Dr. Habib Siddiqui
[Author’s note: This paper is based on author’s speech at the PENN HUMAN RIGHTS FORUM on “The Rohingyas of Burma and Bangladesh” on Friday, March 31, 2006 in the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, USA. The material in this paper came from author’s personal contacts with the Rohingya Diaspora community and information that is available in the reports of various human rights groups, notably the Amnesty International, the Human Rights Watch and the Karen Human Rights Group.]
Part 1: Nightmare, fiction or a living reality?
Imagine this. You are living in a country that does not recognize you as a citizen in spite of the fact that your forefathers lived there for centuries. If that were not enough of a traumatic experience, consider that other ethnic groups who are fighting the regime for self-determination and human rights consider you as outsiders. It must be your worst kind of nightmare when you realize that half of your people have been forced to take asylum or refuge outside, and you may be the next in line to seek a way out of this living hell.
Your country is run by a military regime that is the most brutal, savage and guilty of committing the worst form of ethnic cleansing of this century. Those of you who dared to still reside in the country face daily intimidation, extortion, abuse and repression. You are forced to such a destitute condition that you dare neither to complain against its innate savagery nor oppose its deep brutality by supporting opposition. That is, the regime follows the textbook case of undermining opposition by directly attacking the civilians who support them, which is more like draining the pond until the fish cannot swim.
One of the tactics of this ruthless regime includes military offensives where hundreds of villages are destroyed and burned so that people are forced to flee to the jungle or cross the border; they cannot return to their homes. [If they do, they face arrest and torture being accused of aiding or joining the rebels during their period of hiding.] The territory is conveniently called ‘cleaned’ of the rebel forces.
Another tactic involves evicting people from their homes. For this, the victims don’t even need to belong to a hostile group or camp that is in armed conflict with the military. They are given an order to vacate their homes within the next few days. No reason is given why and where they will relocate. No compensation is paid either to the victims for such eviction notices.1 A similar tactic involves confiscation of land of farmers. Farmers must now work for free as forced or modern-day slave labors to grow paddy for the military. They must bear all expenses for the production.2 Often times such actions create forced starvation and internal refugee problem. A prosperous farmer, businessman or trader overnight becomes a beggar.
If this be the situation when there is no insurgency against the brutal military thugs, imagine the situation in places where some form of hostility does exist. In those territories, an often-practiced tactic involves forcing military ceasefires that do not tackle any political or human rights issue. Such ceasefires often bring about large-scale forced relocations. Locals are evicted from their homes and forced to hand over their entire rice harvest to the Army and relocate to Army-controlled ‘centers’ (touted as “model villages”) or face being shot on sight. The locals are usually given no more than a week to move, after which they are told that their homes and belongings will be destroyed and they will be shot on sight if seen around their homes. After the relocation deadline the Army usually sends out patrols to destroy the villages, and particularly to hunt out and destroy any food supplies. The villagers are forced to stay away from their fields, and are only allowed to leave the village between dawn and dusk under threat of being shot if they are out after curfew. This disrupts the entire crop cycle, because villagers find that they can no longer produce their own food.
So the country that was once famous for its bumper crops is now famine-stricken with farmers now dying of starvation. They simply cannot afford buying food at the soaring price. Landmines have become an extra threat to villagers, particularly over the past few years replacing the country as the worst landmine hotspot after Afghanistan.
