[17] WFP Burma country director Chris Kaye said, “Economic hardship and chronic poverty prevents many thousands of people in north Rakhine (Arakan) State from gaining food security.”[18]

Abuses by the Burmese military exacerbate the chronic poverty. Religious repression is widespread, with the military destroying many mosques or ordering them to be emptied. Extrajudicial killings are common.[19] Forced labor and expropriation of property are a daily reality. The state orchestrates violence either directly, to force the Rohingya to leave, or foments discriminatory attitudes and practices whose ultimate aim is to push the Rohingya out. Rohingya must obtain permission for travel even between villages from local military units; this is often denied. This limits employment opportunities, education and trade.

Some Rohingya communities have been confined to the outskirts of SPDC constructed “new villages,” called Na Ta La (which stands for the SPDC’s Ministry for Development of Border Areas and National Races, which administers the new village projects). This allows the military to monitor the Rohingya and seize their land for military-connected business projects. An estimated 100 new villages have been set up in northwestern Arakan, predominately for ethnic Burmese and Arakanese settlers who are given seized land and property. Displaced Rohingya populations often have to live close to these villages to be monitored by the settlers, and reports of human rights violations by Na Ta La settlers against Rohingya are widespread.[20]

The SPDC’s restrictions on the Rohingya affect women and young girls in particular. Travel restrictions have a particularly onerous impact on young women seeking education and employment, because it limits their interface with the broader Burmese community and international relief agencies to seek livelihoods and schooling. For the past decade, the authorities have imposed marriage restrictions on Rohingya women, forcing them to seek permission from the local Na Sa Ka (border security force, composed of officials from several agencies, including the army, police, immigration and customs). This often results in extortion, bribery and long delays. Rohingya women who become pregnant out of wedlock also face harassment from the authorities. Since 2005, marriage licenses state that a Rohingya couple must not have more than two children. Rohingya women are routinely denied employment in government agencies as teachers, nurses or administrators.[21]

[10] The 1954 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons defines a stateless person as someone, “who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law.”

[11]Martin Smith, “The Muslim ‘Rohingya’ of Burma,” speech delivered at Burma Centrum Netherlands, December 11, 1995, copy on file with Human Rights Watch. See also the discussion “Rohingya” on New Mandala, February 14, 2009 (accessed May 7, 2009).

[12]Human Rights Watch, Burma -Crackdown on Burmese Muslims, July 2002,; Harry Priestly, “The Outsiders, The Irrawaddy, vol.14, no.1, January 2006, pp. 16-19.

[13]Moshe Yegar, Between Integration and Secession.The Muslim Communities of the Southern Phillipines, Southern Thailand, and Western Burma/Myanmar (Lexington Books, 2002), pp.19-72.

[14]Carl Grundy-Warr and Elaine Wong, “Sanctuary Under a Plastic Sheet: The Unresolved Problem of Rohingya Refugees,” IBRU Boundary and Security Bulletin, vol.5, no.3, Autumn 1997, pp.79-91.

[15]J.A. Berlie, The Burmanization of Myanmar’s Muslims (Bangkok:White Lotus Press, 2008.)

[16]Human Rights Watch/Asia, The Rohingya Muslims: Ending a Cycle of Exodus?, vol.8, no.8, September 1996. U.S. Committee for Refugees, “The Return of the Rohingya Refugees to Burma: Voluntary Repatriation or Refoulement?” Washington, DC, 1995.

[17]Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Food Programme (WFP), “Crop and Food Security Assessment Mission to Myanmar,” Rome, FAO and WFP, January 22, 2009.

[18]Jonathan Head, “What drives the Rohingya to sea?” BBC News, February 5, 2009  (accessed May 7, 2009).

[19]United Nations, “UN Human Rights Experts Call on Myanmar to Address Discrimination Against Members of Muslim Minority in North Rakhine State,” UN Press Release, April 2, 2007.

[20] Fayas Kapani, “Why SPDC sets up Natala villages in northern Arakan,” Kaladan News, April 24, 2009.

[21] Arakan Project, “Issues to be Raised Concerning the Situation of Stateless Rohingya Women in Myanmar (Burma),” Submission to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) for the examination of the combined 2nd and 3rd periodic state party reports (CEDAW/C/MMR/3), Geneva, October 2008.