Thursday, June 28, 2012

No way home for Myanmar’s Rohingya

June 28, 2012 | 0
No way home for Myanmar’s Rohingya
Jacob Zenn
The recent inter-ethnic riots between Rakhine and Rohingya communities in Myanmar highlight some of the major human security issues the country must face as it embarks on democratisation and peace-building processes. 

While there are no questions asked about the citizenship of 135 officially recognised ethnic groups across Myanmar, the majority of which straddle the country’s borderlands with India, Bangladesh, China and Thailand, the Rohingya are viewed by the state as outsiders.

The Rohingya have lived in the border region between Bangladesh and Myanmar for generations, but as the aftermath of the riots shows, Myanmar citizens - elites and commoners alike - hold little sympathy for their stateless plight.

A typical post-colonial “indigene-settler” dispute exists in Rakhine state. The Buddhist Rakhines consider themselves as the original inhabitants of the land and perceive the Muslim Rohingya as “Bengali settlers”. The Rohingya make conflicting historical claims to their rights as Myanmar citizens.

The recent tensions between the two communities escalated after the alleged rape and killing of a Rakhine girl in Kyat Ni Maw on May 28. This prompted hundreds of Rakhines to rally against the crime in front of a police station and the local administrative agency of Rakhine state. Days later, on June 3, a group of Rakhines turned to vigilante justice when they reportedly killed nine Rohingya in a revenge attack on bus passengers in Taung Kote, Rakhine state.

Angered by the local media’s slanted reporting of the murder and its provocative references to the Rohingya as kala, Rohingya in Yangon staged their own protests.

Although the word kala derives from the Pali word meaning “noble”, it also means “black” in the Hindi language. The term is associated with racist connotations in the Burmese language, and is often used to refer to outsiders from the subcontinent, including Bangladeshis, Indians, Nepalis, Sri Lankans and Pakistanis.

To Rohingya, being called kala is to deny their historical connection to Rakhine state. The word “Rohingya” derives from the word “Rakhine”, evidence of their connection to the land, Rohingya claim.

The Rohingya’s protest over kala references also reflects their frustration over their official exclusion from Myanmar society. As the country’s democratic reforms move ahead, many disfranchised Rohingya hope to gain citizenship rights, but so far there are no indications this is in the cards.  Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law established that the Rohingya, along with several other communities such as the Gurkhas (an ethnic community with historical links to Nepal), were not among the 135 officially recognised ethnic groups in Myanmar entitled to citizenship.

Myanmar’s next census is scheduled for 2013, but no changes in the Rohingya’s status are likely given that even the country’s most respected leaders are approaching the issue with caution in the wake of the recent riots. Pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi said recently that “the problem should be tackled by fair application of the law”, presumably the already standing Citizenship Law.

Ko Ko Gyi, an icon from the 1988 pro-democracy protests brutally suppressed by the military and until recently a prominent political prisoner, has openly opposed the Rohingya gaining citizenship. He also implied that sympathetic foreigners should stay out of the issue, in line with the military’s long-held view on the matter.

“Now it is time that we announce our view on the Rohingya clearly. The Rohingya are not one of the ethnic groups of Myanmar at all. We see that the riots happening currently in Buthedaung and Maungdaw of [Rakhine] state are because of the illegal immigrants from Bangladesh called Rohingya and the mischievous provocations of some international communities,” Ko Ko Gyi said.  “Therefore, such interfering efforts by some powerful nations on this issue without fully understanding the ethnic groups and other situations of Burma will be viewed as offending the sovereignty of our nation.”

Empowered by Myanmar’s recent lifting of restrictions on the Internet, citizens now freely communicate on social-media networks such as Facebook. Many have used racially charged language about the Rohingya that previously would have been banned or censored.

Their online postings have highlighted grassroots perceptions among Burmans that the Rohingya should not be considered citizens of Myanmar. Not only are the Rohingya referred to as kala on these posts, but they are also being viewed as “terrorists”.  One representative post, for example, read: “We have a right of self-defence. I hope DASSK [Daw Aung San Suu Kyi] would understand that this is not bullying the minority. They are not a minority anyway. This is a sovereignty issue and this is just terrorism and they are evil enemies of freedom.”  By mid-June, the government had declared martial law and imposed a curfew in several districts of Rakhine state. More than 80 have been killed and thousands of homes torched since the clashes first erupted. Sporadic violence has continued since the imposition of emergency rule over the area.

More than 800,000 Rohingya reside in Myanmar, but the violence is pushing a new wave of refugees into Bangladesh. The United Nations estimated there were already 300,000 Rohingya living in refugee camps in Bangladesh, many of whom fled earlier rounds of state suppression against their communities in Myanmar.

Myanmar and Bangladesh will hold talks about the Rohingya situation in early July - Myanmar’s President Thein Sein is due to start a three-day visit to Bangladesh on July 15. Some hope the persecuted minority will be granted some sort of quasi-citizenship after the talks. If this should fail, then the Rohingya will remain in a legal and physical limbo hoping for refugee status somewhere abroad.                                         –Asia Times Online

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