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Muslims and Rohingya in Myanmar

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    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 hundreds 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 Myanmar in boats, only to be turned back by neighbouring Bangladesh, where tens of thousands of displaced Rohingya already lived 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 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 were 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 – remained in Aung Mingalar, now the city’s only Muslim neighourhood, which they were not allowed to leave. Many shops and businesses belonging to Rohingya Muslims in Sittwe were 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. Muslims frequently report various problems in securing National Registration Card (NRCs), including the requirement that Muslims provide extensive documentation regarding family lineage that is often impossible to obtain, the flat-out denial of an NRC card to Muslims, and the refusal by authorities to register Muslims as solely Bama (the majority ethnicity in Burma). Instead, they are demanded to add another nationality in their NRCs from a majority-Muslim country, such as Pakistan or Bangladesh, regardless of having no family connections with that country. In turn, this has resulted in a precarious situation of statelessness whereby a vision of a Bama-Buddhist nation is enforced, dominating all other minority groups and in which the Rohingya effectively have no place. 

    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 National League for Democracy (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 Myanmar 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 continued 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.  State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi has been widely criticized for her response to these and subsequent atrocities, denying that any violations have taken place. A government commission launched towards the end of 2016 subsequently found that no human rights abuses had occurred – a conclusion that many rights activists condemned as a whitewash. 

    The persecution of Rohingya, while loaded with strong ethnic dimensions – community members are frequently vilified as ‘Bengalis’ – also has a religious dimension. The religious freedom of Muslims has also been targeted under the new government. Two Muslim interfaith activists, Zaw Zaw Latt and Pwint Phyu Latt, who conducted a well-publicized interfaith peace visit to the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and a humanitarian mission to Chin State, were charged in April 2016 for illegally crossing into India and associating with banned organizations. They were sentenced to two years with labour for each charge, in what many have called an intimidation tactic for their peaceful activismIn April 2017, two Islamic schools, madrassas, were closed by the authorities in Yangon’s Thaketa Township after demonstrations by Buddhist ultranationalists. In addition, since 2012, there has been a rising number of villages where locals, backed by the authorities, have erected signboards warning Muslims not to enter. At least 21 cases have been documented by local activists. Examples of messages written in these signboards include ‘Muslims are not allowed to stay overnight’, ‘Muslims are not allowed to buy or rent properties’, ‘No one is allowed to marry Muslims’, ‘If you try to feed the tiger it will eat you’ and ‘If you give any space to Kalar, your country, race and religion will be eliminated’. The existence of these villages is a testament to the toxic effect of the prevailing narrative that depicts Muslims as a threat that needs controlling, leading to further segregation and hatred. 

    In 2017, the situation facing Rohingya worsened drastically, with catastrophic consequences for the community. By early September, over 70,000 Rohingya had left Burma for Bangladesh within just a few days, due to renewed violence. The government blamed the situation 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. The government also alleged that ARSA had been setting fires in Rohingya villages during fighting. But independent human rights monitors reported that Burmese military together with armed citizens were attacking villages across Rakhine State. Survivors described victims of all ages, including children, having been killed. Soldiers reportedly also opened fire on Rohingya as they tried to flee across the border. Protecting and assisting Rohingya civilians became difficult as the government also denied access to UN aid agencies. By the end of September 2017, nearly half a million Rohingya had fled the country and tens of thousands had been displaced inside Burma, with the UN condemning what it considered to be a deliberate policy of ethnic cleansing. Over 20,000 mainly ethnic Rakhine and other non-Muslims had also been displaced, due to the actions of either ARSA or the Burmese military. 

    By the end of September 2017, nearly half a million Rohingya had fled the country, with the UN condemning the Burmese government for its deliberate policy of ethnic cleansing. 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. 

    In the months that followed, the United Nations Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) reported that a total of approximately 745,000 Rohingya, including some 400,000 children, fled into the narrow strip of land around Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh. As of March 2019, over 909,000 Rohingya lived in camps in the area. They live mostly in 34 extremely crowded settlements, including the largest single site, the Kutupalong-Balukhali Expansion Site, where approximately 626,500 Rohingya refugees live. Many are extremely traumatised, having seen whole villages burned to the ground, and families forcibly separated with women and girls being subjected to gang rapes.  

    In addition, by spring 2018, there were approximately 120,000 Rohingya internally displaced, mainly restricted to crowded camps in Rakhine state. Without freedom of movement, they lack access to employment and essential services, including health care and education. The government has claimed that they are free to move around, as long as they hold a National Verification Card (NVC). These cards were introduced as part of a Citizenship Verification Programme, launched in 2014; however, they require Rohingya to self-identify as ‘Bengalis’. The government states that they are a necessary first step before applying for citizenship, promising that it can be obtained within 5 months. Most Rohingya question why they should have to go through this process, when their families have lived in the country for generations and their parents held NRCs.  

    The destruction of villages appears to be a particularly deliberate and targeted tactic. Using satellite imagery, Human Rights Watch recorded a total of 354 villages having been burned to the ground by the end of 2017. At least 118 were either partially or completely destroyed after 5 September when the government had stated that it was ending its clearance operations. A further report in February 2018 concluded that at least 55 villages had been bulldozed. Local activists recorded mass grave sites also being destroyed in a clear effort to remove evidence of atrocities.  

    In March 2017, the UN Human Rights Council authorised an independent fact-finding mission to Myanmar, with a focus on the ongoing violations in Rakhine, Kachin and Shan States. The investigation met with Myanmar resistance; Suu Kyi stated that the purpose of the mission was not ‘in keeping with what is actually happening on the ground.’ And the foreign ministry said that it would not issue any visas to mission members. Nevertheless, in September 2018, the mission issued its findings. It had found patterns of gross human rights violations and serious violations of international humanitarian law in Kachin, Rakhine and Shan States, amounting to the gravest crimes under international law. The mission report calls for Myanmar military generals to be investigated for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. Indeed, the mission chairperson Marzuki Darusman stated at the end of 2018 that there was an ‘ongoing genocide’ in Rakhine State. The report was met by total denials from the Myanmar authorities. Some months later, the mission members went to Cox’s Bazaar to report directly to members of the Rohingya community.  

    In October 2018 there were moves by the Bangladesh government to begin returning Rohingya refugees to Myanmar. A repatriation agreement between the two governments was reached by January 2018The Myanmar authorities had apparently stated that they would be receiving 1,500 Rohingya per week, although human rights activists feared that the returnees would simply end up in camps for the displaced. When the first trucks with returnees were meant to leave in November, no Rohingya were willing to go.  The UN has been highly critical of these moves, stating that it had inadequate access to areas of return, the attacks against Rohingya were still on-going and their rights – particularly citizenship – had not been secured. At the end of February 2019, Bangladesh’s Foreign Secretary Shahidul Haque announced at the UN Security Council that it would no longer allow Rohingya refugees to cross the border.

    Also in February, 2019, the UN launched an investigation into its own mission in Myanmar, following considerable pressure from within the organization. In particular, the investigation will focus on why the UN had been so slow in heeding the warning signs ahead of the massive outbreak of violence against Myanmar’s Rohingya community in 2017.

    Updated June 2019

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