The junta’s strategy includes consolidating control by forcing all villagers and township residents to Army-controlled sites, then using them as forced/slave labor to build access roads into their resettled home areas, then establishing Army camps along the roads, and then re-introducing villagers into what are essentially ‘forced labor villages’ along the roads where they can be easily controlled and are always available to serve the soldiers. No one is allowed to live outside the reach of the Army any longer. They have to bring their own food and building supplies because nothing is given to them. In many cases they even have to hand over their rice to the Army.3 Once in the relocation site, people have no opportunity to return to their fields and must survive by working as local day-labor. At the same time, the Army uses them as a convenient source of unpaid forced/slave labor at local Army camps and along the roads, making it almost impossible for them to support themselves. After a few months, many people find that they have little option but to starve or flee.4
Out of desperation to earn a livelihood, many villagers are now forced to cut wood in deep jungle. But there, too, they are not safe from ‘target’ shooting practices of the ruthless border security forces. Many die or sustain injury from gunshots.5
Villagers and township residents face daily or weekly demands from all of the Army camps and mobile patrols in their area. At any given time, a village has to provide an average of one person per household for a whole range of forced labor: forced porters, guides and human minesweepers for military columns, messengers and sentries for Army camps, building and maintaining Army camp fences, trenches, booby-traps, and barracks, cutting and hauling firewood, cooking and carrying water to soldiers, building and rebuilding military supply roads, clearing shrub along roadsides to minimize the
possibility of ambush, standing sentry along military supply roads, growing crops for the Army on confiscated land, and engaging in profit-making activities for the officers such as brick-baking, rubber planting or digging fishponds, let alone drug-trafficking. Every Army unit demands most of these things from the surrounding villages, and every village is surrounded by three, four or five Army units.
The forced labor is usually demanded on a rotating basis; a specified number of locals must go for a day or a week with all their own food and tools, and they are not released until their replacements arrive for the next shift. Nothing is provided for them, and they often have to work under guard. Conditions for porters are especially brutal; forced to carry loads of rations or ammunition weighing 30 kg or more, they are marched in front of soldiers to detonate mines and kicked or beaten if they are too slow. If they become ill or cannot continue they are killed or left behind, and many porters die either during portering or afterwards, from disease complicated by physical exhaustion and malnutrition.6
To avoid forced labor, the village men leave the village to stay in hiding in their field huts or in the forest while the women, children and the elderly remain behind in the village to protect the house from looting by soldiers and to carry on some semblance of family life. The men only sneak back into the village for food and to visit when Army patrols are not around. This system makes the women particularly vulnerable, because Army patrols arriving at the village often rape them on seeing that the men are not around. Truly, rape is used as a weapon of war to ethnically cleanse the territory.7 In the absence of men, they often take the women as porters, or accuse them of being married to ‘rebel soldiers’ and hold them hostage pending the return of their husbands.8 The crimes similar to Abu Ghraib are routinely practiced on these prisoners.
Nowadays most people know what to expect at the relocation sites, so when they are ordered to move they simply flee into hiding in the forests surrounding their paddy fields. They then try to survive from hidden rice supplies around their villages, planting small patches of crops in several different places and fleeing from place to place whenever Army patrols come around. Tens of thousands of people are presently living this way. They have little food and many are starving, there is no access to medicines and many die of treatable diseases. They live under the constant risk of being captured or shot by passing Army patrols that also seek out and destroy their food supplies and crops in the fields. Many of them have been living this way for two to three years already. Eventually, finding that they can no longer survive this way, many of them try to make their way to the border to become refugees.9
In some localities, out of desperation, villagers have tried to appease the government forces by making their own ‘peace’ agreements. They promise to abide by all demands of the military. These villages are subsequently labeled ‘peace’ villages. But even in these villages the demands for forced labor, money, food and materials usually
become so intense that the village elders cannot keep up with them.10 They are then arrested and tortured for failure to comply, houses are sometimes burned and many villagers flee just as though there had never been any agreement.
