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Profile

Muslims in Burma, most of whom are Sunni, constitute at least 4 per cent of the country’s entire population, with the largest concentration in the north of Rakhine State (also known as Arakan), especially around Maungdaw, Buthidaung, Rathedaung, Akyab and Kyauktaw.

There are a number of distinct Muslim communities in Burma, not all of which share the same cultural or ethnic background. While the country’s largest Muslim population resides in Rakhine State, it is actually made up of two distinct groups: those whose ancestors appear to be long established, going back hundreds and hundreds of years, and others whose ancestors arrived more recently during the British colonial period (from 1824 until 1948).

The majority of Muslims in Rakhine State refer to themselves as ‘Rohingya’: their language (Rohingya) is derived from the Bengali language and is similar to the Chittagonian dialect spoken in nearby Chittagong, in Bangladesh. Rohingya consider themselves to be indigenous to the region, whereas the Burmese government and Buddhist nationalists view them as descendants of people who arrived during the British colonial administration. A second group of Muslims in Rakhine State does not consider themselves as Rohingya, as they speak Rakhine which is closely related to the Burmese language, claim their ancestors have lived in the state for many centuries, and tend to share similar customs to the Rakhine Buddhists. They identify themselves as ‘Arakanese Muslims’, ‘Burmese Muslims’ or simply ‘Muslims’.

There are additionally other distinct groups of Muslim minorities throughout much of the country, and in particular in most Burmese cities or towns. Most of these disparate, though at times quite substantial, groups are the descendants of ‘migrants’ from various parts of what is now India and Bangladesh, though they may have been established for generations in the country.

Many of these latter groups of Muslims speak Burmese and/or their language of origin. Some of them, however, have gravitated to some degree into the linguistic and cultural spheres of other minorities. In Karen State, for example, many Muslims have integrated into Karen communities, speak Karen, and sometimes refer to themselves as ‘Black Karen’.

 

Historical context

Rohingya and most Muslims whose ancestors originate from India and Bangladesh would have been considered as citizens of Burma under the 1948 Constitution and civilian administration until the military coup d’état of 1962. Their status was subsequently downgraded under the 1974 Constitution, which does not officially recognize them, and the Citizenship Act of 1982, which states that citizens must belong to one of 135 ‘national races’ as recognized under the constitution, or whose ancestors settled in the country before 1823. Given the lack of documentation to satisfy the latter requirement, the result has been a hugely discriminatory denial of citizenship for most Rohingya and many other Muslims, effectively rendering them stateless. As a result, they have faced numerous discriminatory obstacles in access to education, health, travel, many areas of employment and even in terms of receiving permits allowing them to get married.

The cycle of violence, rebellion and crackdown by authorities which has marked much of Burma’s history following the end of civilian rule, as well as the particular repressive and systematic measures against Muslims – and Rohingya in particular – resulted in waves of hundreds of thousands, perhaps even over a million, fleeing to Bangladesh in the 1960s, 1980s and 1990s. In 1991, for example, a crackdown on Rohingya may have resulted in as many as 250,000 refugees taking shelter in the Cox’s Bazaar district of neighbouring Bangladesh. While most were subsequently repatriated to Burma, some are still in exile in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, with smaller numbers in Thailand and Malaysia. International pressure on the Burmese government to stop military action and begin a process to enable the Muslim population to return home has meant most of these have been repatriated, though some reports suggest that many returns were not voluntary. Reports from organizations such as Refugees International and Human Rights Watch indicate there were severe and systematic abuses of the refugees by camp officials, the police and the local population.

Since 1982 and their loss of citizenship, Rohingya have been systematically persecuted and oppressed. They have been particularly targeted for atrocities committed by the Burmese army (the tatmadaw) such as torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and punishment, extra-judicial killing and summary execution, arbitrary arrest and detention, rape, destruction of homes, forced labour, forced relocation and eviction, and confiscation of land and property.

State Peace and Development Council/State Law and Order Restoration Council (SPDC/SLORC) policies since the 1990s appear to be aimed at reducing the presence of Muslims in Rakhine State through a series of discriminatory policies: large areas of arable land are expropriated, usually without any or with inadequate compensation. These areas were either left to revert to jungle, used for military and police camps, plantations, shrimp farms and other economic projects controlled by military interests, or handed over as part of a massive colonization project to settle Buddhists in ‘model villages’ on lands confiscated from Rohingya in the northern part of Rakhine State. Since this colonization project is part of official government policy, the (mainly) Buddhist families in these model villages not only benefitted from ‘free’ land (about 4 acres), they also received a pair of oxen and a house – the latter sometimes constructed by Rohingya of neighbouring villages through forced, unpaid labour.

