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Rohingya refugees sceptical of Burmese reforms

Recent arrivals are particularly pessimistic (Photo: Kyle Knight/IRIN)

November 13, 2013

COX'S BAZAR - Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh who fled sectarian violence in neighbouring Myanmar in 2012 have little faith in the much heralded democratic reforms taking place at home. 

"We have been suffering for generations," Muhammad Zakaria, 31, who fled his home in Myanmar's western Rakhine State after the first wave of sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslims in June 2012, told IRIN. 

"Dating back to my grandfather's time, we haven't found peace. So I'm not really sure if any of these reforms happen it will bring peace." 

Rohingyas, an ethnic, linguistic and religious (Muslim) minority numbering some 800,000 in Rakhine, have long faced persecution and discrimination in Myanmar.

In Myanmar they are de jure stateless and considered undocumented immigrants.

According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 180,000 people are in need in Rakhine State. 

Of these, 140,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs), the vast majority Rohingyas, are living in dozens of camps and camp-like settings, with close to 40,000 others living in isolated and remote host communities in Minbya, Myebon, Pauktaw, Mrauk-U, Kyauktaw and Sittwe townships. 

Many face severe restrictions on their movements, leaving them excluded from local markets, schools and income-generating activities. 

Tensions continue 

Inter-communal tensions between Rohingyas and ethic Rakhine (Buddhist) residents have continued to simmer since 2012. 

On 2 November, a group of Rohingya IDPs were attacked by Buddhist Rakhine residents while collecting firewood outside the Sin Tat Maw IDP camp in Pauktaw Township, resulting in at least two deaths, with several others injured; Pauktaw is still tense. 

Seven people were also killed after a dispute between a Kaman* shop owner and Rakhine motorcycle taxi driver in Thandwe Township, in southwestern Rakhine between 29 September and 2 October 2013. 

Since 2012, thousands of Rohingyas have reportedly fled the country, mostly to neighbouring Bangladesh, though no exact figures are available. There they joined more than 200,000 Rohingya refugees who fled decades earlier and are mostly undocumented. 

On 5 November the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) called on the Burmese government and the international community to do more to promote reconciliation and coexistence in Rakhine after dozens of Rohingyas lost their lives trying to flee Myanmar by boat.

Some Rohingya refugees have been in Bangladesh for decades (Photo: Kyle Knight/IRIN)
"As with recent boat disasters on the Mediterranean, UNHCR's worry is that similar tragedies will follow unless actions are taken by concerned countries to address the causes and reduce the risks for those involved in dangerous journeys by sea," Adrian Edwards, an agency spokesperson, told reporters. "2013 is by all accounts one of the worst years in terms of deadly incidents at sea." 

Life in Burma for Rohingyas is not easy. 

"These days in Burma just going from one school to another, going from one village to another, going from one door to another we need a paper," said Zakaria, recalling the restrictions on Rohingya movements. 

Rahima Fatun, 40, who fled Myanmar after the June 2012 violence, said she ran through the jungle with two other women, who were allegedly shot and killed by border police, to reach Bangladesh. 

"We left because there was so much pain for us - we could not move, even as the country was developing. We could not go from one place to another," she said. 

Democratic reform and peace hopes for Rakhine State have been dashed by the continued political campaign against Rohingyas, including, according to a 2013 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, "the statements and actions of some of Burma's prominent democracy activists, including opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi". 

Asked about her faith in the potential for peace between Muslims and Buddhists in Myanmar, Fatun said: "If Aung San Suu Kyi were a Muslim, only then would I feel that something good would happen - I wish she was a Muslim, then we could know for sure that she would help us." 

Security reforms or cosmetic change? 

Earlier this year, the Burmese government disbanded Nasaka, a controversial security force charged with patrolling the border and, according to theInternational Crisis Group (ICG), "enforcing the various discriminatory policies against the Rohingya". 

"No other existing agency is likely to have the power and the reach of the Nasaka, and its abolition should reduce the level of abuse faced by the Rohingya," wrote ICG. 

But not everyone is convinced. 

"Even if they removed the Nasaka from Rakhine. it's just an eyewash, nothing will actually change," Zakaria said, echoing an HRW statement indicating that Nasaka's demise was a "smokescreen". 

"It has to come from the international community," said Zakaria. "If different countries pressure the government enough, then something good might happen. Other than that I don't see any hope for the Rohingya." 

Two bouts of inter-communal violence between Buddhist ethnic Rakhine residents and Muslim Rohingyas in June and October 2012 left 167 people dead and more than 10,000 homes and buildings destroyed. 

*The 1982 Myanmar citizenship law recognizes the Muslim Kaman population as one of the country's 135 official ethnic groups.

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