With the rapid expansion of the Army in recent years to its current strength of over 400,000 troops, villagers who have never seen fighting now find their villages surrounded by 3 or 4 Army camps within walking distance. The officers in these camps see the civilian population as little more than a convenient pool of forced laborers and a source of profit. Villages receive a constant stream of written and spoken orders demanding their forced labor as Army camp servants, messengers and sentries, cutting and hauling building materials for camp construction, building and maintaining the camp. They are also taken as porters, because Army needs people to haul rations and supplies to Army camps, or from the Battalion bases to faraway outposts.11
The regime also uses villagers as forced labor to construct a new or improve the existing road networks and build infrastructure such as railways and hydro dams. Conditions on such projects can be brutal, with one person per family demanded on rotating one or two week shifts.12
For Army officers, a posting in the countryside is an opportunity to make a great deal of personal profit in a short time. Officers order villagers to cut logs and bamboo, claiming it is for the Army camp but then selling it on the market for personal profit. Other such schemes include forcing villagers as well as rank and file soldiers to bake bricks or dig and maintain fish ponds. All profit goes to the officers, who also confiscate most of the rations intended for their soldiers and approximately half of the soldiers’ pay in the name of various ‘fees’ and ‘contributions’, then sell the rations on the market and tell the soldiers to get their food from the villages. This situation has become even worse since 1998, when the Junta cut back severely on rations to units in the field and ordered them to produce more of their own food or take it from the farmers. The result has been the systematic confiscation of much of the best farmland by Army units. The farmers are not paid any compensation. Worse yet, they are called out for forced labor farming their confiscated land, from planting to harvesting, and the officers then take the entire harvest. Some villages report that they even have to provide the seed for planting these fields.13
In addition to forced labor, villagers face constant demands for cash, food and materials from every Army unit in their area.14 On average, a family must hand over anywhere from large sums of money to the Army in cash as extortion which masquerades under the names of ‘porter fees’, ‘servants’ fees’, ‘development fees’, ‘pagoda fees’, and so on. In theory, this money is supposed to be used to hire people for forced labor or to support projects in the area, but in reality it is pocketed by the officers, and forced laborers are not paid.
Villagers must also pay to avoid forced labor when they are ill or cannot go, at exuberant rates for days of labor missed. Cash is very hard to come by for most
subsistence farmers in rural areas because they do not operate in a cash-based economy, but if they do not pay these fees they are arrested. Every farmer must also hand over a quota of every crop to the authorities for next to nothing. Usually this quota amounts to approximately 30% of the entire crop, but after the farmer deducts the portion of his harvest required for seed stocks, payments in rice for previous loans, use of other villagers’ buffaloes to plough, etc., the quota amounts to 50% or more of what is left. Quotas have been increasing in recent years, and no exceptions are made for bad crop years. The farmers often have no option but to buy rice on the market to fulfill the quota in such years, while the family goes hungry. The price paid for quota is less than half of market price, but corrupt officials take out so many ‘deductions’ for themselves that the farmers usually receive no more than 10-20% of market price for quota rice. Even with little or no rice left to feed their families, the farmers still face regular demands for rice and meat to feed the local Army camps, and armed patrols often enter villages to loot rice, livestock and valuables.15
In some villages the regime sometimes sanctions the construction of a primary or middle school, but usually it is the villagers who must pay the cost of building it as well as the salary of the state-supplied teacher. More remote villages usually cannot afford to do this, so many have opened their own primary-level schools with their own volunteer teachers. Since the beginning of 1999, the authorities have been ordering the closing of many of these village primary schools, telling the villagers that only state-sanctioned schools are allowed. Many villagers cannot afford to send their children to state schools, however, and they also complain that in the state schools the teaching of the native language is strictly forbidden, causing children to grow up illiterate in their mother tongue. As a result, fewer and fewer children in the rural areas have any opportunity for education.
Racism is so pervasive in this country that racist teachers (representing state-sponsored religion) have been known to falsely teach that Muslims were brought in by the colonial regime and have only caused problem. The majority non-Muslim students often exclude Muslim students from sports matches and clubs. Muslim students cannot get to universities and technical colleges because of lack of national identity cards. Many are forced to convert to the religion of the majority if they want to gain access to higher education and better job. Students are expelled from the schools if they refused to learn the religion of the majority people. Muslim elders are arrested for submitting petition requesting that Muslims students be spared from such religious classes. Building of Muslims schools is banned and Muslim religious teachers routinely face torture and execution.16
Even where schools are available, many children are pulled out of school as soon as they are big enough to work because of all of the demands for labor and money which their families have to face. Families sell their valuables to pay the fees and pay to avoid forced labor so that they can work in their fields or do day labor to make money. However, there are so many fees that the money does not last long, and many families send small children to do the forced labor so that the adults can still work in the fields.
