It is not often you meet someone who tells you that he is from “a people at the brink of extermination.” But the testimonies from refugees in a remote corner of southern Bangladesh, on the border with Burma, justify that assessment. For the Rohingya people, a Muslim minority in northern Arakan State, western Burma, are a stateless people whose very identity is denied.
Arakan, a geographically isolated area in western Myanmar, a mountain range separating it from central Burma, had been an independent kingdom until 1784.It is named by the present regime as the Rakhine state. Two major ethnic races ,the Rohingya(Muslims) and the Rakhine ( Buddhists) inhabit Arakan. The unofficial total population of Arakan is more than 5 million including about 1,5 million Rohingyas. At present both the races stand at almost equal proportions inside Arakan. Rohingyas have been living in Arakan from time immemorial. They are a people with a distinct culture and civilization of their own. They trace their ancestry to Arabs, Moors, Pathans, Moguls, Bengali and some Indo-Mongoloid people. Early Muslim settlements in Arakan date back to the 7th century AD.
The Naaf river marks part of the border between Bangladesh and Burma. The Arab traders have been in contact with Arakan since the third century and they had introduced Islam to Arakan around 788 CE. During that time a dynasty, Chandra was ruling the kingdom of Arakan. The Arab merchants carried out missionary activities by spreading Islam side by side with their trade. In the process, a large number of people were converted to Islam. Many of the Arab traders married to local women and settled there permanently. Due to conversion, inter-marriage and migration ,the Muslim population grew to large numbers during the subsequent centuries. These Muslims came to be known as Rohingyas, a term derived from the Arabic term ” Raham” ( God blessing ). Until the 15th century Arakan was ruled by a non-Muslim king, Narameikhala, who himself embraced Islam in 1404 and adopted the Muslim name of Solaiman Shah. After the death of last Muslim king Solaiman Shah 11 Buddhism had arrived in the region from Tibet, Mongolia. By the middle of the 10th century, the Mongolian race Barman’s mostly Buddhists had established their of power in Burma proper. During the decaying years of Muslim rule in Arakan a Burman king of Ava, Bodaw Phaya invaded Arakan and gained control of Arakan in 1784. Thus came the end of Independent Arakan.
In 1824, the British East India Company invaded Burma and through the Anglo-Burma war Arakan came under the sway of the British. The whole of Burma including Arakan was brought under the Indian system of Administration. During the colonial rule the British were not interested in the national integration of diverse communities in Burma. On the contrary, those divisions were used for prolonging colonial rule with its policy of ” divide and rule”. The Nationalist leader General Aung San convened a conference of all ethnic groups at Pang long in 1947. It was agreed that all states would be given regional Autonomy with the provision of seceding after 10 years of Independence. However, the constitution which was adopted after Aung San death declared that the new state called Burma would be unitary in character, with no Autonomy for the provinces. The constitution caused immediate ethnic insurrection which became worse after 1958, even though, the Prime minister U Nu had declared Buddhism as the state religion of the country to appease the ethnic groups, as a great majority of them were Buddhists. However their further alienated the Muslims in Arakan who felt more insecure in Independent Burma. The government dismissed many Muslim officers and replaced them with Buddhists in Arakan. An all-out effort was made to transmigrate Buddhists from Burma proper to Arakan in order to diminish the Muslim majority.
After the Independence civil war broke out when many ethnic Nationalities and the communist party of Burma (CPB) took up arms against the central government headed by U Nu. In Rakhine state both Rakhines and Muslims groups formed armed opposition groups who fought against the government. In the late 1950`s when the government started discriminating against the Muslims a Japanese trained Rohingya, Jafar Kawal organized people, calling them mujaheeds. However, against the trained Burmese soldiers the mujaheeds could not last long. Jafar Kawal was assassinated. Many of his supporters were captured and killed. By 1962 the civilian government had also collapsed and the army took over. The military regime abolished the constitution, dissolved the parliament and banned the activities of all organizations. The Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) inflicted heavy casualties on the Rohingya masses. General Ne Win launched a major offensive under the code name of ” King Dragon Offensive” against the Rohingya liberation force.
The state Peace and Development Council(SPDC), supreme body of the regime rejects the existence of a separate ethnic group called “Rohingya”. They are not recognized as one of the 135 national races by Myanmar government. As per the rules stated in section 3 of the 1982 citizenship Law, the Rohingyas are not considered to be a National ethnic group and therefore, they are not qualified to obtain full citizenship. However, the family list only indicates names of family members and date of birth. It may not indicate place of birth, which in-effect prevents people from furnishing conclusive evidence of birth in Myanmar as required by the 1982 Law. Thus the theoretical entitlement to citizenship for Rohingyas becomes meaningless in practice. In fact, the 1982 act was specially designed effectively to deny the Rohingyas the right to a nationality because the promulgation of this law took place soon after the Rohingyas who fled to Bangladesh during 1978 had been repatriated. According to a report by Amnesty International this law is certainly discriminatory and is in clear violation of Myanmar’s obligation as a state and a member of the UN to protect and respect human rights without distinction, such as race, color, sex, Language, religion Political or other opinion , national or social origin, property, birth or other status.