The religious activities of these minorities have also severely curtailed. Many mosques and religious schools have been demolished since the 1980s, and repairs to them are often prohibited. There have been substantiated reports of waqf land (mosque land) and Muslim cemeteries being appropriated by authorities, as well as Muslim monuments, place names and historical sites being destroyed.

Travel restrictions were also imposed in 2001, which has increased the intensity of the breaches of human rights for Rohingya in particular. Many of the areas of northern Rakhine State where Rohingya are concentrated have been subjected to travel restrictions, so that travelling from one place to another without a pass is banned. Because of the difficulty in obtaining these passes, which have to be paid for, visits to hospitals, doctors and markets, employment opportunities and even the ability to attend school beyond the primary level have all been drastically curtailed. This is especially true at the higher education level. As the capital, Sittwe, has the only university in Rakhine State, Rohingya students living outside the capital are effectively unable to join university on a full-time basis because of the travel restrictions and can only study through distance education: even if, in theory, they could obtain a pass to sit their examinations in the capital, in practice they face serious difficulties in obtaining such passes.

The denial of the basic human rights of Rohingya and some other Muslims has not been limited to the actions of the army. Government policy and regulations – often associated with the discriminatory refusal to recognize them as citizens – have a knock-on effect on other rights: Rohingya do not have an automatic right to education, work or necessary social services. Because they are considered non-citizens, even their right to marry is in fact obstructed, since they must obtain a variety of authorizations before being issued a ‘marriage permit’, which may take years.

Lack of citizenship has meant that for the last couple of decades most Rohingya and many other Muslims have been excluded from a large number of employment categories: public school teachers, university lecturers, government doctors and health personnel, and most other government employment opportunities are restricted to citizens; thus in practice Rohingya are banned from all of these jobs because of the discriminatory nature of the citizenship requirements.

 

Current issues

The Rohingya are considered to be one of the most persecuted minorities on the planet. Tensions between Rohingya and Buddhist Arakanese in Rakhine State have led to large-scale attacks on Rohingya.  Though violence often grows from back-and-forth retaliations, it has quickly developed into a humanitarian crisis with tens of thousands of mostly Rohingya Muslims driven from their homes.

In May 2012, a Rakhine woman was raped and murdered; the assailants were reported to have been three Muslim men. A week later, an incensed Rakhine mob attacked a bus and beat to death 10 men perceived to be Muslim. The violence sparked a series of retaliatory attacks. According to official estimates, the attacks left 80 people dead and displaced a further 90,000, mostly Rohingya, by the end of the month. Aid workers warned of a burgeoning humanitarian crisis for Rohingya Muslims fleeing the violence. Conditions in temporary camps were described as ‘alarming’, with health experts expressing particular concern over malnutrition rates among displaced Rohingya.

The violence saw many Rohingya attempt to flee Burma in boats, only to be turned back by neighbouring Bangladesh, where tens of thousands of displaced Rohingya already live in official and unofficial refugee camps. In a report based on interviews with fleeing Rohingya, the UK-based Equal Rights Trust charged that the military had not only turned a blind eye to the violence against Rohingya, but that it had actively participated in ‘state-sponsored violence’ against them:

Hundreds of Rohingya Muslims were also arbitrarily jailed in 2012 after a wave of clashes with Buddhist Arakanese, with the majority of those killed and arrested being Muslim. The UN Special Rapporteur for human rights in Burma, Tomas Quintana, who toured the country in October 2012, cited evidence of ‘systematic torture’ against Rohingya inmates. Other reports indicated that many Rohingya prisoners had died in detention.

The eruption of anti-Muslim violence in 2012 corresponded with the launch of a Human Rights Watch report that accused the state of colluding in a campaign of ‘ethnic cleansing’ against Rohingya Muslims. A state-backed investigation published around the same time blamed the violence on ‘contentious border issues with Bangladesh’ and fears that Bengalis – referring to Rohingyas – were planning to take over the state through overpopulation. Shortly afterwards, the government reaffirmed its ‘two-child policy’ for Rohingya, further promoting a xenophobic narrative of Muslims in the country.

The violence against Rohingya has spread to a number of Burma’s cities, resulting in religious segregation and increased marginalization of non-Buddhists around the country. Over 140,000 Muslims have been expelled from cities in Rakhine State, while thousands more are in isolated ghetto-like camps outside Sittwe, Rakhine State’s capital. A fraction of Sittwe’s Muslims – who until the violence comprised almost half of its population – remain in Aung Mingalar, now the city’s only Muslim neighourhood, which they are not allowed to leave. Many shops and businesses belonging to Rohingya Muslims in Sittwe have reportedly been destroyed or taken over by Buddhists.

