They have been persecuted and discriminated against for decades but few can even pronounce their name let alone know of their plight. Buddhist attacks on the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, have picked up over the last few weeks following the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman in May. Human rights groups say the security forces are also involved in the targeted attacks, which started in June. Thousands of Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh – but thousands more have been refused entry.
Ethnic tensions in Myanmar
For those who do make it across the border their troubles are far from over. An estimated 800,000 Rohingya live in Myanmar’s Rakhine state with another 200,000 in Bangladesh. They are not recognised by either country. Myanmar has long faced tensions with many of its ethnic minorities, and the new government has agreed to a ceasefire with many of the groups. But last week, Thein Sein, the president of Myanmar, told the UN that the solution was either to send millions of Rohingya to another country or to have the UN look after them.
“We will take responsibility for ethnic nationalities but it is not at all possible to recognise the illegal border-crossing Rohingya who are not of our ethnicity”, he said. The president added that the conflict poses a threat to the democratic and economic reforms his government has launched, warning that: “Stability and peace, the democratisation process and the development of the country, which are in transition right now, could be severely affected and much would be lost”.
Escalation of ethnic violence
Human Rights group Amnesty International has accused security forces and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists of carrying out fresh, targeted attacks against Rohingya, the Muslim minority group in Myanmar. Violence in the last six weeks has been “primarily one-sided, with Muslims generally and Rohingya specifically the targets and victims”, said Benjamin Zawacki, a Bangkok-based researcher for Amnesty. “Some of this is by the security forces’ own hands, some by Rakhine Buddhists with the security forces turning a blind eye in some cases”, he said. The violence, which reached its bloodiest point in June, constituted some of the country’s deadliest sectarian bloodshed in years and raised international concerns about the Rohingya’s fate inside Myanmar. Following a series of isolated killings starting in late May that left victims on both sides, bloody skirmishes quickly spread across much of Myanmar’s coastal Rakhine state. The government declared a state of emergency on 10 June, deploying troops to quell the unrest and protect both mosques and monasteries. The worst of the violence subsided two weeks later, and authorities said at least 78 people were killed and thousands of homes were burned down or destroyed, with damages roughly split evenly between Buddhists and Muslims.
The problem of refugee status
Thein Sein, Myanmar’s president, said earlier this month that the solution to ethnic minority in Rakhine state was to either send the Rohingya to a third country or have the United Nations refugee agency look after them. UNHCR chief Antonio Guterres said, however, that it was not his agency’s job to resettle the Rohingya. One month after sectarian violence swept across northwestern Myanmar, Rohingya refugees are now fleeing to Bangladesh by the boatload, in a bid to escape the violence. Despite their plight, Bangladesh is stepping up its efforts to stop refugees from crossing over. Amnesty called on Myanmar to accept the Rohingya as citizens, something the government has staunchly opposed because it does not consider them an ethnic group native to Myanmar. “Under international human rights law and standards, no one may be left or rendered stateless”, Amnesty’s Zawacki said.”For too long Myanmar’s human rights record has been marred by the continued denial of citizenship for Rohingya and a host of discriminatory practices against them”.
Background: History of Rohingya
The history of Rohingya minority dates back to the early seventh century when Arab Muslim traders settled in the area. According to the UN estimations there are about 800,000 Rohingya in Myanmar, including people of Bengali heritage who settled centuries ago as well as those who entered the country in recent decades. But the law in Myanmar considers as citizens only those who settled in the country before independence in 1948. Post-independence immigrants are officially considered illegal. Adding to the confusion over who is an illegal immigrant is the large exodus of Rohingya who fled to Bangladesh in the 1980s and 1990s because of persecution.