The Rohingya live in western Myanmar (Burma) and are one of the most persecuted minorities in the world, according to the United Nations. International human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch (HRW) have accused Myanmar’s authorities of being complicit in a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya Muslims since June 2012.
The Rohingya face regular violence, arbitrary arrest and detention, extortion, restrictions on marriage and are denied citizenship, despite the fact that Muslim communities have lived in Myanmar since the 8th century CE.
Muslims represent between 4-5% of the total population in Myanmar and yet the authorities refuse to recognize them as one of the 135 ethnic groups or ‘national races’ making up Myanmar’s population.
In recent months, there have been widespread attacks on Rohingya members, looting, arson attacks on buildings and reports of beatings, mass rape, mutilation, police brutality and torture.
The UN Refugee Agency estimates that there are 140,000 Rohingya internally displaced in Rakhine State, formerly known as Arakan, alone. Altogether, there are approximately 800,000 Rohingya living in Myanmar, most located in the northern townships of Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Rathedaung in Rakhine state.
In the last few years, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have been driven from Myanmar into other countries in the region such as India, Thailand, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Pakistan.
The persecution of the Rohingya essentially boils down to religion and citizenship rights. Myanmar is predominantly Buddhist and attitudes towards other religious minorities have frequently been hostile. This hostility is exacerbated by the Myanmar government’s belief that the Rohingya are Muslim illegal immigrants of Bangladeshi or Bengali origin, and its refusal to consider them a separate ethnic minority.
Muslims have worked in Rakhine State for generations as agricultural workers and fishermen, but inter-communal violence first erupted during World War II and later again as Myanmar moved towards independence in the 1940s. The subsequent military junta of 1962 suppressed ethnic and religious minorities, and the Emergency Immigration Act stripped the Rohingya of their nationality in 1974. Now without nationality, the Rohingya were seen as ‘aliens’ and called Bengali or ‘so-called Rohingya’, and racist attitudes have prevailed ever since.
The 1982 Citizenship Law described the Rohingya as ‘foreign residents’ or ‘non-nationals’, rejecting their citizenship rights
Periods of violence followed, including in 1992 and 1997 when thousands fled to Bangladesh. It erupted again in 2012 after reports of the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman in Rakhine state. Mob violence followed, displacing more than 30,000 Rohingya, according to BBC reports. Riots between Buddhists and Muslims broke out in March 2013, while in the latest episodes of violence (January 2014), the UN reported the killing of 48 Rohingya.
Persecution and racism against the Rohingya minority is widespread. Both the authorities and the opposition have been complicit in the violence against, and rejection of, the Rohingya, as have the majority of Buddhist religious groups. Some are openly racist and advocate the elimination of all Muslim communities from Myanmar.
Human rights groups also blame the military, police and Border Security Force (NaSaKa) for illegally detaining Rohingya and subjecting them to ill treatment.
The 969 Buddhist Nationalist movement has been involved in numerous acts of violence against the Rohingya over the past ten years, and senior government officials including the minister of religious affairs, Sann Sint, support both it and its leader, Ashin Wirathu.
An influential Buddhist monk, Wirathu has called for the expulsion of all Muslim communities from Myanmar and actively campaigns against the Rohingya. He urged a national boycott of Muslim-owned businesses in 2001, urging his followers to ‘shop Buddhist’ only.
As well as government followers, senior leaders in the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) support him too. Even Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, NLD leader, has been accused of turning a blind eye to Buddhist violence against Rohingya communities. UN officials have openly criticised her for keeping ‘silent on genocide’.
Myanmar started its transition towards democracy in 2011 and has renewed ties with the US and the EU as a result. While the US, EU and Australia recognise the need to address ethnic violence, however, they have not explicitly called on the authorities to protect the Rohingya community or grant them citizenship.
Australia, one of the main donors of humanitarian aid in the Rakhine state, has stressed ‘the importance of resolving the unrest in Rakhine State as well as the need to protect the rights of all people living in the country and to address the root causes of the violence.’
The UK, the biggest aid donor in Myanmar, has echoed the sentiments while the US recognises that ‘challenges remain’, but all have stopped short of standing up for the rights of Rohingya refugees.
The situation in Myanmar has been steadily deteriorating over the past two years, with Amnesty International and the HRW documenting evidence of ethnic cleansing. The world should stay silent no more. The UK and Europe need to develop a policy to engage with the oppressed Muslim communities in Myanmar to not only change the future for the Rohingya refugees but also improve relations with Asian Muslim countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia.
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