Restriction on mobility
The military regime has prohibited the Rohingyas ,their rights to freedom of movement and selection of their place of residence within the state. According to the Law, Rohingyas in northern Arakan state must routinely apply for permission before traveling to other villages or towns. However, this law does not apply to the Rakhine population in the same Rakhine state. Travel restrictions have further increased following the out break of communal violence in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state in February,2001.Their inability to travel freely, greatly inhibits the Rohingyas ability to earn a living and obtain proper health care. Freedom of movement is a fundamental human rights. Upon which other human rights are contingent. Article 13 of the UDHR ( Universal Declaration of Human Rights) states,” every one has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the border of each state.” The sweeping restrictions on the movement of Rohingyas are disproportionate and discriminatory; they are imposed on all Rohingyas because they are Rohingya and not on members of other ethnic nationalities in Rakhine state. They are broad and indiscriminate in their application and as such are unlawful.
Forced labor on infrastructure projects mainly road is one of the most common forms of the practice in Myanmar. But those who can pay a bribe to the authorities can be excused from forced labor. The practice of forced labor prevents the poorer Rohingyas from having sufficient time to earn cash income to sustain them and achieve food security for their families.
Model villages for non-Rohingyas
The creation of model villages is a unique way of terrorizing the Rohingyas in the Rakhine state. Many Rakhine Buddhits and other non-Rohingyas are relocated to especially established model villages in northern Arakan from other parts of the Arakan state. Others include poor Bama from the central plains, retired civil servants, former prisoners, former insurgents and ethnic minorities such as the Kamein, Daingnet, Mro and Thet, who live in the high lands near the border with Bangladesh and Chin state. There are 26 model villages in Maung Daw and Buthidaung townships. In every model village there are about 100 families. Each family receives 1-4 acres of farm land, a pair of oxen and a house. The farm lands confiscated from Rohingyas. Moreover, houses and other facilities such as schools and health centers, in these model villages are built on the confiscated land of Rohingyas by forced labor by the Rohingya population.
Rohingya`s Land confiscation and eviction
In addition for migrated residents in the model villages and extension of military camps, shrimp farms and rice fields for NaSaKa in Rakhine state have also led to land confiscation. But Rohingyas receive no compensation for the confiscated lands. Land confiscated policy led to a number of evictions of Rohingyas. However, the Burmese government has violated all the international CRC and CEDAW convention despite signed by the Burmese government.
Extortion and arbitrary taxation
Rohingyas in Rakhine state are subjected to extortion and arbitrary taxation. These taxes vary from collecting firewood and bamboo to fees for the registration of death and births in the family lists, on fruits bearing trees and even on football matches and shrimp tax, animal tax, roof tax, house building and repairing taxes and so on are collected by force. Every new born and death of animal has to be reported paying a fee. The worst form of taxation that has been the heaviest burden for rice paddy farmers. Under this system farmers were required to sell a portion of their harvest at fixed prices to the State Myanmar Agricultural Products Trade(MAPT). These prices are well below the market rate, varying from half to one-eight of the market price. Although the rice tax was abolished in April, 2003 by the government.
Registration of Birth and death
By Law any Rohingya has to report to the authority for new birth and death in families with fees. Otherwise a new born baby will never be considered as citizen. There have also reports that since mid-2002 some pregnant women have had to register themselves in person in the nearest NaSaKa camp. According to some testimonies, women were asked to show their abdomens and then they were raped. All these are gross violation of international Law.
Registration on Marriage
Since 1992, the regime has introduced a regulation that every Muslim in Northern Arakan is required to ask for prior permission of the authority before getting married. Muslims living in other parts of the Myanmar are not effect by this policy. However prior permission itself may not be a problem ,but what is problematic is that the authorities demand large amount in taxes from people who ask for permission to get married. For some case people have to wait 2 to 3 years to get permission after paying large sums of money. According to UDHR ( Article 16 ): Men and Women of full age without any limitation due to race, nationality, or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. There are consistent reports of young couples fleeing to Bangladesh because this is the only way for them to get married. Their names have often been removed from their family lists by the authorities. The poor have gone into serious debt to get permission. When they are unable to reimburse their debt , they have fled to Bangladesh. However, when they are in Bangladesh they are merely branded as economic migrants without realizing their unbearable plights. They face arrest or deportation.
The Situation of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh
In fact, the presence of the UNHCR and UN agencies and NGOs do not provide the necessary safe-guard to the refugees. They cannot fulfill the social , economic, political and spiritual needs of the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. The new arrivals that entered into Bangladesh after September 1992, are not recognized as UN refugees and are not accepted in refugee camps. Nearly 350,000 undocumented Rohingya refugees have entered into Bangladesh. In a report on the plight of Rohingya people to Bangladesh, the International Federation of Human Rights League(FIDH) pointed out that the UNHCR is entrapped in an insane policy, in complete contradiction to its mandate.
“The situation is desperate for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh,” says Lynn Yoshikawa, an advocate with Refugees International who recently returned from visiting Rohingya camps in the region. “They live in squalor and are forced to suffer a litany of abuses because the government doesn’t recognize them as refugees.”
