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Daw Khin Hla: “No Country for Rohingyas: A Refugee’s Appeal to End Myanmar’s Slow Genocide”

Photo: Christopher Olssøn Copyright:2015 © littleimagebank

Ladies, Gentlemen, Reverends and Sayadaw,

Thank you very much for giving me an opportunity to make an urgent appeal on behalf of fellow Rohingya peoples back home in Burma, and in diaspora. 

I’m Daw Khin Hla, a Rohingya woman born in Arakan State of Burma in 1953. Until I left from Burma, I worked as government middle school teacher. I was born in Burma, a native of Arakan soil – just like my ancestors who lived from cradle to grave – as the indigenous people of our land – now sandwiched between present-day Burma and present-day Bangladesh.

Today I would like to appeal to you to help restore our nationality, full citizenship and basic rights as humans in the country of our fore-fathers and –mothers in Burma. 

First, how were we in the past? How are we today? And how did we get here – as a people with a distinct identity who are being punished if we say we are ‘Rohingyas’. Do people not have the right to identify as so-and-so ethnic community? 

Following our country’s independence from Britain in 1948, we the Rohingyas did not need to apply for citizenship. We WERE considered officially as full citizens of the newly independent Burma. We were officially recognized as a distinct ethnic group living along cross-national borders and indigenous to our own ancestral land, just like any other indigenous ethnic groups you find along Burma’s long and porous borders with India, China, Thailand, and Laos.

When the first post-independence government of Prime Minister U Nu took office in 1948, my grandfather, a self-identified Rohingya, applied for the Union of Burma citizenship as he thought he needed to as power now rested with the new government. The relevant line-ministry replied in writing that he didn’t need to apply as he belonged to an indigenous ethnic group of the multi-ethnic Union of Burma.

When I was a young, student we Rohingya children had full access to schooling; we enjoyed full freedom of movement; we could move from one neighborhood to another, from one village to another, from one town to another and from one state to another within Burma. There was not even the idea – let along a national policy - of severely restricting our marriages, childbirth or family size. 

But all this had changed when General Ne Win, well-known for his violent streak as a person and xenophobia – towards Christians, Muslims, Europeans, Indians, Chinese and so on. He considered anyone who looked different, believed in a different god, or talked different as completely ‘untrustworthy’. Indeed anyone deemed ‘un-trust-worthy’ is perceived as a threat to nationality. 

So, in a little over a decade since he became military dictator, the military government of General Ne Win launched many violent operations against us the Rohingyas. The first large-scale campaign to drive us out of our own ancestral land began in February 1978. Under the disguise of immigration check – widely known as Na Ga Min or King Dragon operation - what was essentially a counter-insurgency campaign aimed at anyone who was not Buddhist and Burmese from strategic border regions. - was launched. Because we the Rohingyas have had a single demarcated geographic pocket – as opposed to being spread out and scattered across we were singled out for persecution since. 

One of the measures General Ne Win’s government, with a push for anti-Rohingya Rakhine nationalists, was the passage of 1982 Citizenship Act. The Citizenship Act stripped us of our nationality status and erased our ethnic identity. 

After the racially motivated law came into effect in the fall of 1982, hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas who had held national registration IDs were issued Temporary registration cards or “White Cards” so-called. A few months ago, the Burmese government de-recognized the White Cards and confiscated them, rendering the Rohingya people absolutely without any semblance or proof of their legal standing as Burmese citizens and lawful residents in our own country. Today, nearly 1 million of my fellow Rohingyas people, have absolutely no legal existence as a people. Thousands of my own fellow Rohingyas live in ghetto-like conditions where armed guards stand, ready to shoot and abuse. And yet the government of Thein Sein tell the people the Rohingyas are kept in these neighborhoods and camps ‘for their own protection’. Over the last nearly 40 years the level of restrictions, repression, abuse and deprivation has progressively increased. When foreign NGOs and researchers describe Rohingya neighborhoods as ‘vast open prisons’ – or refer to them as ‘21st century concentration camps’, they are not exaggerating. 

Burmese central government has imposed measures to regulate, control and restrict every single aspect of life for the Rohingyas as a human community: freedom of movement, choice of marriage, access to schooling and health clinics, place of worship, opportunities to grow food or hold employments, and even the right to identify ourselves as Rohingya ethnic people. Everything we do has to be approved in writing by the authorities. The approval is obtained only by bribing local authorities. Indeed the Burmese regime and its officials have learned to turn our oppression into a profitable business. We have been subject to chronic waves of violence, both by the anti-Rohingya Rakhine nationalists and by the state security troops such as police, border guard force and regular army and navy. Our people live in constant and profound fear of not knowing where the next meal would come from, when the next wave of mass violence awaits or whether who will die or who will live on our own ancestral soil.

The Rohingyas are fleeing out of fear of death and destruction at the hands of the local Rakhine nationalists and central government’s troops. They are fleeing conditions of life on the land of their birth that they know are meant or design to destroy their lives, their communities, their children. They are fleeing extreme, systematic and decades-long repression and policies designed to erase our identity, our physical and legal existence – in our own ancestral land. 

Some of you will recall that like the African dictator Ide Amin of Uganda, General Ne Win’s military drove hundreds of thousands of Chinese and Indians out of Burma in his 26-years in power. This is the same Ne Win regime that has instituted a long-term policy to destroy our Rohingya community on our own ancestral land. The present government of ex-General Thein Sein is simply continuing the Burmese military’s policy of Rohingya destruction. In fact, President Thein Sein and his government deny persistently that we the Rohingyas are a part of Burma, in the face of irrefutable and official evidence of our ethnic identity. He reportedly and officially proposed to the UN to expel and resettle more than 1 million of our Rohingya people in 3 countries, or build a UN-financed apartheid in our own land. I was very much saddened to hear that this ex-General Thein Sein was nominated – and even short-listed – for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013. I thank the Norwegian Nobel Committee for wisely choosing not confer him the supreme honor and recognition which he definitely didn’t and doesn’t deserve. 

In the last 3 years, UN has estimated that 150,000 Rohingyas – including mothers with new born babies - have fled the country under President Thein Sein’s watch. Since 1978, Burmese military governments have terrorized our community so much so that today almost half the total population of Rohingyas have been forced to settle across the world, including here in Norway. It is the other half – over 1 million – who are being subject to central policy of destruction. 

No one wants to leave home, especially the homes and the land where they were both; but when the Rohingyas do taking their infants and elderly relatives, they are fleeing for their lives. 

On behalf of my fellow Rohingyas who are stranded in dangerous high seas with no food or water, dying slowing in vast ghettos with no adequate food or medicine, I appeal to you today to stand with us in our darkest hours of needs. Norway is considered around the world a special country, small but influential promoter of peace and reconciliation around the world. I would like to direct my appeal to the Norwegian people and the government that as you engage with my country of birth, diplomatically, commercially and politically, please put the sufferings of our people on your policy priorities. I know that Norway considers Myanmar or Burma as one of the ‘focus’ countries important to Norway and Norway is involved in supporting “peace process” in Burma. I appeal to the Norwegian public and leaders that we too deserve a life in peace, a life where we are allowed to call ourselves by the name we choose, a life where our new born are not denied nutrition or legality. Lastly, I appeal to the world’s fellow humans to lend us a hand of compassion so that our people no longer suffer from cradle to grave. 

I thank you from the bottom of my heart. 

May God Bless you all.

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Rohingya Exodus