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Burma's persecuted muslims

Burma’s persecuted Muslims

The fate of a million Rohingya in Burma is causing international uproar, and endangering the country’s path to democracy



Where are the Rohingya from?

That’s a key political question. The official identity offered to them, and which most refuse, is “Bengali”. That reflects the Burmese government’s insistence that the Rohingya, a Muslim minority that numbers just over a million people, are relatively recent arrivals from what is now Bangladesh, and do not count as fully fledged citizens. In 1978, Burma’s military rulers launched operation “Dragon King” and expelled more than 200,000 Muslims from the country by force. Later, Burma’s citizenship law was tightened to recognise 135 indigenous groups, but not the Rohingya, almost all of whom were demoted to “associate” or “naturalised citizens”, with limits on their movement, rights to own property, and even marry. “These people aren’t really us,” said U Win Hlan Tha, a Buddhist monk, at a recent protest against Rohingyas in Burma’s largest city, Rangoon.

How did the Rohingya get their name?

It derives from the name of Burma’s westernmost province, which has been variously known as Arakan, Rakhine and Rohang. (Since 1989, Burma has also been known as Myanmar.) Rakhine, as it’s now called, is separated from the rest of Burma by steep mountains. For centuries it was a separate kingdom, on the frontier between the Muslim lands of the northern subcontinent, and the Buddhist peoples of East Asia. In Rakhine, these communities mixed. Between 1430 and 1785, it had Buddhist kings who took Muslim titles and led Muslim armies. Once Burma gained independence from Britain after WWII, however, the Muslims of Rakhine, most of whom call themselves Rohingya, have been steadily and brutally marginalised, to the point where the government hardly acknowledges their existence.

Why are the Rohingya now in the news?

Owing to an alarming deterioration in conditions inside Burma, which is forcing many to flee. Since two outbreaks of violence in 2012, more than 100,000 have been confined to squalid camps in Rakhine and live in a state of virtual apartheid (and dire poverty). In the last three years, 120,000 are thought to have fled Burma, mostly by sea, on unsafe boats, heading for Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, all of which have large Muslim populations. But a crackdown on people-smuggling in Thailand this year has led to them being turned back. An estimated 2,000 refugees are now adrift in the Andaman Sea and off the coasts of Burma’s neighbours. Meanwhile, arguments over their status could derail Burma’s democratic reforms.

Why a threat to democracy?

Over the past five years, Burma has been, in US President Obama’s phrase, on a “remarkable journey” from 49 years of military dictatorship to something resembling a democracy. In 2010, the main opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel laureate, was released from house arrest, and historic national elections are due to take place this autumn. However, liberalisation has been accompanied by a sharp rise in nationalist, anti-Muslim feeling, which runs deepest in places such as Rakhine, where the population is 60% Buddhist and around 30% Muslim. The attacks in 2012, in which 200 people were killed and around 100,000 displaced, have bitterly divided the region.

What does Aung San Suu Kyi say?

So far “The Lady”, as she is known, has kept silent, and for almost the first time in her long and heroic political career, she has been criticised by human rights leaders for doing so. Both Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who was instrumental in ending apartheid in South Africa, and the Dalai Lama have failed to persuade Suu Kyi to speak out on behalf of the Rohingya. Critics of Suu Kyi say that her silence shows she is unconcerned about the Rohingya, like most of Burma’s mainly Buddhist population; while supporters say she is just biding her time, and will address the crisis if and when she wins the election. “Sadly, there are only votes to be lost in Rohingya rights,” says the BBC’s Jonah Fisher. By then, however, it might be too late.

Why is that?

There are signs the crisis is reaching breaking point. Last month, after an international outcry, and a week after their vessel was intercepted by the Burmese navy, 727 Rohingya boat people who had been adrift since March were finally allowed back onto dry land in Rakhine. The UN was barred from seeing them. The US demanded they be given Burmese identity papers, but instead the authorities have insisted they will be “repatriated” to Bangladesh. The political situation is also worsening. A new set of citizenship rules came into force on 31 May, effectively barring Rohingya from taking part in this year’s elections. Analysts at the International Crisis Group warn that this is “incendiary” and “could prompt civil disobedience or even organised violence”. In Rakhine, there are still memories of a Muslim mujahideen that rebelled against the state between 1947 and 1961.

What can be done?

The Rohingya are the world’s largest community of stateless people (see box), and so far most international pressure on the Burmese government has been aimed at granting them citizenship. “They need to have identity cards… that make clear that they then have the freedom that everybody in Burma should enjoy,” says Anne Richard, US Assistant Secretary of State. But the process appears to be deadlocked. The best a newly drafted “Rakhine State Action Plan” has to offer the Rohingya is a choice between giving their identity as Bengali (and risk being considered lesser citizens) or accepting their status as illegal immigrants (and risk being deported immediately). Last month, the Burmese government only agreed to attend a regional summit on the crisis, in Bangkok, on the condition that the word Rohingya wasn’t used in the talks.

The plight of the stateless

“Stateless people can’t be refugees,” says Ashin Wirathu, the Buddhist monk known as the “Burmese bin Laden” for his animosity to the country’s Muslim minorities. Hence, “Burma has no responsibility”. Statelessness is a vicious, grinding reality for some ten million people across the world who have been denied a nationality (and thus the ID papers necessary to travel, open a bank account and access public services) through discrimination, accidents of war, and the disappearance of countries that used to exist. The fall of the Soviet Union has left 600,000 people still searching for a nationality: most live in Estonia and Latvia. In West Africa, there are some 700,000 stateless people in Côte d’Ivoire, most descendants of Burkinabè migrants who were denied citizenship when the country won independence in 1960. Statelessness is nothing new: slaves and other migrants were often considered stateless in the ancient world. And after World War I, the League of Nations issued “Nansen passports” (named after Norwegian explorer and diplomat Fridtjof Nansen) for those bereft of a nation. Thankfully, there are examples of statelessness being resolved. In 2008, Bangladesh granted citizenship to more than 300,000 Biharis – stateless Urdu speakers who’d been living in crowded camps since 1971.

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