Long considered one of the world’s most persecuted peoples, the Muslim Rohingya have no legal status in Burma and face severe discrimination, abuse, and escalating violence. In 2012, violent attacks, fanned by a campaign of virulent anti-Muslim hate speech that continues today, destroyed numerous Rohingya communities and displaced well more than 100,000. Today, the Rohingya in Burma are forcibly isolated, cut off from nearly all goods and services, and unable to provide for themselves. According to the United Nations, crimes against humanity have been, and continue to be, perpetrated against the Rohingya. Their treatment, combined with statements by government, political, and religious leaders indicate that the Rohingya are being subjected to ethnic cleansing.
While the Burmese government has signaled its intention to alleviate the plight of the Rohingya, little has as yet been done to address the fundamental causes of their suffering. Burma’s democracy movement has been largely silent about the treatment of the Rohingya.
The Rohingya are a Muslim minority in Rakhine (also called Arakan) State, which borders Bangladesh and has a Buddhist majority that is ethnically Rakhine. Although Rohingya have resided in Arakan for at least several centuries, Burma’s 1982 citizenship law does not include them among the country’s officially recognized ethnic groups, effectively denying them any right to citizenship. The Burmese government classifies the approximately 800,000 Rohingya as “Bengalis” and insists that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Since Burma’s independence in 1948, the Rohingya have been subjected to periodic campaigns of violence and continue to face various forms of official and unofficial persecution, including:
Rakhine State is one of Burma’s poorest states, and the Rakhine ethnic group has also long suffered from economic discrimination and cultural repression by the Burmese majority and central government. As Buddhists and an officially recognized minority, however, the Rakhine enjoy rights and opportunities denied to the Rohingya, who are universally reviled in Burma. Poverty exacerbates Rakhine animosities toward the Rohingya, whom the Rakhine view as alien competitors for scarce resources. These animosities erupted into communal violence between Rohingya and Rakhine between June and October 2012 that left hundreds dead and more than 140,000 displaced, the vast majority of whom were Rohingya. The deadliest violence consisted of Rakhine attacks against Rohingya communities. According to both Rakhine and Rohingya witnesses, Buddhist monks and local Rakhine politicians incited and led many of the attacks, with state security forces failing or refusing to stop the violence and sometimes participating in it. The violence forced the Rohingya to abandon many of their communities, where anything left standing after the attacks was subsequently razed by the government.
The displaced Rohingya now live in official and unofficial IDP camps under conditions that the UN’s emergency relief coordinator has called among the worst she has ever seen. Humanitarian aid workers have frequently been prevented from accessing these camps.
Citing the need to maintain security, Burmese officials have essentially imprisoned much of the Rohingya population, using barbed wire and barricades to cordon off not only those in the camps but also another 36,000 in still extant Rohingya communities. Denied permission to exit, the inhabitants cannot access markets, schools, or health care facilities and cannot pursue their livelihoods. A recent UN report cited “alarming rates of severe acute malnutrition” in the camps. In May 2013, the UN’s special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Burma, Tomas Ojea Quintana, cited “credible allegations that widespread and systematic human rights violations by state officials targeted against the Rohingya and wider Muslim populations have occurred and are continuing in Rakhine State.”
There have been some positive, if mixed, developments. Since early 2013, the central and local governments have taken significant steps to improve humanitarian access and provide safer shelter to the displaced ahead of the monsoon season. These efforts, however, included a registration drive that required Rohingya to identify themselves as “Bengali,” which many viewed as forcing them to accede to illegal status. In May 2013, the government commission established to investigate the 2012 violence—which had no Rohingya members—called for general measures to improve communal relations in Rakhine State and to hold those responsible for the violence accountable, but it also recommended birth control measures for the “Bengalis.” In response, local officials in Rakhine State announced stepped-up enforcement of the two-child limit for Rohingya. Although Burma’s minister of immigration and population originally praised this measure, both he and the chief minister of Rakhine State recently assured Special Adviser Ojea Quintana that no such policy is in force. Meanwhile, however, politicians and monks in Rakhine State have openly called for ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya.
While Burma’s president, Thein Sein, has pledged to seek regularization of the Rohingya’s legal status, he also insists that there is no need to change the 1982 citizenship law, under which it is practically impossible for most Rohingya to obtain citizenship. In July 2013, the central government abolished the notoriously abusive NaSaKa border security force in Rakhine State, but the police forces that replaced them are reportedly continuing many abusive practices targeting the Rohingya. In August 2013, Rakhine authorities prosecuted six Rakhines for murdering Rohingya bus passengers at the start of the violence in June 2012, but thus far the majority of the persons prosecuted for last year’s violence have been Rohingya, despite the fact that Rohingya make up the vast majority of the victims.
This lack of accountability has likely contributed to the outpouring of anti-Muslim hate speech that since March has been accompanied by sporadic violence targeting Muslim Burmese citizens residing in other parts of the country. While Buddhist monks have been among the most visible instigators, there is ample evidence of security forces’ complicity in the violence, which has claimed scores of lives and destroyed thousands of properties. The Buddhist “969” movement uses anti-Muslim hate speech and intimidation to force boycotts of Muslim businesses and is now seeking to criminalize marriage between Muslim men and Buddhist women. The escalating segregation and discrimination against Burma’s Muslims, who comprise about 5% of the population, leave them in well-founded fear for their safety and livelihoods.