Burma’s Muslim population has also been targeted in Mandalay, Burma’s second largest city, where an estimated 200,000 Muslims reside. In July 2014, violence erupted following allegations that a Buddhist woman had been raped by two Muslim teashop owners, leading to the deaths of two men and many more being injured in apparent riots by Buddhist gangs. However, unlike previous riots that have escalated into large-scale communal violence, most Mandalay residents refused to participate and locals tried to defuse the situation. Nonetheless, the riots had a crippling impact on the economic lives of the city’s Muslims, many of whom run family shops and businesses.

Other government policies have also been a cause for concern. In April 2014, the government reneged on a promise to allow minorities the right to self-identify in the country’s first census in over 30 years. Instead, some 1 million Rohingya were told to register as ‘Bengalis’, indicating that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, or be excluded. A government scheme to grant citizenship to Rohingya Muslims has similarly demanded that they accept the government’s designated ethnic term. In early 2015, some half a million Rohingya Muslims were stripped of their temporary identification cards and remaining voting rights, spelling disaster for the largely stateless community.

Millions of ethnic and religious minority individuals were prevented from voting in the November 2015 poll, as a result of either conflict or discriminatory electoral rules. Notably, hundreds of thousands of temporary identity card holders – mostly Rohingya Muslims in western Burma, but also ethnic Indian and Chinese residents – were stripped of their voting rights due to concerns about their citizenship. This represented a complete change of policy from all previous elections, including the 1990 election won by the NLD but later annulled by the junta. The decision was broadly viewed as an effort to placate escalating hostility towards Rohingya. By June 2015, some 100,000 were estimated to have fled the country by boat since the outbreak of communal violence in 2012, culminating in Southeast Asia’s worst refugee crisis in decades.

In Rakhine state, Rohingya Muslims live in isolated ghettos and unsanitary displacement camps, which they can only leave if they have an official permit. The community does not have access to higher education, healthcare and employment opportunities, let alone the right to practise their culture freely. The Burmese government, which describes the minority as ‘Bengalis’, has led a systematic campaign to erase the Rohingya name and ethnic identity from the country’s history. Rohingyas are prevented from marrying, bearing children or accessing medical care without official permission, and security forces have been implicated in mass violence against them. A report by the advocacy group Fortify Rights concluded that there was ‘strong evidence’ that genocide was taking place, calling on the UN to set up a commission of inquiry to investigate abuses.

The situation of Burma’s Rohingya continues only to deteriorate, stoked by brutal and indiscriminate military assaults that have continued since the NLD came to power. On 9 October 2016, an attack on three border posts in Maungdaw district in northern Rakhine State left nine officers dead, setting off retaliatory military operations, a renewed state of emergency and denial of access to journalists, monitors and aid workers to the area. Government security forces, blaming the attacks on a Rohingya militant group, responded by conducting violent village sweeps, including the use of helicopter gunners, summarily killing, raping and torturing civilians and burning 430 buildings. The government said it had arrested 300 Rohingya suspects.  At the end of the year, according to the UN, 130,000 men, women and children were being denied aid, and 30,000 are likely displaced in these restricted areas.

These events were the worst since the massive 2012 violence against Rohingya, which many have called crimes against humanity that could amount to ethnic cleansing and genocide.  Suu Kyi has been widely criticized for her response to these reported atrocities, denying that any abuses had taken place. A government commission launched towards the end of 2016 subsequently found that no human rights abuses had taken place – a conclusion that many rights activists condemned as a whitewash.

The situation became even more catastrophic in 2017. Aid agencies reported in early September that over 70,000 Rohingya had left Burma since the most recent spate of violence commenced in late August. The government lay the blame on the armed opposition Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which it said had killed 12 government officials in attacks on police posts on 25 August and had allegedly been setting fires during fighting. But independent rights monitors reported that state security forces alongside armed citizens were attacking villages, killing and injuring Rohingya and burning down their houses in numerous villages right across Rakhine state. Survivors described family members of all ages – including children – having been killed. Soldiers reportedly also opened fire on Rohingya as they tried to flee. Protecting and assisting Rohingya civilians in Rakhine state became fraught as the government also denied access to UN aid agencies. Agency representatives said that field visit restrictions had led to them having to suspend relief operations in the area.

By the end of September 2017, nearly half a million Rohingya had fled the country, with the UN condemning the Burmese government for its policy of ethnic cleansing. Satellite imagery showed the almost total destruction of 284 villages. With the total Rohingya population in Burma having been estimated to be approximately 1.2 million, this meant that over a third of the community had been evicted from the country in the space of little more than a month, while tens of thousands had also been displaced within the country’s borders.

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