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Myanmar ‘effectively a state of apartheid’ for Muslims

Rohingya refugees pray in a slum outside New Delhi. Source: AP

By Michael Sheridan 
September 21, 2015

Lashed by the monsoon rains and watched by hostile neighbours, the families crowding into squalid camps along the Bay of Bengal are the forgotten people in Myanmar’s general election.

They will not be taking part. A ruthless and systematic campaign of disenfranchisement has stripped half a million of them of their right to vote in a poll hailed abroad as the most free and fair in the country’s history.

As opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi launched her campaign this month, saying “democracy gives people freedom and security”, members of a Muslim minority known as Rohingya discovered most of their community had vanished from election rolls.

Foreign diplomats in Yangon fear the transition to democracy has gone badly wrong. Myanmar, human rights activists fear, is sliding towards apartheid.

Many have criticised Ms Suu Kyi for failing to speak out ­directly in support of the ­Rohingya — even though she herself is a victim of institutional prejudice. Her party, the National League for Democracy, may win the most votes but under Myanmar’s constitution she cannot become president because her late husband, Michael Aris, was British, as are her sons, Alexander and Kim.

Instead the job could go once again to the man behind the moves to strip the Rohingya of their voting rights — President Thein Sein, a former general.

He boasted in a video message of his personal part in banning the Rohingya and in shaping new, discriminatory, laws to protect “race and religion”.

“There’s a mobilisation of bias and hatred against the Rohingya across Burmese society and the government is jumping on this,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division at Human Rights Watch.

Militant Buddhist monks started the campaign against the 1.1 million Rohingya, a stateless people seen as “Bengali” immigrants even though for generations many have served Myanmar as soldiers, policemen and civil servants.

Tens of thousands of them have been forced to hand over the white identity cards that gave them a precarious status in Myanmar.

More than 25,000 fled in rickety boats across the Andaman Sea earlier this year, many falling victim to people-smugglers, ­extortion, kidnap and murder.

About 140,000 remain confined in the camps in Rakhine state — also known as Arakan — trapped by local militias and police who seized control of schools and hospitals and succeeded in driving out most international aid groups.

“Their situation is horrific — there is not enough food, completely inadequate medical services, no access to education, no livelihoods. It’s effectively a state of apartheid,” said Mr Robertson, citing the latest reports from aid workers.

“A lot of the Rohingya have realised that the future for them in Myanmar has gone.”

They have slipped from sight as attention has moved on to fresh crises. But ominous signs are multiplying for a group that has been called the world’s most persecuted people.

The government rejected an appeal by nine foreign embassies, including those of Britain and the US, for “tolerance, mutual respect and equality under the law to ensure the elections are peaceful and inclusive”.

Western influence in Myanmar — a strategic prize poised between China and India that has lured British Prime Minister David Cameron and US President Barack Obama to visit its “reformers” — appears minimal.

Four bills passed by parliament will force women to apply for permission to marry a Muslim, require anyone changing religion to seek state approval, restrict women in certain regions to having one child every three years and outlaw polygamy.

The laws are meant to stop what Buddhist chauvinists claim is a threat from the small Muslim community. “They are an unmitigated rights disaster,” said Mr Robertson.

Buddhist hardliners argue the Rohingya are “a spearhead” and should be sent to Bangladesh ­because they are ethnic Bengalis.

“Some are planning to control our country by pointing to the boat people and the Rohingya,” said the Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu, leader of a militant ­clergy faction that calls itself the Committee for the Protection of Nationality and Religion.

“If about 60 million people from Bangladesh come into our country, Myanmar will be under other countries’ control,” he said.

There are few reliable statistics in Myanmar, but a census put the population at about 51 million last year; the CIA World Factbook ­estimates 4 per cent are Muslims.

Sectarian intolerance has expanded beyond the Rohingya to all Muslims. Not one Muslim candidate has passed stringent citizenship tests imposed on anyone who wants to run for parliament.

Last week a new investigative team of local journalists, Myanmar Now, exposed official support for a campaign by an extremist group to boycott Muslim businesses.

The elections on November 8 will choose representatives for parliament and regional assemblies. In the Rohingya camps, many people will not wait for the results. When the monsoon ends late next month and the seas calm down, aid workers say they will take to the boats once again.

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