Sunday, March 4, 2012

Rohingyas: a people both with, and without, an origin (KARACHI, PAKISTAN)

Ammar Shahbazi Friday, February 17, 2012

There are some three to four hundred thousands of them in the city, but, according to the law, they simply do not exist. The Burmese Muslims - known as Rohingyas –make up a sizable portion of illegal immigrants living in Karachi, and, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), are considered to be one of the most persecuted ethnic groups in the world.

Although they are often misconstrued as Bengalis, the Rohingyas, both culturally and linguistically, are very much different from the people of Bangladesh. “For the layman, they are all Bangladeshis, but the Burmese people are poles apart in every way, even in terms of facial features,” said Muhammad Khan Lodhi, an assistant director at the National Alien Registration Authority (Nara).


“The Rohingyas are a stateless people,” says Daniyal Rizvi of the Futuristic Foundation, a social research institute that works extensively on issues of illegal immigration and human trafficking in South Asia.

Rizvi said that a majority of the Burmese people living in Pakistan belong to the Arkan province of Myanmar. The Rohingyas are not considered Burmese by the government of Myanmar because they are not of a ‘pure Buddhist bloodline’.

In the late 70s, and again in early 90s, two major Rohingya exoduses took place. Their people were, for all intents and purposes, forced to leave their home country due to the imposition of laws that restricted their intermarriage and religious freedom. They took refuge in Bangladesh.

“There is not a single mosque in the whole of the Arkan province – a state where 70 percent of the population is Muslim, even after multiple resettlement programmes by the state to bring down the Muslim population,” added Rizvi, who has visited Myanmar nine times for research on these issues.

The Bangladeshi government does not consider them refugees. The Rohigyas live on the roads from Teknaf (the Bangladesh-Myanmar border) to Chittagong and are hounded by the police. They have no land of their own.

Life in the city

“My parents came to Pakistan because it is a Muslim country,” said Shabbir Hussain, a taxi driver and a madrassa graduate.

According to reports, there are 65 shantytowns populated by Rohingyas and Bengalis in which members of both communities live side by side. At least two such colonies are named after the Burmese lineage in Karachi: Arkanabad (named after the Arkan province in Burma) in Korangi Dai Number and a Burmese colony situated near Landi.

The Burmese population, like that of the Bengalis, is mainly employed by the city’s textile and fishing sector, where they have to work for ten to twelve hours a day. “They are the lumpen proletariat of Karachi,” says Salman Mukhtar, a senior social activist who works on poverty-related issues in Karachi.

“These people are basically migrant labourers. They have no legal status, no job security; they are virtually slaves to the whims of contractors who take work orders from textile and fishing companies to, for example, get an export assignment done,” he told The News.

“They work for the minimum possible wages; the Bengali and Burmese population, because of their low pay-rate, played a pivotal role in making Pakistani textiles competitive in the international market during the mid-80s and the 90s.”

Despite living in run-down shanty homes, where there is no access to electricity or clean water, the Rohingyas have managed to outstrip their Bengali counterparts in terms of being accepted by the mainstream Pakistani, a fact that does not bode well with the Bengali community leaders.

Political ambitions

The Bengalis claim that the Burmese, who started coming to Pakistan in the late 70s, call themselves Bengalis because they want an excuse to get naturalised citizenship; however, the Rohingya leadership denies having any link whatsoever to Myanmar.

“They have nothing to do with Pakistan. We are Pakistanis, we have been living here since before the fall of Dhaka, we gave sacrifices for the creation of Pakistan, we have a stake in this country,” said Masud-ur-Rehman, the general secretary of the Pak-Bangla Ittehad, a community-based Bengali organisation.

This turf war between the two groups has resulted in much political activism in recent times. Playing on the Bengali card, the Rohingyas have managed to form a party called the Action Committee which is backed by the largest political party of Karachi.

Mehsud’s claims were refuted outright by Abul Hussain Sonar, who is a member of the supreme council of the Action Committee. “We are Bengalis. We have no connection with Myanmar whatsoever. I am a second generation Pakistani. My parents migrated from Bangladesh in the 1960s.” Sonar claims that there are no Rohingyas living in Karachi, and that even if there are, there is a minimal number of them. The Bengalis, on the other hand, think that their political mandate is being exploited. Masud says the Burmese have money and are relatively better educated, which has allowed them to claim representation of the ethnic Bengalis in the city, who are at least four times more than the Rohingyas in number.

“If you actually make a comparison, you can see that there are a number of differences between our communities. For example, the Burmese have a tendency to send their children to madrassas; they are well-read and are a very close-knit community, which has given them an edge.”

Whatever the truth may be, one thing is for sure: the Rohingyas have successfully buried their violent past and have begun a new life with a new identity in the city of Karachi.

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