Stateless in Arakan

By Yeni January 2006

Rohingyas have struggled for decades to legitimize their presence in the country, and their fight looks to be anything but over.

Burma’s contentious Arakan State has long been a sore spot for the country’s ruling military dictatorship. Physical brutality and draconian measures to stifle the region’s Muslim Rohingya population have produced waves of refugees over the western border to Bangladesh (formerly eastern Bengal) since the 1970s.

Some historians suggest that Muslims in northern Arakan State—predominantly ethnic Rohingya—can trace their lineage back to Muslim merchants of the 8th and 9th centuries who made their living as tradesmen in coastal ports. Never ones to let historical facts get in their way, the generals in Rangoon tell quite another story.

“Historically, there has never been a Rohingya race in Myanmar [Burma],” says a 1992 press release from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The fastidious scholars of the State Peace and Development Council claim that Rohingyas are simply illegal immigrants who have infiltrated the country from the borders with Bangladesh and India since the British established colonial rule over the region in 1824.

Under Burmese citizenship laws, no individual or group can claim citizenship (and therefore documentation or access to education and healthcare) who did not reside in Burma prior to British colonial rule. Nationalist campaigns, initiated by the government and often with the support of local Buddhist communities, have painted Rohingyas as enemies of the state who threaten national culture and life.

Violence against Rohingyas in Arakan State—widespread killings, rape, forced labor—led to two mass migrations of refugees in 1978 and 1991. Most were repatriated, sometimes forcibly, under an agreement between Bangladesh and Rangoon, and in 1991 with the involvement of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

In 2001, violence erupted again in Arakan State, as thousands of mosques were destroyed and 10 Muslims and two Buddhists were killed. The outbreak was prompted in part by the destruction of ancient Buddhist artifacts by the Taliban in Bamayan, Afghanistan, as well as by a defamatory anti-Muslim pamphlet allegedly circulated by Buddhist monks and members of the SPDC’s pseudo-political group the Union of Solidarity and Development Association.

In recent years, violent clashes between Muslims and Buddhists have become less frequent. Government suppression, however, continues to make life for Rohingyas a constant struggle. Restrictions on mobility since 2001 have made it difficult for Rohingyas to secure employment and engage in trade—as they are restricted from traveling outside their villages without official permission. The government has reportedly also imposed various marriage restrictions—exorbitant fees for marriage licenses and lengthy waiting periods, and even proposals that make the shaving of a man’s beard a requirement for marriage.

The UNHCR estimates that more than 20,000 Rohingya refugees still live in two camps along the Bangladeshi border with Burma. Unwelcome at home, the residents of the camps face pressure from Bangladesh to return to Arakan State, often compelled by authorities to sign voluntary repatriation documents.

Refugees in the camps also face routine harassment by security personnel, and a violent police raid in late 2004 left three dead and 42 (including women and children) under arrest on arbitrary charges. Rohingyas are often blamed for political violence in Bangladesh, including bombings by extremist Muslim organizations.

Following the ouster of former prime minister Khin Nyunt in October 2004, the junta’s direct assault on Rohingyas appeared to ease. Since early 2005, however—after the SPDC increased its presence in Arakan State—oppression of local Rohingyas has been on the upswing, including an increase in the instances of forced labor, often for development projects aimed exclusively at local Buddhist communities.

Despite calls by aid organizations such as the UNHCR and Amnesty International for a reassessment of Burma’s discriminatory citizenship laws and greater protection for Rohingya refugees in Bangladeshi border camps, the junta continues to turn a blind eye to the plight of Muslims in Arakan State and throughout the country.


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