Burma’s Rohingya: the invisible people

Naypyidaw, Burma (NI) – Burma is a country full of smiles. From Yangon to Mandalay, tired travellers on the main tourist routes are greeted with beaming faces smeared with thanaka [a white cosmetic paste made from ground bark].

But this is not the case in Sittwe – the capital of Rakhine State on Burma’s west coast – home to the majority of the nation’s Rohingya minority.

Stopping at a floating fishing village outside Sittwe, we are met by wary glances and murmurs that ripple through the crowds. As we wander through Sittwe’s market, there is palpable tension in the air.

A skeletal old woman, the only person who speaks to us directly, hawks a pitiful number of small silver fish, like slivers of soap in the mud in front of her. Even in a country where abject poverty is commonplace, the deprivation we see in Rakhine is jarring.

The state is the second poorest in Burma. Despite the hardship, people do their best to live a normal life. At the public beach, we splash around in the water with a gaggle of local children, trying to invent a new game that can be played with their mostly deflated football.

The recent conflict between the Muslim Rohingya and their Buddhist Rakhine neighbours has made life in Sittwe even more difficult.

Historically, the Rakhine majority has resented the presence of Rohingyas, whom they regard as Islamic immigrants from the Indian sub-continent, primarily Bangladesh.

The Rohingya, on the other hand, feel they are part of Burma and claim that the state discriminates against them. The United Nations describes the Rohingya as a religious and linguistic minority from western Burma and as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.

The Rohingya make up around 800,000 of the country’s approximately 56 million population, and rank at the bottom of Burma’s social hierarchy of ethnic minorities.

Currently, Burma’s constitution does not include the Rohingya among the country’s indigenous groups, categorizing them as ‘non-national’ or ‘foreign residents’, under the Rakhine State Action Plan drafted in October 2014.

Citizenship denied

The Rohingya were officially deprived of citizenship under a 1982 law enacted by the then-ruling military junta, creating a kind of Asian Apartheid system.

This law reversed the Rohingya’s longstanding recognition in Burma, first accepted by the newly independent post-war government in 1948, and then by the country’s first military dictatorship, between 1962 and 1974.

The junta even tried to co-opt the Rohingya into armed struggle against Buddhist separatists in Rakhine who, like other ethnic groups in Burma, were fighting for autonomy and for control of local natural resources.

Today, human rights groups accuse Burma’s government of targeting the Rohingya for ethnic cleansing, and a recent report from Fortify Rights documents how their persecution is a matter of government policy.

Excluded from the March-April 2014 nationwide census, the Rohingya face tight restrictions on freedom of movement, employment, livelihood, access to healthcare and freedom of religion.

Following violence that left 200 dead and thousands homeless, the Burmese government quickly moved to contain all Rohingya in internally displaced person camps – which critics compare to concentration camps

The plight of the Rohingya sharpened drastically in June 2012, when clashes broke out with the Rakhine Buddhists. Following violence that left 200 dead and thousands homeless, the Burmese government quickly moved to contain all Rohingya in internally displaced person camps – which critics compare to concentration camps.

An estimated 140,000 people live in squalor there, with another 40,000 living in equally dire conditions in non-camp communities around Rakhine state.

Aid agencies say nearly half of the displaced people in Rakhine lack reliable access to safe and nutritious food. Denied freedom of movement, Rohingya families typically cannot travel outside their camps, which have no healthcare facilities, leading to avoidable deaths from lack of medical treatment.

For example, in February 2014, the Burmese government rejected Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) from Rakhine, one of the few providers of healthcare, claiming that the charity was giving preferential treatment to the Rohingya. The organization has since been allowed to resume work, in January 2015.

In 2013, violence against Muslims spread beyond Rakhine, into central Burma. Thousands of people were displaced, dozens killed, and hundreds of homes and businesses destroyed.

Why has discrimination and violence against Burma’s Muslims been getting worse?

Ironically, the end of official censorship of the media in 2012 has become a contributing factor. The newly gained freedom of speech is being used by extremist monks such as Ashin Wirathu and his anti-Muslim 969 Group to enflame Buddhist nationalism and stir ethnic hatred.

