Violence against Rohingya Muslims in Arakan is a way of life, according to U.N. staff based in camps for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. As opposed to other parts of Burma, however, in Arakan the violence against Muslims is carried out systematically by the Burmese army.
The persistent abuse of human rights in Arakan, including institutionalized discrimination and forced labor has been documented by Human Rights Watch and others. Half a million Rohingyas fled into Bangladesh a decade ago because of this persecution. 12 While the exodus of refugees has slowed since the worse repression ten years ago (the majority of the more than 250,000 who fled at the time have returned under the auspices of the UNHCR), conditions remain oppressive and Rohingyas continue to try to cross the border.
There was sporadic violence against Muslims in Arakan throughout 2001, with particular violent incidents in Sittwe and in and around Maungdaw township.
The worst incident occurred in February in the border town of Sittwe, Arakan State's capital, located on the Naf river, a major border crossing-point and a center of commercial activity for the region. Both Muslims and Buddhists live in the town.13
Burmese interviewed by Human Rights Watch report that there is constant tension between Buddhists and Muslims in Sittwe. The resentments are deeply rooted, and result from both communities feeling that they are under siege from the other. The violence in February 2001 flared up after an incident in which seven young monks refused to pay a Muslim stall holder for cakes they had just eaten. The Muslim seller, a woman, retaliated by beating one of the novices, said a Muslim eyewitness. Several more senior monks then came to protest and a brawl ensued, he said. One of the monks was hit over the head by the Muslim seller's husband and started to bleed.
Riots then broke out. The abbots at the local Monastery began to ring the bells sounding an emergency, bringing many of the town's Buddhists onto the streets to defend the monks. They were armed with knives, sticks, swords, and guns, said a local Muslim eyewitness. The Imam in the nearest mosque used a loudspeaker to call on local Muslims to defend themselves, calling for a jihad to protect women and children.
Eyewitnesses vary in their view of what happened next. Muslims insist that it was monks, armed with knives (or Soe in Burmese) who started the fighting. Buddhist sources deny it. What is clear is that a full-scale riot erupted after dusk and carried on for several hours. Buddhists poured gasoline on Muslim homes and properties and set them alight. More than thirty homes and a Muslim guesthouse were burned down, according to local residents. The fighting took place in the predominantly Muslim part of town and so it was predominantly Muslim property that was damaged.
Police and soldiers reportedly stood by and did nothing to stop the violence initially. It was several hours before they intervened. According to a local Muslim resident, it was only when the police realized that the Muslims were fighting back and killing Buddhists that police acted, shooting their weapons into the air. When this did not disperse the crowds, another sixty police reinforcements arrived in a truck and began to shoot directly at the Muslims, according to other local residents. "There were several dead bodies in the streets," said one eyewitness, "both Muslims and Buddhists, but I don't know how many." There are no reliable estimates of the death toll or the number of injuries. More than twenty died according to some Muslim activists. The army arrived around 2:00 in the morning and finally restored order.
A curfew was imposed in Sittwe immediately after the February riots, which stayed in force for more than two months. It was relaxed during the Water Festival (the celebration leading up to the Buddhist New Year) in April, but re-imposed afterwards. Muslims from nearby townships - including Maungdaw, Buthidaung, and Rathedaung - were not allowed to travel to Sittwe. Travel permits were revoked and, as of May 2002, few Muslims were being allowed to travel freely out of northern Arakan.
There was also violence in and around Maungdaw township in Arakan, with eyewitness accounts suggesting that at least 28 mosques and madrassah (Muslim schools) were destroyed in May 2001
The crackdown, according to one refugee who had been a businessman in Maungdaw town, began when the local NaSaKa14 military officer instructed the leaders of the Muslim community to draw up a list of the mosques in the area and the names of those who were on the respective mosque committees. He then ordered the closure of some of the mosques and reportedly told the committee members that if they did not comply with his order he would do it himself, saying: "Don't think this order comes from me. It comes from the higher authorities."
This account was confirmed by a number of other refugees from the Maungdaw area recently arrived in Bangladesh, who also reported that local mosques had been destroyed in May 2001 on the local military commanders' orders. Most of the mosques that were destroyed seem to have been built without official permission. According to the refugees, implementation of the policy requiring permission varied depending on how rigorous the military were. In some cases, the committee reportedly was able to save its mosque by paying substantial bribes. One mosque near Stapurika, close to Maungdaw, was saved at the cost of 100,000 kyat which was paid to the local military camp commander, according a former resident of the area.
The destruction of mosques seems to have been halted in the middle of 2001. Some mosques were permitted to be rebuilt after Muslim leaders met senior government officials in Rangoon to complain about the military's orders to destroy all unauthorized mosques in Arakan. According to a former madrassah teacher from Buthidaung, the government officials said: "In Afghanistan, Talibans have destroyed statues of our Lord Buddha, so that is why we were destroying your mosques here." Most of the mosques destroyed were thatch huts put up without permission.
For much of 2001, the use of unpaid labor for building military camps and acting as porters for the army in Arakan had been on the decline. But after the start of the U.S. air
strikes in Afghanistan in October, authorities built new police and military camps and mounted twenty-four hour sentry duty. This entailed an increase in the use of use of forced labor to construct these new camps and the houses in them.
"There are four sentry posts in my village and in every post four men do a whole night of [unpaid] sentry duty," said a Muslim teacher from Buthidaung. This is a pattern that is being repeated in many places in Arakan. The authorities say it is necessary because they fear an increase in terrorist activity by Muslim-based insurgents like the Arakan Rohingya National Organization and the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO), whom they accuse of connections with the Taliban or international Mujahid groups in Afghanistan.15
Last November, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Burma, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, in his remarks to the U.N. General Assembly, expressed concern about reports of violence against Muslim communities, and said, "Inter-ethnic/religious tensions are a matter of prime concern to me in a country whose extremely rich human, historical, political, linguistic and cultural diversity pose the constant political challenge of making these differences co-exist in a peaceful, dynamic and constructive manner."16 The Burmese government must take effective action to address the concerns of the country's Muslim population, and to safeguard and protect their basic human rights.
12 Burma denies citizenship status to most Rohingyas on the grounds that their ancestors did not reside in the country at the start of British colonial rule in 1824. For details on Burma's highly restrictive citizenship law see Human Rights Watch, "Burmese Refugees in Bangladesh: Still No Durable Solution," May 2000. The U.N. special rapporteur on Burma in 1993 urged the government to "abolish its over-burdensome requirements for citizens in a manner which has discriminatory effects on racial or ethnic minorities."
13 The U.S. State Department's Annual Report for International Religious Freedom, 2001, said "there were various, often conflicting, accounts of how the riots began, but reports consistently stated that government security and fire fighting forces did little to prevent attacks on Muslim mosques, businesses and residences...There are estimates that over 50 Muslim homes burned to the ground and that both Muslims and Buddhists were killed and injured."
14 A special border security unit that has been accused by Muslim groups and NGOs of excessive brutality and abuses of human rights.
15 Some "Burmese" were reportedly captured in the recent war in Afghanistan, though it isn't clear what this actually means. They were assumed to be from Rohingya groups who have in fact sent people there in the past for training. However they have never shown the same fundamentalism or militarism associated with the Taliban.
16 From the Special Rapporteur's speech presenting his interim report on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, A/56/112, Fifty Sixth Session of the General Assembly, November 7, 2001.