The lack of documentation also makes Rohingya women and girls particularly vulnerable to sexual and physical attacks. Reports of sexual violence against unregistered refugees have increased. “Registering Rohingya refugees would help these people be protected from arrest and deportation and receive lifesaving assistance ,” Yoshikawa said. “We hope that the UN Refugee Agency, the government of Bangladesh, and other involved governments can work together to establish a system to register these undocumented refugees as soon as possible.”
For pure humanitarian reasons, I believe it is not only morally right, but imperative, to speak up for the beleaguered Rohingya. Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF) ranks them among the ten people groups around the world most at risk of extinction. They are in urgent need of humanitarian help and advocacy said Benedict Rogers.
Hostile Relations with the Local people
When the Rohingya refugees came to Bangladesh , the local people were sympathetic to them. They helped them through providing cloth, food and even shelter. Over the years, the situation has changed. Nowadays, the relations between the Rohingya refugees and the community people are not warm. The local are becoming unhappy, if not hostile to the Rohingya refugees. The Refugees often involve in disputes and other forms of conflicts with the local people. Some local people argue that the problem of local unemployment has been created by the influx of the Rohingyas. The Rohingya labourers are low paid compared to the Bangladeshis. As a result, the local community is least concerned about the Rohingya refugee problem. All these factors antagonize the local people against the Rohingyas as they confront more hardships in their lives due to their arrival in Bangladesh.
Other Human Rights violations
Besides the above tortures, there are many other peculiar ways of violation of human rights in Rakhine state. They are:
(1) Extra judicial killing, summary executions, arbitrary arrest and torture, destruction of Mosques, cemeteries and religious schools.
(2) Abuse of women: the authorities are collecting Rohingya girls from the villages under the pretext of “women development”. There are reports of sexual violations on these girls. For example, on 27th April,2004 Sajeeda, a twelve(12) years old daughter of Noor Kamal of Kyi Kan Pyin( Kawarbil ) village under Maung Daw township was raped and strangled by a NaSaKa.
(3) Deprivation of right to education: Since the promulgation of citizenship Law in 1982 the Rohingya students are denied the right to higher education. Rohingya students who stood in selection tests and formal admission for various seats of learning located in Rangoon and Burma proper are unable to pursue their studies as they are not allowed to travel. That’s why Rohingya students are to stop their studied.
Refugee Exodus to Bangladesh
Following the Nagamin (Dragon King) operation of the Myanmar army in Arakan, more than 200,000 Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh in 1978. This campaign was officially aimed at ” scrutiny each individual living in the state, designating citizens and foreigners in accordance with the law and taking action against foreigners in accordance with the law and taking action against foreigners who have filtered into the country illegally.
After the creation of NaSaKa in 1992, the restriction of freedom of movement and other abuses increased significantly. Consequently, in 1992 a new wave of over a quarter of a million Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh from the end of 1992 until early 1994 an understanding between the Bangladesh government and the Myanmar government reached for repatriation and forcibly repatriated some 50,000 Rohingyas across the border after formal memorandum of understanding was singed between the UNHCR and the Myanmar government in November 1993 the UNHCR established a presence on the ground in Rakhine state to implement the reintegration program and to provide protection for the returnees. Despite the presence of the UNHCR , Rohingyas continue to suffer from discrimination on the basis of their ethnicity and various restrictions and abuses at the hands of the Myanmar authorities. Consequently the Rohingyas have continued to flee to Bangladesh. The exact number of new arrivals since 1996 is not clear but according to a report by Amnesty International they are believed to be in the tens of thousands. The Bangladesh government has been unable to handle the massive of these refugees and has denied these new arrivals access to the refugee camps. It has also not permitted UNHCR to extend protection to them, claiming that they are economic migrants . The mass repatriation of Rohingyas to Myanmar by the UNHCR took place from April 1994 to December 1995. About 25,000 Rohingya refugees are still in the two remaining refugee camps.
Rohingyas have become stateless within the state. The military regime has put up two options before the Rohingya people: either to accept a Barman melting pot and become Buddhist, or migration to alien lands. None of Rohingya could agree to an arrangement that compromises their religious identity. The ancestral land, Arakan is dear and sacred to them. The new form of persecution is increasing every day. It is only the return of Democracy that is likely to break the age-old repressive rule of the Barman over the Rohingyas of Myanmar.
US Congressman Christopher Smith has today (30.9.2010) introduced a resolution in the House of Representatives calling on Burma’s military regime to immediately recognized the Rohingya people “as full and equal citizens of Burma”, and to lift all restrictions on movement, marriage and access to education.
(1) State Terrorism in Arakan by Dr. Sayed Serajul Islam
(2) Terrorism and Insurgency in South East Asia by Andrew T.H. Tan, Associate professor of International studies, University of New South Wales.
(3) Bangladesh: The Silent Crisis by Refugees International (RI).
(4) Article: Burma`s Muslim Rohingya Minority Dwell at the “Brink of Extermination”by Benedict Rogers
(5) Article: Voice for the Voiceless by CSW, UK
(6) The plight of the stateless Rohingyas by Imtiaz Ahmed, Professor of International . Relations, University of Dhaka