Eventually they sell all of their belongings and livestock to pay all of the fees, and when they are still ordered to go for forced labor or pay money they have no option but to flee the village or face arrest, torture and possible summary execution. Trials are not held in rural areas; villagers are simply tied up and taken to Army camps where they are held in mediaeval-style leg stocks or pits in the ground, tortured and interrogated until the Army officer decides what to do with them. They are often held for ransom, held for months under torture without charge, or simply executed without any record existing of their arrest.17 To avoid this, villagers have fled to the towns where they become beggars or cheap labor, to the hills, or to neighboring countries.
The same inhuman rule applies to rural medical clinics. Even in places where the regime has allocated some funds for the establishment of some basic social services, the local military and government authorities use these services as an excuse to extort even more money from the villagers by force, usually amounting to several times the worth of the services being rendered. Most of these social services are denied to Muslims. They are even barred from collecting food aid that is distributed by an international aid agency, e.g., the World Food Program (WFP). Men often face harassment while woman face rape to collect food package.18 Because of the discriminatory policy of the junta, they are routinely denied relief that is sent to them (even by other Muslims) during natural disasters.19 Sometimes the fees associated with permission to move from one location to another makes it prohibitive for them to draw any benefit from relief aid.
In this country, Muslims face religious persecution of the worst kind. Muslim villagers are ordered to worship the god of the majority people. They must also pay obeisance to (worship) monks, failing which they may face torture and death.20 Villagers are pressured to convert to religion of the majority. They are forced to contribute large chunks of money toward donations to monasteries for the dominant religious group. Muslim places of worship are routinely demolished to make room for altars of the dominant group. Muslim homes and shops are destroyed under all kinds of pretexts. Muslims are also ordered to erect shelf altars in their homes. They are ordered to become vegetarians and not to raise cattle. Eating meat may result in heavy fines, including torture and imprisonment.21
How about your involvement in human rights of your people? Forget it. You will rot in jail for decades unless the regime ends your misery with a quick execution. Tactics currently being used on political prisoners include:22
–Severe beatings, often resulting in loss of consciousness and sometimes death
–Electrocution to all parts of the body including genitals
–Rubbing iron rods on shins of prisoners until flesh is ripped off, a tactic known in this country as the "iron road"
–Burning with cigarettes and lighters
–Prolonged restriction of movements, for up to several months, using rope and shackles around the neck and ankles
–Repeatedly striking the same area of a person's body every second for several hours, a tactic known in this country as "tick-tock torture."
Nightmare? Fiction? Tales from a distant past when there was nothing called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? No, what I am sharing here is no wild imagination but a reality for most of the people living inside Burma.23 While the situation is simply bleak for all inside Burma except a privileged class within the Burman ethnic group professing Buddhism (who runs the SPDC – State Peace and Development Council – regime), the situation is worse for Muslims and worst yet for the Rohingya Muslims who live in the Arakan (Rakhine) state of Burma. Their suffering simply has no parallel in our time because of their Muslim identity and annulment of citizenship rights.
Part 2: Muslims in Burma
Burma is a country located between South Asia and South East Asia, with an area of about 261,970 square miles and a population of nearly 52 million.24 It achieved independence from Britain on January 4 of 1948 as “Union of Burma.” It is home to nearly 140 ethnic groups (of which only 134 outside the majority Burmans are recognized by the government) who inhabit 7 states comprising roughly 60% of the total area. The Burmans are the largest and most dominant ethnic group, who inhabit the remainder 7 divisions. The majority people are followers of Theraveda Buddhism.
Muslims form the second largest religious community, numbering 7 to 10 million people. Almost every city or town in Burma has a Muslim community.25 There are also Muslim and mixed Muslim villages throughout Burma. Rakhine State (formerly known as Arakan State) in western Burma has the highest concentration of Muslim inhabitants. Muslims have lived in Burma for more than a millennium, although some have arrived only after Burma’s annexation by Great Britain in the early 19th century. Christianity and other religions are also practised. Islam is also practiced in Burma by Burmans, Indians, ethnic Bengalis and some ethnic minorities.
