Saturday, March 3, 2012

Stateless along the Bay of Bengal: The Future of Burma's Rohingya

Saturday, 03 March 2012 21:25

By: Christian N. Desrosiers

After hustling myself out of the city center across a handful of muddy fields, I entered a low wooden building where an elderly imam was waiting for me. His beard was dyed orange in the manner of the Prophet, and it stood out strongly against his skin, dark as rich soil. We spoke in low tones. Secrecy was necessary: if we were caught meeting by one of the many informants in his community it would be bad for me and worse for him. He is a member of a group that Refugees International has dubbed "one of the most persecuted groups in the world."

A Muslim of South Asian rather than Asian stock, the imam is a Rohingya, a minority group in Burma that is at the center of long running controversy regarding their citizenship. With the Burmese government alleging that they are illegal immigrants and the Rohingya asserting that they have lived here for centuries, it is a bitter dispute and much is at stake, though the waters are muddy.

One thing is clear: their life in limbo is a precarious existence. Having been denied Burmese citizenship, they are not citizens of any country, nor is any country enthusiastic about having them as refugees. Those that remain face forced labor, extortion, arbitrary jailing, and murder. Lacking citizenship, legal recourse, and international attention, with scant prospects abroad and fewer at home, their outlook is bleak.

A Disputed History
At the center of the dispute is the Burmese government's claim that the Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

Between 1824 and 1942, when Burma was part of the British colonial empire, many Bengalis and Indians were brought over to serve in the colonial administration. The British considered this an internal migration, because the movement took place entirely within the bounds of their control.

"The Burmese government still considers, however," Human Rights Watch writes in a report, "that the migration which took place during this period was illegal, and it is on this basis that they refuse citizenship to the majority of the Rohingya."

The government also has on its mind the secession attempt at the formation of the state of Burma led by Rohingya who wanted to join some western parts of the country with East Pakistan.

This is a "massive mistruth," according to a senior Human Rights Watch researcher. Dissenting observers note that the first recorded South Asian immigrants to what is now Burma occurred as early as the 7th century, when a local Buddhist king brought over skilled workers as slaves.

This migration complicates the matter and makes it, perhaps, impossible to resolve because descendents from 7th century immigrants and 20th century immigrants are visually indistinguishable and there exists no conclusive documentation for many alleged illegal inhabitants.

The Response
Though the past is murky, the present that has been born out of the dispute is clear.

"This is kafir country," the imam told me. He is bitter from the years of difficult life in the region.

When the British lost their colony to the Japanese in World War II, and then again to Burmese independence in 1948, there were reprisal attacks against those who had aided and benefited from British rule. Mosques were destroyed and Rohingya villagers were raped, murdered, and tortured.

The fighting between Arakan Buddhists and Rohingya led to a separation of the populations, the Rohingya clustering along the areas near Bangladesh. Significant numbers fled to East Pakistan while others attempted to secede.

After the secession attempt failed the government adopted an official policy of treating the Rohingya as illegal immigrants. Under their new illegal status their properties were confiscated by the government.

The Burmese government has placed conditions on the possibility of Rohingya citizenship that many Rohingya claim are excessively onerous. Article 3 of the 1982 immigration law requires Rohingya seeking citizenship to provide as a prerequisite records demonstrating that their families entered the country prior to 1823. Most Rohingya possess very little, much less official birth records.

With few rights, Rohingya face hostility from many levels of society. During my travels in Arakan state, a common accusation I heard from Arakanese Buddhists was that the Rohingya were "trying to steal our land."
Such xenophobia is present even at the upper levels of the Burmese government. In 2009 the Burmese consul to Hong Kong publicly said that the Rohingya were "ugly as ogres." And In a small library in Arakan I read a history book written by a former Burmese ambassador to the United Nations in which there is a chapter entitled "Is Islam a Threat to Buddhist Culture?" The Rohingya, like all Muslims, the book asserted, were working toward the goal of "world domination," via a strategy of appealing to our sympathy and marrying "our native maidens."

No Hope Abroad
For many Rohingya, escape is the only logical solution to their problem, but, barred from leaving their villages without official bureaucratic approval, the way out is fraught. Non-citizens, they must obtain several forms of official permission before leaving their village, permission which is often denied.

I was told a story about a family who attempted a secret boat trip to Rangoon. They were discovered along the way by soldiers and, when they could not pay the bribe, they were massacred. News of them had come back through a bystander who had attempted and failed to buy the safety of the Rohingya from the soldiers. Stories like this did not make it into any newspaper.

And there are the seemingly endless stories of extortion and abuse at the hands of immigration officers, who, the Rohingya I met asserted, acted with impunity against them because the Rohingya are not citizens. When authorities discovered from an informer that one man's brother had escaped, they came to him demanding a bribe. When he could not pay, they imprisoned him for several months.

Those that make it abroad, often first to Bangladesh, find a grim life in refugee camps, where they are barred from working. More than a quarter million Rohingya fled there in the early 90s.

There is no incentive for Bangladesh to improve conditions there. More refugees means more drains on its budgets In fact, Bangladesh has in the past forcibly repatriated Rohingya refugees. Though this is a violation of the 1951 U.N. Convention on the Status of Refugees, Bangladesh is not a signatory of that accord.

And, in a famous incident, in 2007, the Thai navy disabled Rohingya refugee vessels and abandoned them, all of their occupants still inside, at sea.

No Birds in the Hand, One in the Bush

Recently, within Burma there have been signs of moves toward a more inclusive society. This month, the International Crisis Group released a report, subtitled "Major Reform on the Way," that cites a number of signs that the Burmese government is increasingly interested in democratization.

Aung Sun Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Laureate released from years of house arrest last year, has been in talks with government officials and thus far has been allowed to move freely about the country. The government has also awarded visas to outspoken critics of their regime, like Senator John McCain, a long time supporter of Suu Kyi and of sanctions against Burma.

While it is still unclear what is driving the change – speculation runs from a desire to avert an official U.N. inquiry into human rights abuses in the country to the fact that the aging generals are receding into the background – the consensus seems to be that change is happening. "People who say there is no change are not here," Aung San Suu Kyi was recently quoted as saying.

Yet, for the imam there is no change. "None of that affects us," he wrote to me after I'd left. The developments concern minority groups that are ethnically Asian and already, if only nominally, included in Burma's political life; the problem surrounding the Rohingya is a different issue altogether, and the exceptionally difficult task of determining the origin of these people who have no records, remains unchanged.

The ICG's report has been criticized as excessively optimistic by other human rights groups and Rohingya leaders have noted that, even in its optimism, nowhere does the report mention the Rohingya.

In fact, Win Mra, the chairman of the Myanmar Human Rights Council that is cited by the ICG as a significant sign that Burma intends to repair its human rights record, has gone on record denying the existence of the Rohingya.

The only optimistic signs coming through international channels are so bleak as to be almost comical. Chris Lewa, the head of a human rights group focused on Rohingya issues, reports that the Thai navy "confirmed that they will not push them back out to sea."

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