Forgotten Rohingya Muslims

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

It has been around one year since 2016 when Aung San Suu Kyi led National League for Democracy (NLD) has been posted with power. 

Widely regarded as a champion of human rights and a celebrated political prisoner, she has now come under the scanner for her cold shoulder to a UN fact finding mission to investigate the ongoing human rights abuses by security forces in the Rakhine state against the Rohingya Muslim minorities.

Aung Sang Suu Kyi denied visas to members of an investigative mission, endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council, earlier this year. Many think that it will be very hard even for Suu Kyi to reverse this decision in a country where military power occupies a crucial role.

The military still controls important quarters of the national assembly including budget formations, resistance to constitutional changes and clearing ordinances without approval of the cabinet. The leader had been under house arrest for fifteen years, during the military rule. Therefore, the influence of democratic institutions and accountability commissions in the country is still largely unknown today.

As many as 90,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled their villages since last fall in October. In response to killing of nine police officers at a border post by a Rohingya militant group, the military instituted a massive crackdown in the area that lead to hundreds of arrests. In joint operations, police and military have allegedly burned down homes, raped and abused women and killed hundreds of Rohingyas. These events also largely indicate the press freedom in the country because the overall media reaction related to it has been low.

The World Food Programme estimates that more than 80,000 Rohingya children may need treatment for malnutrition in the area, a figure that reflects worsening humanitarian conditions, following the recent surge of violence.

Quite recently, the American government and Human Rights Watch, an international advocacy group, decried Myanmar’s refusal to grant visas and have asked the country to co-operate with the United Nations.

To refute international outcries, the Myanmar government believes that the presence of a UN fact-finding mission will heighten political tensions and that they are doing their own investigations. It seems that the UN mission is losing its influence in the country.

Quite lately, the government opened Rakhine to a group of foreign journalists with government escorts but unfettered access is still denied throughout the Rakhine area.

Rohingya Muslims are largely forgotten and continue to get mistreated. Access to healthcare and education is denied. They are even restricted to travel to a neighbouring village. Since 1994, they have not been allowed to get birth certificates from the government and also require a government permission to marry. The Rohingyas are also denied citizenship along with Tibetan people, Anglo Burmese, Burmese Gurkha and Burmese Pakistanis in the country.

Rohingyas are perhaps one of the most mistreated communities in Burma along with Karen community whose villages, religious buildings, schools have also been burned and their people killed and displaced (about 50,000 Karen refugees now live in deprived shantytowns at Mae La camp, Tak in Thailand).

In 1978, the military tried to expel the Rohingya population into Bangladesh through mass arrests, destruction of mosques, villages and confiscation of lands. These measures eventually ousted a quarter of million Rohingyas into Bangladesh in a span of six months. In 1990, the country again began displacing Rohingya population into “strategic villages” near military bases and started settling the local Buddhists.

The Rohingyas are under assault from all sections of the society. The country has followed a strategy of “Four Cuts” which has denied the population “land, food, shelter and security.” This eventually led 250,000 Rohingyas across the Naf River into Bangladesh during the 1990’s. In 1992, when a new border security called NaSaKa was formed, Rohingyas were subjected to slave labour for Buddhist settlers on Rohingya land for construction purposes. Therefore, the ethnic prejudice against the community in Myanmar is historical and not recent.

In 2011, the Bangladeshi government blocked about $33 million in UN humanitarian aid for the Rohingya refugees. Only 28,000 refugees were recognised and kept in two camps in the Cox’s Bazaar, a fishing port town, south of Chittagong. Over the course of time, over 200,000 refugees were dispersed throughout the hills of Cox’s Bazaar where they struggled to survive on their own and were constantly in danger of disease, violence and starvation.

Muslims are believed to have settled in Burma since 15th century. They have lived when the Burmese leaders have followed a largely Buddhist policy or “Burmanisation”. Some historians and scholars are of an opinion that Rohingyas are indigenous to Rakhine state, originally part of the independent kingdom of Arakan, that was annexed in 1785 by Burmese kingdom. While on the other hand, the government narrative maintains that most of them are illegal immigrants, of South Asian origin, who migrated during Burmese independence in 1948 and Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971.

In an internal audit reviewing the UN conduct in Myanmar, which had been sent to the UN secretary general, the organisation in the country was tainted as “glaringly dysfunctional”. The reviewers compared the functions of the organisation with notoriously mismanaged crises in Sri Lanka during the civil war.

A recent Guardian newspaper article commented that the UN office in Myanmar has failed to have "senior level engagements” and has largely been treated like “a non entity”. 


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