Burma's draconian citizenship law makes it impossible for many Muslims to become citizens and receive national identity cards.26 Without the identity cards, Muslims have a difficult time traveling, getting an education or finding a job. They cannot carry on social relations and conduct business. Because of racial and religious
discrimination and lack of an identity card, they cannot even get a job in a private company. The lucky few who are able to get identity cards are barred from holding high office in any government job.
Military control of the curriculum, the rewriting of history and the banning of non-Burman language and culture have made education into a weapon of the regime, while the closure of universities, the burning of independent village schools and the arrests of teachers have weakened the potential for education to pose a threat. Most schools and centers of higher learning are deliberately denied to the Muslim students. So, most Muslim children end up uneducated.
Religious restrictions have also been placed on Muslims. They cannot bring the Qur’an or religious books from outside (nor are they allowed to print them inside). There is a prohibition on the construction of new mosques and repairs to existing ones are limited to the interiors only. Groups of more than five Muslims are prohibited from assembling in cities and towns. Permission must be sought, which are often rejected, to hold religious ceremonies and celebrate social occasions. Muslim religious leaders are under constant surveillance by the SPDC. They cannot conduct religious and social services properly. All Islamic schools are now banned. Muslim Imams cannot teach Islam in any gathering, even in the privacy of their homes. The situation has created a climate of fear among Muslims to such an extent that many feel they are always being watched and they must practice their religion quietly and secretly or opt for a life of unwanted refugee status outside.
The SPDC regime exploits religion to strengthen its hold onto power. It confiscates Muslim land and properties and alters demography by implanting Buddhists from outside to settle. Muslim-owned land and homes are then delivered to these new settlers. To bolster their Buddhist image, while they demolish mosques and Islamic schools, they are engaged in massively expensive pagoda-building and Buddhist ceremonies.27 Many of these pagodas and monasteries are built on confiscated Muslim properties. Worse still, Muslims must pay for such construction projects, including Buddhist festivities and funeral services. Muslim cemeteries are now routinely desecrated for conducting Buddhist funeral services. Islam is treated as a ‘threat’ involving ‘foreigners’ (the “Ka La” – blacks or Indians from outside; used derogatorily).
Racial and religious tensions have run high between Muslims and Burmans since independence in 1948. Successive Burmese regimes have encouraged or instigated violence against Muslims as a way of diverting the public’s attention away from economic or political concerns. The most recent outbreak of violence against Muslims occurred in the Arakan state in February of this year.28 To instigate these riots, sometimes the members of the regime have been found to spread rumors and distribute booklets and leaflets enticing Buddhists to attack Muslims.29 As a result, many mosques, homes, shops and schools were destroyed and many Muslims were killed or injured.
After the riots end, Muslims are not allowed to return to their places, nor are they allowed to repair their mosques. Sometimes these properties are handed out to Buddhists.30
In states like the Karen State of Burma, where they form a small minority, it is becoming increasingly difficult for Muslim villagers to survive in their villages. They face sustained persecution from both the SPDC regime and its allied group DKBA (Democratic Karen Buddhist Army). They act like the fanatic criminals of the ‘killing fields’ of Cambodia. They have no respect for human rights. They demolish Muslim homes, shops, mosques and schools, and replace them with Buddhist homes, Pagodas and monasteries. Muslims are forced to become Buddhists. Those who resist must work as slave/forced labors, pay the extortion and taxation fees. Such abuses have reduced the vulnerable Muslim villagers to a life of impoverishment and starvation. They do not have any time to farm their fields or to do other work to get money to buy food. Many villagers end up selling everything they have in order to buy food to eat and pay the forced labor and extortion fees. Even for non-Muslim (and non-Burman) villagers in Karen State the combination of forced labor, systematic extortion, and other abuses have made life almost impossible, so the added persecution which Muslim villagers face simply makes the burden unbearable. The Muslim villagers try to stay on in their villages for as long as they can, but once everything is sold and the food has run out, they are forced to flee to somewhere else.