As government censorship relaxed, Wirathu became active on social media, spreading his message of hate by posting sermons on YouTube and Facebook.

In July 2013, Time magazine put him on their front cover with the headline: ‘The Face of Buddhist Terror?’

Some speculate that the Burmese government supports Wirathu in the hope that his rhetoric will distract citizens from the country’s other problems and give a nationalist boost to the ruling party ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for later this year.

Sensationalism and a lack of professional standards among Burma’s tabloid journalists are also exacerbating ethnic tensions. Anti-Muslim riots in Mandalay in July 2014, for example, were sparked by a post on Facebook alleging the rape of a Buddhist girl by her Muslim employer.

Although the story proved false, the tabloid media quickly picked it up, triggering communal violence. For their part, Burmese journalists frame the Muslim-Buddhist conflict in nationalist terms by offhandedly using loaded words such as ‘Bangladeshi’ or ‘immigrants’ to describe the Rohingya.

Government-imposed travel restrictions on local and foreign journalists’ access to the Rohingya internment camps limit accurate reporting.

In February 2014, the Ministry of Information reduced the duration of foreign reporters’ visas from three months with multiple entries, to one month with a single entry, likely as a reaction to the international media criticism sparked by the government’s treatment of Rohingya refugees.

Local newspapers that provide balanced reporting on the Rohingya-Rakhine conflict often face a backlash.

As one editor at Seven Day News explains, ‘whenever we write about the conflict in Rakhine, we get a lot of angry letters and phone calls, especially from the Arakan [Rakhine Buddhist] side. Following criticism of our reporting on the violence in Rakhine in 2012, we decided to give the issue less prominence in our newspaper.’

Self-censorship of this kind can lead to a dearth of balanced information on the causes and consequences of inter-ethnic violence. When balanced reporting is scarce, biased and unprofessional accounts fill the vacuum. These reports go unchallenged, increasing the spread of misinformation.

No end in sight

Three years after violence broke out between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine State, no resolution to the ethnic and sectarian conflict is in sight.

As a consequence of the violence, the United Nations estimates that 120,000 Rohingya have fled the country during the past three years.

There are now 28,000 documented Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, but the UNHCR estimates that up to 200,000 more are living in villages along Burma’s Bangladeshi border.

Thousands of desperate Rohingya have also turned to people smugglers in an attempt to reach nearby Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Previously, migrants were often smuggled to Thailand and northern Malaysia by land. But following the recent discovery of mass graves in more than a dozen abandoned camps used by human traffickers in the Thai and Malay jungle, both countries have cracked down on overland smuggling routes.

Displaced Rohingya. Image Source: Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Displaced Rohingya.
Image Source: Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Seeking to avoid the crackdown, trafficking syndicates have responded by holding their victims in large ships close to international waters, and ransoming them by extorting money from their relatives. Traffickers have reportedly tricked or kidnapped Rohingya children as young as 13 years of age.

Survivors from the ships – which often hold thousands of victims for months at a time – describe beatings, sexual abuse and bodies being thrown overboard. Thousands remain trapped at sea on these ‘boat camps’, as countries in the region refuse to take more than a handful of refugees.

At a special ASEAN conference in Bangkok on 29 May, South-East Asian countries agreed to increase their search and rescue operations and to tackle the root causes of the migrant crisis.

However, the Burmese delegation refused to apologize for its policy of segregation, refusing even to use the word ‘Rohingya’– instead referring to all Rohingya as ‘Bengali’ migrants.

The Burmese delegation at the ASEAN conference refused even to use the word ‘Rohingya’– instead referring to all Rohingya as ‘Bengali’ migrants

Worse, the Rakhine conflict may be paying political dividends to the central government. The Burmese media have reported that two Rakhine insurgent groups that had been fighting government troops have now offered to co-operate with them to patrol the Burma-Bangladesh border in order to keep out illegal immigrants.

Even Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has been criticized by her fellow prize-winner the Dalai Lama for not doing enough to voice her opposition to the persecution of the Rohingya in her country.

The Burmese government deserves credit for the reforms it has undertaken over the past couple of years. But a country that does not acknowledge the freedom of all of its minorities can never be called a free country.

Written by Tina Burrett and Christopher Simons for the New Internationalist.