As Myanmar gears up for a by-election on 1 April, experts and community leaders are divided over what the ongoing reforms may hold for the Rohingya people, a stateless Muslim ethnic group living in the country’s Northern Rakhine State.
Candidate and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has highlighted ethnic conflicts as the country’s most urgent problem. In January the government signed a ceasefire with ethnic Karen rebels in southern Burma to halt one of the world’s longest running civil wars.
But to the frustration of Nurul Islam, president of the London-based Arakan Rohingya National Organization, “There is no change of attitude of the new civilian government of U Thein Sein towards Rohingya people; there is no sign of change in the human rights situation of Rohingya people. Persecution against them is actually greater than before.”
The Rohingya are not legally recognized in Myanmar and struggle with a lack of access to healthcare, food and education.
There are some 800,000 stateless Muslims, mostly Rohingyas, who form 90 percent of the population of northern Rakhine State, which borders Bangladesh and includes the townships of Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Rathedaung.
Known as Arakan State in British colonial times, in 1989 the ruling military junta changed its name to Rakhine State to reflect the dominant ethnic group, the Rakhine Buddhists. Communal violence between Muslims and Buddhists has led to periodic large-scale riots, forcing hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas to flee to Bangladesh.
The heavily populated (295 persons per square kilometre compared to 80 persons nationwide), primarily rural and disaster-prone zone suffers from a consistently high rate of global acute malnutrition that exceeds the World Health Organization emergency threshold of 15 percent, according to the European Community Humanitarian Office.
In early 2011, the UN World Food Programme reported 45 percent of surveyed households in Northern Rakhine State as “severely food insecure”, compared to 38 percent in 2009.
Some 200,000 Rohingya have fled west from Myanmar into neighbouring Bangladesh. Almost 30,000 are documented and living in two government camps, assisted by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), but hundreds of thousands more have been living illegally nearby since the Bangladeshi government stopped registering arrivals.
Given the unprecedented pace of change in Myanmar, Eric Paulsen, co-founder of the Malaysia-based human rights and law reform NGO, Lawyers for Liberty, has advised Rohingyas to make the most of the current political opening.
Rohingya activists have long demanded recognition as a national ethnic group with full citizenship by birthright, but Paulsen thinks they should push for naturalization.
“Naturalized citizenship is not on a par with national ethnic group recognition, but at present it remains the most realistic and workable solution to their statelessness,” Paulsen recently wrote.
The Arakan Rohingya National Organization is pursuing full recognition and is unhappy about a perceived lack of support. “Obviously she [Aung San Suu Kyi] is ignoring the Rohingya problem, a key human rights issue in Burma,” said Islam.
“However, still the Rohingyas have high expectations of her. Rather than avoiding the Rohingya people and their problem, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi should take all measures to formally accommodate Rohingya into the family of the Union of Burma, with full ethnic and citizenship rights, as one of the many ethnic nationalities of the country.”
Tin Soe, the editor of the Bangladesh-based Rohingya newsgroup, Kaladan Press Network, noted that elections do not necessarily equate democracy, without which Rohingyas cannot gain legal recognition.
“We Rohingya will fight for our rights in the parliament if democracy comes to Burma,” Soe told IRIN. “Then we will lobby the parliament, hold demonstrations, show them the results of our fact finding. Now you basically have the armed forces still in power - with them you cannot do anything.”
Following Myanmar’s transition from military to a nominally civilian government in 2010, many Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh were briefly hopeful, but soon disappointed.
“After the 2010 election the Rohingya situation is going from worse to worse,” said Soe. Rohingyas were given voting rights in the 2010 elections and promised citizenship if they voted for the military regime’s representatives, he added.
Photo: Photo courtesy of The Arakan Project
|Life on the run for Rohingyas|
“Citizenship is still not restored,” said Islam. “Killing, rape, harassment, torture and atrocious crimes of border security forces and armed forces have increased. The humiliating restrictions on their freedom of movement, education, marriage, trade and business still remain imposed.”
The Bangladeshi government has sought support for repatriating Rohingya refugees to Myanmar and according to Bangladeshi media, representatives of the Burmese government have said the country is ready to “take” them back.
“The refugees are against repatriation because conditions in Northern Rakhine State have not improved at all, so the announcement has created a new panic in the [Bangladeshi] camps,” said Chris Lewa, who monitors the Rohingya situation for the Arakan Project, an NGO advocating Rohingya issues in Myanmar.
“They don't know what will happen,” Lewa said. “The fear is there that harassment in the camps [to force repatriation] may happen again soon.”
For more, visit IRIN's in-depth: What next for Myanmar?