By Francis Wade
Last week a small NGO took a report detailing state discrimination against Muslim babies in Burma to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC). The Muslim minority in question, the Rohingya, has suffered for decades as a result of an outwardly racist governmental policy toward non-Buddhists in Burma, which has also seen Christian communities in Karen, Kachin and Chin states suffer relentless persecution.
The report details how Rohingya children are subject to racial profiling immediately after birth – those born outside of wedlock are placed on blacklists, and denied travel permits and access to education. While none of 750,000-strong population in western Burma’s Arakan state are registered as citizens, those children blacklisted suffer heftier treatment from authorities, and are unlikely to be able to marry when they grow up.
Burmese Rohingya refugees are pictured at an unregistered refugee camp in Bangladesh.
A strict two-child policy for the Rohingya (and only the Rohingya) is also in place, and the same treatment detailed above applies to children born above that limit. The report says that families with unregistered children face constant threat of arrest, which is only avoided via “unending extortion” by government authorities.
“Despite signs of political reforms in the past five months, the [Burmese] government has reaffirmed specific deeply discriminatory policies against this minority group on national security grounds, using justifications of ‘illegal migration management’ and ‘control on population growth’,” said The Arakan Project, who submitted the report to the CRC. The organisation is one of the few that persistently attempts to spotlight the abuses against the Rohingya, and deserves huge commendation for its work.
As the recent furore over a BBC report that labels the Rohingya as Burmese shows, racism against the group is also widespread in Burmese society. Chat forums are filled with venomous attacks on the Muslim minority (some examples here), whom many Burmese claim are Bengali immigrants, with their dark skin often cited as proof that their origins lie outside of Burma. Advocacy groups counter this by arguing that in Arakan state Islam traces back to before the spread of the now dominant Theravada Buddhism.
Debating their origins however is somewhat extraneous to the inquiry we should be having – few ask why this deep-seated fear of the Rohingya exists among Burmese, and moreover how society there will reconcile the fact that current reforms are means to open up the country to the outside world, an inevitable by-product of which will be a greater foreign presence. Burma’s borders have historically been porous enough to allow huge migration of peoples into and out of the country, and while this has not always sat easily with Burmese (note the anti-Chinese riots in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and indeed current animosity at the huge presence of Chinese in places like Mandalay, many of whom, unlike the Rohingya, are granted legal status), its xenophobia needs to be addressed now more than ever as it attempts to join a globalised world.
In a country where persecution against ethnic minorities makes regular headlines, the plight of the Rohingya is woefully underreported. Moreover, very justifiable claims from Burmese across the spectrum of egregious abuses committed against them by the government do not stretch to the Rohingya, who are seen as foreign infiltrators and therefore not deserving of the world’s sympathy and assistance. That hypocrisy is publicly reinforced by the government – the head of The Arakan Project, Chris Lewa, told me that she came face to face with Burma’s representative at the UN upon submitting the report to the CRC:
“As the experts insisted on a reply, the Burmese [representative] Maung Wai took the floor and just claimed that he recognized that there was a problem in Northern [Arakan] state, which was illegal immigration. Not surprisingly, he said that there was no Rohingya in Myanmar and that Rohingya is not one of the 135 national races … Then a Committee member asked how he called them. He replied Bengali.”
Note also that current sitting ambassador to the UN, Ye Myint Aung, wrote in a letter to fellow diplomats during his prior tenure as Consul-General to Hong Kong that Rohingya were “ugly as ogres”.
Up to 400,000 are believed to be living in neighbouring Bangladesh, only 28,000 of whom can receive official assistance from the UN (Dhaka worries that additional assistance would act as a pull-factor for those Rohingya still in Burma). Each year hundreds make the perilous ocean voyage from Bangladesh to Thailand or Malaysia in search of work and safer refuge, often meeting grisly ends – in January 2009 Thai coastguards pushed a boat packed with around 190 refugees that had washed up on its southern coast back out to sea and left them to die.
Last year a boatload of Rohingya that only made it as far as southern Burma were brought ashore, and the 63 on board jailed on immigration charges.
The CRC is due to issue concluding observations on The Arakan Project’s report on February 3. How that will affect the fate of Rohingya, described by Medicins Sans Frontierés as one of the world minority groups “most in danger of extinction”, remains to be seen, but between the praise and condemnation of Burma’s government by the international community, their names are not uttered. Wisened Burma observers know that the country’s ills cannot be solved overnight, no matter how many ceasefires or reforms are enacted, and weeding out such entrenched and vitriolic discrimination from Burmese society will be a very long, very painful process.