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Despite improvements Burma’s Rohingya remain a persecuted minority, says MEP

(Photo: AP)

By Jean Lambert
December 1, 2013

Despite some progress in Burma the Rohingya community continues to be persecuted and more must be done, argues Jean Lambert. 

Among the world’s least wanted and one of the world’s most persecuted minorities, the Rohingya community of Burma, have been prosecuted and discriminated against for decades in what is described by some as “ethnic cleansing with genocidal dimensions”.

Last May, president Obama honored president Thein Sein, of Myanmar, for the progress made in his country in opening to the west and providing more freedoms to its people. Despite the improvements made in Myanmar, mostly related to greater access to the media and the press, release of political prisoners and a more friendly environment for international investments, the Rohingya people are still being treated as unwanted, facing violence, rape, torture and killings.

The Rohingya people, a Muslim ethnic group that is originally found in the Rakhine area, have been prosecuted by the Burmese junta already from the 1978 with about 200,000 fleeing to neighboring Bangladesh to save their lives. After the 1982 citizenship act, the Rohingya people were stripped of their citizenship and have since been required to obtain permission to travel within the country, are denied the right to own land and are not allowed to have more than two children. 

During the 1991-1992 events, another 250,000 were forced to leave their homes and flee to Bangladesh: the EU has supported UNHCR in its work with there. According to an Amnesty International report, the Rohingya were forced to work without pay by the Burmese army on infrastructure and economic projects, often under harsh conditions in addition to summary executions, torture and rape. Further, another 111,000 fled over time to Thailand, spread over 9 camps at the Thai-Myanmar borders. After 2005, efforts have been made by international organisations to repatriate these people, but even on the few occasions when this was possible, the Rohingya have been still forced to live in camps, excluded from the outside world or even facing further prosecution where they managed to reach their old homes. 

In commemorating these events, the Holocaust memorial museum in Washington has been exhibiting since 6 November, photographs of homeless Rohingya, projected on the outside walls of the museum just a couple of blocks where a few months earlier president Thein Sein, a former army general, was being praised for his new policy in the country. This exhibition has made quite an impact on the people passing by and even on the Myanmar government itself, with Ye Lwin, minister-counsellor at the Myanmar Embassy in Washington, stating that “It is not appropriate that the Holocaust museum should conduct such an exhibition depicting the situation in Myanmar as the Rohingya issue is not related to genocide”.

Nevertheless, despite its commitments to the international community to prevent sectarian violence between the Rohingya and the ethnic Rakhine Buddhists, Burma’s government has yet failed to prevent another incident added to the long history of human rights violations and prosecution that follows the Rohingya. After the 2012 Rakhine state riots, according to estimated data, 650 Rohingyas are killed, 1200 are missing and up to 140,000 have been displaced. The European parliament has passed two resolutions in the last few months on the situation of the Rohingya people.

In bringing the current situation to light, the European parliament is hosting in its turn the same photographic exhibition that is being presented at the Holocaust memorial museum in Washington. Greg Constantine, an award winning photographer, will be presenting, from the 26 November, his work in capturing the pain and suffering of these people that have been denied everything in life, their home, their family, their religion, their own existence, in an effort to bring together Europe and the rest of the world so that the Rohingya people will finally be able to claim their right to live.

Jean Lambert is chair of parliament's delegation for relations with the countries of South Asia.

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