Population Transfers and Religious Persecution
The interviews with Rohingya refugees revealed what appeared to be a government policy of moving non-Muslim Burmese into northern Arakan in an effort to displace the people the government calls "foreigners." The population transfer has only intensified persecution of Muslims in the area as the following interviews illustrate.
Abdul Shokur, 50, from Kandaung village, Buthidaung, who arrived in Bangladesh in mid-February, described the population transfer in his area. He is a watchmaker and had been a villager teacher of Islam and a part-time farmer. He lived in Kandaung with his wife, Jahura Begum, 35, and his five children, aged 19 to 1.
Before the May 1990 elections, he said, pressure on Muslims in this region was sporadic. Every Muslim had an identity card which designated him or her as a "foreigner," without Burmese citizenship (Abdul had received such an ID card fifty years ago, he said.) No Muslim could travel without permits, especially to Rangoon: the fee is 4000 to 5000 Denga (US$600 to 750), or ten times the average Akyab monthly salary. Muslims were frequently told they were not Burmese but Bangladeshi.
Most of Buthidaung district supported Aung San Suu Kyi in the election, with what Abdul described as a relative lack of public fear. Immediately after that election, however, brutality became commonplace, and has escalated in the past twelve months to a level that has surprised even the Muslims. "Our village is occupied, now," Abdul said. "They go house to house, day and night."
Mosques were at first locked up, and then destroyed throughout the area with forced Muslim labor, and Buddhist temples erected in their places. Starting two years ago, all of Abdul's rice yield from his fields was confiscated for military use, save a small amount insufficient to sustain even his family of seven. The rest of the land was occupied by military facilities, and distributed to non-Muslims in housing projects built with forced Muslim labor.
Two years ago, these housing projects for card-holding Burmese citizens were begun and the construction is continuing. About 150 homes of Muslims in Kandaung have been appropriated for non-Muslims, as well as 150 new buildings erected for dwellings. All new construction is on Muslim agricultural land; military personnel have announced that Muslims are not the owners, that Burmese are, and that all Muslims should "go home" to Bangladesh.
Abdul Shokur said most of the tenants being brought to the housing projects are from Rangoon, but some "are from Bangladesh,"(non-Muslims / Rakhines) Abdul stated, having conversed with several of them himself. Though Muslims are not allowed in this housing, "my white beard and status as an elder teacher here allow me to talk to people sometimes," he explained. There are about 20 families from Cox's Bazaar, Nila and Ramu in Bangladesh who are newly settled in Kandaung now. Newcomer tenants receive, they told him, one cow, eight or ten kani of land to cultivate (one kani is about 60 square meters), as well as military and agricultural training.
This military training of civilians, including the use of arms, has increased the level of abuse against Muslims in the past year, according to Abdul. Non-Muslim civilians frequently join soldiers in beatings of Muslims and looting of their property, and random harassment has also increased.
One day shortly before he fled Burma, when Abdul Shokur had gone to pray, his family of six was pulled out of the house and into the street, to be taken to a camp. He saw them in time, protested to the soldiers, and was told he could pay 2000 Denga (US$298) for their release. He was able to do so, though he said it was the only such offer of ransom of which he had heard, and credited it to his white beard and status as an elder in the village. The day he paid the ransom, a captain in the Burmese military told the soldiers standing by, "Send him to Bangladesh." Soon after, the soldiers discovered Abdul teaching the Koran to some children. They ridiculed him for it, threw the book out onto the ground, and stomped it with their boots. It was at this point Abdul decided to flee for Bangladesh with his family.
All seven members walked for five days before reaching the Naaf River. They brought only their clothes.
By Ahmedur Rahman Farooq
Chairman, The Council for Restoration of Democracy in Burma (CRDB)
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