By Parameswaran Ponnudurai
The week-long sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslims in Burma’s western Rakhine state has thrown the spotlight on the Rohingya, one of the most oppressed groups in the country, and compels the government to address a burning issue that has been swept under the carpet for decades.
Most of the estimated 800,000-strong Rohingya Muslim minority in Burma live in Rakhine, a predominantly Buddhist state bordering Bangladesh where dozens of people have been killed in clashes triggered by the rape and murder last month of a Buddhist girl, allegedly by three Muslims, and the June 3 lynching of 10 Muslims in apparent retaliation.
In revenge attacks, Rohingya mobs in the state’s capital Sittwe burned the homes and businesses of ethnic Rakhine Buddhists, and the army opened fire and allegedly killed Rohingyas, according to Human Rights Watch. Mobs of Rohingyas and Buddhists armed with sticks and swords have also gone on a rampage, burning hundreds of homes and resulting in numerous deaths.
Experts say Rakhine has always been a tinderbox of hatred between the two communities with the potential to explode, laying the blame largely on the Buddhist-majority government for regarding the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and rendering them stateless even though many of them have lived in the country for generations.
“What has happened recently is just more of a symptom of a long history of really horrible discriminatory treatment of the Rohingya,” Kelley Currie, a former Asia policy adviser in the U.S. State Department, told RFA.
Burmese authorities, particularly the military junta which ruled the country repressively for half a century until it was replaced by a nominally civilian government in March last year, “have handled this situation badly for decades, have encouraged this mentality among the people that these individuals are stateless, and made little efforts to integrate them or resolve this problem in a sustainable way,” she said.
The religious dimension of the Rohingya problem is particularly troubling and one which people seldom talk about, said Currie, now an expert at the Washington-based Project 2049 Institute.
“The military junta over the past 20 years has really emphasized Buddhism as the religion of the ‘true’ Burmese people, and they have been cited repeatedly for religious persecution by the United States,” she said.
The government’s refusal to recognize that the Rohingya are Burmese citizens is among reasons why Burma has been blacklisted by the U.S. State Department as a “country of particular concern” in its annual surveys on international religious freedom.
Aside from being stateless, the Rohingya are subject to a rule, embedded in marriage licenses, that they are only permitted to have two children, rights groups say. They lack access to health care, food, and education and are subject to forced labor and travel restrictions.
They are widely regarded within Burma as “Bengalis”—a term for people of Bangladeshi nationality.
The current government of President Thein Sein, which has been lauded for implementing political and economic reforms over the last year, has come under criticism for continuing the junta’s discriminatory policies towards the Rohingya.
“There is no change of attitude of the new civilian government of U [honorific] 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,” said Nurul Islam, president of the London-based Arakan Rohingya National Organization, according to the IRIN humanitarian news agency in a March dispatch.
The Rohingya were given voting rights in Burma’s landmark 2010 elections and, according to the report, were promised citizenship if they voted for the military regime’s representatives.
“Citizenship is still not restored,” said Islam. “Killing, rape, harassment, torture, and atrocious crimes by border security forces and armed forces have increased. The humiliating restrictions on their freedom of movement, education, marriage, trade, and business still remain imposed.”
Thein Sein has said that the violence in Rakhine, known as Arakan State in British colonial times, was fueled by dissatisfaction harbored by different religious and ethnic groups and the desire for vengeance, warning that it could scuttle his reform agenda which is key to lifting of international sanctions.
“Damage .. .could be done to the peace, stability, democratic process, and development of our country during its period of transformation, if the unrest spreads,” he said.
Thein Sein’s reform plans include negotiations with armed ethnic groups fighting for autonomy. Rohingya activists demand recognition as a Burmese ethnic group, claiming a centuries-old link to Rakhine state.
“The plight of Rohingyas should be an integral part of any reconciliation program involving ethnic groups,” said T. Kumar, international advocacy director at Amnesty International.
“Ethnic minorities in general and Rohingyas in particular have been shortchanged,” he said.
But even some pro-democracy dissidents from Burma’s ethnic Burman majority, which makes up nearly 70 percent of the country’s population, refuse to acknowledge the Rohingyas as compatriots.
“We have not said anything about this for a long time, but now we have to express our views on the Rohingya,” said Ko Ko Gyi, a prominent leader of the 88 Generation Students, a pro-democracy organization founded by leaders of 1988 anti-government street protests.
“The Rohingya are not a Burmese ethnic group. The root cause of the violence … comes from across the border and foreign countries,” he said, adding that countries that criticize Burma for its refusal to recognize the Rohingya should respect its sovereignty.
Against the backdrop of the current Rohingya crisis, confronting the ethnic problem will be the “most difficult challenge” for Thein Sein’s government, said Suzanne DiMaggio, the vice-president of New York-based Asia Society’s Global Policy Programs.
“Unless and until the ethnic problems are resolved, all of the progress made in the reform area could be wiped away,” she said. “Ultimately, if the country wants to have a cohesive population, the ethnic issues have to be looked at in a comprehensive way. That is very difficult to do.”
Will the violence then force Thein Sein’s government to confront the Rohingya issue head on?
“The fact that it has gotten a very strong international reaction, including a strong statement from the United States, I think has pushed this issue up their priority list and they will have to address it; they will have to do something about it,” Currie of Project 2049 Institute said.
“But I wouldn’t expect them to do anything to resolve this issue in a very sustainable way. I expect them to do whatever they need to do to get this off the front pages and get it out of people’s attention and tamp it down for the time being so that people aren’t bothering them about it.”