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Burmese concentration camps for the Rohingya

(Photo: Reuters)

October 7, 2014

The latest insidious move by the Burmese government against its 1.1 million Rohingya Muslims is arguably the most sinister yet. Having ignored this not insignificant part of its population in the just completed census, it is now seeking to marginalize the community further with a Catch22 offer of citizenship.

Every Rohingya is being required to register in what at first sight looks like a belated attempt to include them in the census. In response to international outrage at their exclusion, officials are saying that the only way that the Burmese citizenship, which is currently denied to all Rohingya, can be obtained is by registering as “Bengalis”. This, however, is the term that Burmese governments have long used to identify the Rohingya as non-Burmese. It is the official claim that the community is made up of unauthorized immigrants from Bengal. This entirely ignores the historical truth that a Rohingya community has existed in Burma for many generations. 

The government is saying that once a Rohingya has registered, he or she “may” be “considered” for Burmese citizenship. This, even though the very act of accepting the identity of “Bengali” has effectively disqualified someone from obtaining the Burmese identity that has been so long denied this beleaguered community. 

This, however, is not the end of the menacing maneuver that the Burmese president Thein Sein is undertaking. 

Those who do not register will be obliged to go into special camps for “aliens”. Now there are already some 140,000 luckless Rohingya who have been incarcerated in compounds following the murderous rampage of Buddhist bigots two years ago. What had originally appeared to their frightened inhabitants as places of shelter have turned out to be prisons closely guarded by soldiers. Given that both the police and army largely stood by and did nothing during the 2012 riots, if they did not indeed actually join in the butchery, the harsh management of the existing camps should be no surprise.

Now the Thein Sein regime, with its no-win trick offer, is proposing to lock up the entire Rohingya population. There is no longer any pretense that this will be done for the community’s own protection. This outrageous change is nothing more than the creation of concentration camps designed to exterminate the identity of the Rohingya, if not the people themselves. All the community’s settlements, farms and businesses would be emptied, no doubt to be taken over by Buddhists. The ultimate goal would be the enforced “repatriation” of those of the concentration camp occupants who survived their imprisonment, to Bangladesh or Indian Bengal.

The Rohingya are a people without a voice. Those who seek to protest, most recently like 75-year-old human rights activist Kyaw Hla Aung, are being sentenced to jail. 

It is high time that Washington and Brussels drew the line on the warm welcome they have accorded Burma. The rehabilitation of the country must be put into reverse unless and until the reprehensible treatment of a helpless Muslim minority comes to an end and the Rohingya are awarded the status of full citizens in a country which they have always called their home. The international community can no longer collude in something which is so clearly a crime against humanity.

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