The status of Muslims in Burma is summed up by the KHRG (Karen Human Rights Group): “Denied identity cards and refused the most basic rights of citizenship under the SPDC’s racist laws, the Muslims of Burma have to struggle for the simple privileges of going to school, finding a job, applying to a university, even traveling to the next town. They are forbidden to maintain their mosque buildings or build new ones, at the same time as the SPDC authorities call many of them to forced labor building lavish new Buddhist temples. The restrictions make most of them poor, and their poverty leaves them unable to bribe their way out of the most brutal forms of forced labor used by the Burmese military, such as frontline portering. But this is not all – whenever the Buddhist population gets restive under military oppression, the SPDC attempts to redirect the anger against the Muslim minority, resulting in riots and killings such as those which terrorized Muslim communities throughout Burma from March to October 2001. Visible, different, in the minority and unarmed, the Muslims of Burma are easy targets.”
Part 3: Muslims in Arakan
Before I delve into the subject of Rohingya Muslims, let me provide a brief account of Arakan. ARAKAN, formerly called Rohang, Roshang, Rakhine Pray, Rakhapura, lies on the north-western part of Burma with 360 miles coastal belt from the Bay of Bengal. Through its geopolitical position, Arakan finds itself at the crossroads of two continental entities, South Asia and South-East Asia — between Buddhist Asia and Muslim-Hindu Asia and between the Mongoloid and the Indo-Aryan races. It borders 176 miles with Bangladesh, 48 miles of which is covered by river Naf, which demarcates Arakan (Burma) from Chittagong (Bangladesh). It is separated geographically from the rest of Burma by the long range of Arakan Yoma mountain range running north to south. The area of Arakan is about 20,000 square miles. But Arakan Hill-tracts district (5235 square miles) and southern most part of Arakan were partitioned from Arakan. So, it has now been reduced to 14,200 square miles.31
As hinted earlier, the Muslim community in Arakan, who are next to the Rakhine Buddhists in number, consists of four groups: Tambukias, Turko-Pathans, Kamanchis and Rohingyas. The Tambukias trace their history back to the eighth century when their ancestors from Arabia were allowed to settle in southern Arakan by the contemporary king Maha Taing Chandra (788-810). The next group consisting of the Turks and Pathans are mostly found in the outskirts of Mrohaung, the last capital of Arakan. The Arakanese king Mong-Saw-Mwan alias Narameikhla (1403-33) recaptured his throne with the help of their forebears who were in the army of Bengal. Like the Tambukias, they were allowed to settle in Arakan by the grateful king. The ancestors of the Kamanchis came in the train of SHAH SHUJA, the Governor of Bengal (1639-59), who took shelter in Arakan with his family and retinues after being overthrown by his brother AURANGZEB. Their descendants are to be found mostly in Ramree Island.
There was yet another group of Muslims to enter into Arakan. They were the people of the coastal areas of Bengal, but kidnapped and sold to slavery by the Magh (of Arakan) and Portuguese pirates (during the 15th -19th century CE). These captives of Magh pirates were made to settle near the Kaladan River (meaning river where the ‘Ka La’ settled) and employed in tilling the soil and developing agriculture.32
The Rohingyas are descendants of Muslims who trace their ancestry to all those who settled in Arakan – the Arabs, Turks, Persians, Pathans, Mughals, Bengalis and some Indo-Mongoloid people. Nor should we ignore the influence of Sufis and other Muslim traders who had settled in the Arakan over the years and helped to mix and proselytize. Hence, the Rohingya Muslims are not an ethnic group, which developed from one tribal group affiliation or single racial stock, but are an ethnic group that developed from different stocks of people. The ethnic Rohingya is Muslim by religion with distinct culture and civilization of its own.
