Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Rohingya - The Non-people

Earlier this month, a mob of hundreds of Buddhists descended on a Muslim village - more than 70 homes were burnt to the ground and a 94-year-old Muslim woman lay dead from stab wounds. This attack is just the latest in a series of clashes between the Buddhist and Muslim populations around the country. For many Muslims, particularly the Rohingya people of Rakhine State, the hopeful talk of democracy and freedom in Myanmar, is but empty rhetoric as the oppression and prejudice continues unabated. While many minority groups in Myanmar suffered at the hands of the government, the Rohingya, numbering roughly 2 million, face the denial of their identity and a threat to their mere existence. The BBC has referred to the stateless Rohingya as "one of the world's most persecuted minority groups”.

Under the 1982 Citizenship Law, they were officially stripped of their citizenship which was reserved for the 135 officially recognised ethnic groups. As non-citizens, the Rohingya were required to have government permission to travel outside their villages, repair their mosques, get married, or even have children, all arrestable offenses if done without a permit. Government permission, however, is procured through bribes which few can afford. Since 1994, a local policy was implemented for those Rohingya who do gain permission to marry to limit them to only two children, a policy which was given full government support in May 2013. If a woman becomes illegally pregnant, she is forced to either flee the country as a refugee or get a back-alley abortion under extremely unsanitary conditions. Many who choose to have an abortion die due to their inability to receive proper medical care as a result of the travel restrictions. Many Rohingya have also been forced to labour on various construction projects as modern-day slaves, including building "model villages” intended to house the Burmese settlers encouraged to come to the region to displace the Rohingya. There have been reports of  forced prostitution of Rohingya women by the local Burmese security forces.

 After the military junta rose to power in 1962, the government started a process of establishing a nationalist identity based on the dominant ethnicity and religion - Burmese and Buddhist. The Muslim Rohingya, as both non-Burmese and non-Buddhist, were labeled foreigners and incorrectly called "illegal Bengali immigrants” who came to Myanmar under British rule. Beginning in the 1970s, the Burmese military embarked on campaigns to ethnically cleanse the nation of the Rohingya.

The first of these, Operation Naga Min or King Dragon, was initiated in 1978 for the purpose of identifying "illegal immigrants” in the country and expelling them. The symbol of the King Dragon is an important aspect of Buddhist mythology. Naga, a mythological dragon, is originally an Indian motif and figures prominently in the legends of the Buddha. A Nagayon, or "sheltered by dragon", temple in Myanmar is closely tied with the idea of the dragon as protector. The temples carry a carving of this dragon, resembling a hooded cobra, protecting a Buddha image with its hood. Identification became the first step in this large scale ethnic cleansing operation of the military "protecting” the sanctity of Buddhism from the "foreigners” who posed a "threat”. During this operation, the Rohingya were subjected to widespread rape, arbitrary arrests, destruction of mosques and villages, and seizure of their lands. Rubble from mosques was often used to pave roads between military bases in the region. A mass exodus of nearly a quarter-of-a-million Rohingya refugees fled across the Naaf River for neighbouring Bangladesh in a period of only three months.

In 1991, a second military operation, Operation Pyi Thaya or Operation Clean and Beautiful Nation, was launched for the same purpose of expelling the Rohingya population. Two-hundred-thousand Rohingya refugees fled again into Bangladesh. Nearly 300,000 refugees remain there today in makeshift refugee camps, many without food or medical assistance, with only 28,000 in officially recognised United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR) camps. Bangladesh has impeded or rejected efforts to improve the camps and offer humanitarian aid as they fear this will serve as an incentive for refugees to remain in the country and for further Rohingya to cross the border from Myanmar. In 2011, they  rejected a $33m aid package from the United Nations to be used for the Rohingya refugees.

In June 2012 violence against the Rohingya re-ignited at the hands of the neighbouring Buddhist Rakhine. While the official death toll was 192, Rohingya human rights groups claim that there were over 1,000 killed. Mobs of Rakhine burned entire villages to the ground with over 125,000 Rohingya forcibly displaced without any aid or assistance. A Human Rights Watch report called the incident state-supported "ethnic cleansing”, writing that the government security forces "assisted the killings by disarming the Rohingya of their sticks and other rudimentary weapons they carried to defend themselves”. President Thein Sein reiterated the following month that, in the eyes of the government, the Rohingya were not citizens of Myanmar and that he wished to hand over the entire ethnic group to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in order to settle them in a different country. Buddhist monks in Mandalay held protests against the Rohingya in which they supported the proposal of the President.

 In the 2013 March riots in Meiktila in central Myanmar which burnt more than 1300 homes in Muslim neighbourhoods and killed 43 people were instigated by Buddhist monks who were part of the 969 movement. The movement, whose spiritual leader is a Buddhist monk named U Wirathu, encourages local people to boycott trade with Muslims and shop only at Buddhist-owned stores which display the number 969, a number which symbolises Buddha's teachings and Buddhist practices. They view Muslims as a threat to the nation. Aung San Suu Kyi, the heroine of democracy and human rights, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate has remained curiously silent on the suffering of the Rohingya. She continues to refer to the Rohingya as "Bengalis”.

Rohingya refugees are treated with equal contempt by other countries in the region. There have been many media reports of the Rohingya "boat people”, fleeing by sea, being shot at by the Thai navy, being captured and sold by Thai officials to human traffickers, or being held indefinitely in immigration centres in Australia and resorting to suicide rather than continuing to face a hopeless situation.

Article 2 of the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide states: "...Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group.”

Taken from this Al Jazeera article

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