Myanmar Blockades Rohingya, Tries to Erase Name
By Robin McDowell
October 8, 2014
Authorities sealed off villages for months in Myanmar's only Muslim-majority region and in some cases beat and arrested people who refused to register with immigration officials, residents and activists say, in what may be the most aggressive effort yet to compel Rohingya to identify themselves as migrants from neighboring Bangladesh.
Immigration officials, border guards and members of the illegal-alien task force in the northern tip of Rakhine state — home to 90 percent of the country's 1.3 million Rohingya — said they were simply updating family lists, as they have in the past. But this year, in addition to questions about marriages, deaths and births, people were classified by ethnicity.
The government denies the existence of Rohingya in the country, saying those who claim the ethnicity are actually Bengalis. Residents said those who refused to take part suffered the consequences.
"We are trapped," Khin Maung Win said last week. He said authorities started setting up police checkpoints outside his village, Kyee Kan Pyin, in mid-September, preventing people from leaving even to shop for food in local markets, work in surrounding paddies or bring children to school.
"If we don't have letters and paperwork showing we took part — that we are Bengali — we can't leave," he said.
Chris Lewa of the Arakan Project, which has been advocating on behalf of the Rohingya for more than a decade, said residents reported incidents of violence and abuse in at least 30 village tracts from June to late September. While blockades have since been lifted, arrests continue, with dozens of Rohingya men being rounded up for alleged ties to Islamic militants in the last week.
Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist nation, surprised the world in 2011 when a half-century of military rule ended and President Thein Sein, a former general, started steering the country toward democracy. Critics, however, say reforms have stalled. Peaceful protesters are again being thrown in jail; journalists increasingly face intimidation, or even imprisonment with hard labor.
Most worrying to many, the government has largely stood by as Buddhist extremists have targeted Rohingya, sometimes with machetes and bamboo clubs, saying they pose a threat to the country's culture and traditions.
Denied citizenship by national law, even though many of their families arrived in Myanmar from Bangladesh generations ago, members of the religious minority are effectively stateless, wanted by neither country. They feel they are being systematically erased.
Almost all Rohingya were excluded from a U.N.-funded nationwide census earlier this year, the first in three decades, because they did not want to register as Bengalis. And Thein Sein is considering a "Rakhine Action Plan" that would make people who identify themselves as Rohingya not only ineligible for citizenship but candidates for detainment and possible deportation.
Most Rohingya have lived under apartheid-like conditions in northern Rakhine for decades, with limited access to adequate health care, education and jobs, as well as restrictions on travel and the right to practice their faith.
In 2012, Buddhist extremists killed up to 280 people and displaced tens of thousands of others. About 140,000 people of those forced from their homes continue to languish in crowded displacement camps further south, outside Sittwe, the Rakhine state capital.