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Rohingyas in apartheid Burma

Displaced Muslims wait outside a humanitarian centre for aid at a camp on the outskirt of Sittwe, Rakhine state, western Myanmar on February 26. (Photo: AFP/Soe Than Win)

By CR Abrar
March 16, 2014

IF PRESS reports are anything to go by, then it may be reasonably construed that the recent efforts of the Bangladesh prime minister to engage the Burmese authorities on Rohingya refugees in this country have fallen on deaf ears. The Burmese reaction has been consistent with the regime’s general approach to the Rohingya issue. 

There has been little change in the overall situation in the Arakan state. The communities remain largely segregated, the internally displaced Rohingyas are housed in atrocious camp conditions with a plethora of restrictions on movement of people and goods in and out of such camps, anti-Muslim feelings are rife with Buddhist monks whipping up such sentiments, the administrative and judicial structures of the state do not even pretend to be neutral, the members of law enforcement agencies continue to hunt and target Muslim ‘terrorists’, forcible relocation of Rohingyas continue unabated, the leading voices of opposition are yet to take on board the demand for the restoration of citizenship rights of the Rohingyas and the like. 

Eyewitness accounts provide a gloomy picture of the situation prevailing in Sittwe. The Muslim quarter of Aung Mingalar has now become a virtual ghost town. Total restrictions have been imposed on the freedom of movements of a few thousand of its residents who are still hanging on to their ancestral homes. This part of the town, once known for the bustling activism of Muslim entrepreneurs, has become practically dead. The lively markets have been replaced by rickety tabletop sale of noodle packets and stale vegetables. Only one primary school is in operation. The Muslim identity of the residents of this quarter acts as legal bar on them to do grocery shopping in a municipal market located just at a stone’s throw. Lack of food and nutrition is taking toll on the population, particularly the children and the elderly. Since early 2013 the population of Aung Mingalar has experienced almost total incarceration. 

As conditions deteriorated with successive waves of violence meted out against the Muslims, the overwhelming bulk of the residents had little option but to move to the state-sponsored camps, just outside Sittwe. Stark contrast is obvious between the camps that are set up for the Buddhist victims of violence, and the camps that house about 130,000 Muslims. While the Buddhist camps are provided with basic utility services and inmates are catered with regular supplies of food and daily necessities, those in the Muslim camps are living in sub-human conditions. The option of moving out of the camp is not open for the Muslims. Government regulations bar them to undertake such a venture. Many families continue to remain split since the days of violence in 2012. 

There is a dearth of information on the situation prevailing in Muslim majority Mangdaw and Buthidaung districts. Sporadic reports of independent observers and international human rights organisations suggest that very little change has occurred for the Rohingyas. The recent measure to expel the Nobel Prize winning Doctors without Frontiers (MSF) from the Arakan state has only exposed the sensitivity of the Burmese state of the presence of outsiders in the Arakan state. The government accusations that the MSF appointed more foreign staff than authorised and was biased towards the Muslims in the delivery of services were not convincing. Observers believe that the organisation’s confirmation of treating a certain number of the injured in Du Chee Yar Tan village during the January 13 massacre in the region triggered the retaliatory government action. Earlier, the authorities denied occurrence of any such massacre.

The forcible relocation of the Muslims from their own homes and districts is being accompanied by active encouragement to Buddhists to migrate to the erstwhile Muslim living quarters. Reports are also rife that the Burmese government is inducing the Rakhine Buddhists of the Bangladeshi side to move and settle on the Burmese side. All these actions would facilitate the Burmese authorities’ agenda of ethnic cleansing of the Muslims on the one hand, and instituting a pure Buddhist population in the Arakan state on the other. 

It is worrisome that there is little resistance to this government plan. The democratic movement in Burma continues to view the Rohingya question through the same lens that the regime does. In that sense there is hardly any difference between the government and so-called democratic opposition, including Aung San Su Kyi’s National League for Democracy. The Rohingya question has exposed the hypocrisy of the so-called liberal democrats in Burma, the 88 Generation (88G) who earned national fame as heroes of resistance to the military dictatorship. Instead of standing up for the rights and dignity of the oppressed Rohingyas, the leading figures of the 88G have also joined the anti-Rohingya chorus. Their actions supplement the agenda of chauvinist monks who have become the most vocal proponents for expulsion of the Rohingyas. Under the pretext of national security the government has been empowering the Buddhist gangs. 

There are reports of merger of Rakhine armed groups to protect ‘the Fatherland’ from twin threats of Burmanisation and Islamisation. The Arakan Army based in the Kachin state is also actively engaged in anti-Muslim campaign. All these armed groups have earned notoriety for planning and orchestrating anti-Muslim violence.

The anti-Muslim agenda of the Burmese state and its cohorts find its obvious manifestation in the recommendation of the Rakhine Truth Finding Committee set up to investigate into the communal violence that flared up in 2012. One of its reprehensible recommendations has been a two-child policy for Muslims of Mangdaw and Buthingdaung. The recommendation has found many takers in positions of authority in Burma and may soon be turned into a law. 

The recent leaked Burmese official documents reveal that the policies of restrictions on movement, marriage, childbirth, home repairs and construction of houses of worship, and other aspects of everyday life of the Rohingyas are the result of formulation and implementation of coordinated policies of the Rakhine state and central government authorities. One may therefore surmise that for all practical purposes the Burmese state’s ethnic cleansing is being supplemented by a policy of apartheid for the Muslims who refuse to flee the country.

In responding to the international concern and criticism, the Burmese leaders promised to bring about change. However, despite making such promise, the regime has not given any indication of creating necessary enabling condition so that those displaced within the country and those who fled overseas to escape persecution could consider returning home and getting rehabilitated in dignity. On the contrary, there is every reason to believe that the Burmese state remains firmly committed to expelling and marginalising the Muslims. 

Under such conditions one can safely argue life and liberty of the Rohingyas could be at stake if they return to Burma and those fleeing the country deserve to be accorded with refugee status. Any departure from this would be tantamount to abdicating international humanitarianism and violating the long-cherished principle of non-refoulement. 

CR Abrar teaches international relations and coordinates the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit at the University of Dhaka.

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