Arakan came in close cultural contact with the Muslim Sultanate of Bengal since early 14th century so much so that many of the Buddhist rulers of that country adopted Muslim names for themselves. They appointed Muslim officials in their courts and, apparently under the latter’s influence, even inscribed the Kalima on their coins.33 Thus, Buddhist kings ruled, but Muslims played an influential role in the court, defence and administration of the kingdom. The Arakanese court’s adoption of many Muslim customs and terms were other significant tribute to the influence of Islam. Mosques including the famous Sandi Khan Mosque began to dot the countryside and Islamic customs, manners and practices came to be established since this time.34
Because of her geographical proximity with the south-eastern parts of Bengal, Arakan developed both political and cultural relations with Bengalis. Its courts and royalties patronized Bengali literature. Some of the best known classical Bengali poets (Alaol, Dawlat Qazi) came from Arakan.
Arakan was an independent kingdom until its annexation in 1784 by the Burman King Bodawpaya (1782-1819). It encompassed at times the southern part of today’s Bangladesh, and was famous as a land of economic opportunities, on the maritime shipping routes between south-west Asia and south-east Asia. During the conquest, Bodawpaya’s soldiers returned with 20,000 Arakanese prisoners. Thousand of Arakanese Muslims and Buddhists were put to death. The Burmese soldiers destroyed mosques, temples, shrines, seminaries and libraries, including the Mrauk-U Royal Library.35 The fall of Mrauk-U Empire was a mortal blow to the Muslims for every thing that was materially and culturally Islamic was razed to the ground. During the 40-year (1784-1824 CE) Burmese rule, two third, i.e., 200,000, of the inhabitants (Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists) of Arakan fled to Bengal (in British India). Many of the indigenous Muslims found today in and around Mandalay and Central Burma are descendants of those Rohingyas of Arakan. During the British rule, some of the Arakanese who had fled to Bengal, especially Chittagong, returned to Arakan.
The state of Arakan was granted autonomy within the Union of Burma in 1948, which was later abolished in 1962 by a military decree. The Revolutionary Council (military junta) that grabbed power nationalized all financial institutions and businesses. In Arakan, most of the major business establishments were in the hands of Muslims. So, the Rohingya Muslims of Arakan were hardest hit in the economic crackdown by the new military regime. All Rohingya welfare and socio-cultural organizations were banned in 1964. The military regime cancelled the Rohingya Language Program broadcasted from Burma Broadcasting Service (BBS), Rangoon in October 1965.
It is worth mentioning here that prior to 1962 the Rohingya community was recognized as an indigenous ethnic nationality of Burma. They had their representatives in Burmese parliament and some of them were appointed as ministers, parliamentary secretaries and in high government positions. After the military takeover in 1962 the Rohingyas have been systematically deprived of their political rights. With the promulgation of the most controversial and discriminatory citizenship law of 1982 they are declared as “non-nationals” or “foreign residents”. [Interestingly, in an apparent but short-lived departure from their policy, the military not only allowed Rohingyas to vote in the general election of May 1990, but also allowed them to stand as candidates. The National Democratic Party for Human Rights (NDPHR), a Rohingya supported group, won four seats, capturing all the constituencies in Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships. The Rohingya candidate in Akyab was arrested and put in jail though. Subsequently, the party, along with many other political parties, was deregistered in March 1992. Now the leader of the NDPHR is serving a long prison term with his family members.]
Currently Arakan has four administrative units such as Sandoway, Sittwe, Mayu and Kyaukpyu. Akyab (Sittwe) is the capital city and the principal port of Arakan. It is situated at the mouth of the Koladan. Before the British occupation of Arakan in 1826, it was a small fishing village. Other major towns and ports are Kyaktaw, Maungdow, Buthidaung and Sandoway. The Rohingya constitute 70 to 80 percent of population in North Arakan and 97% of the population in Mayu region.36
Since 1948, the Rohingyas are victims of the worst kind of systemic, state- sponsored and patronized oppression, repression, discrimination, eviction, relocation, extortion, arbitrary arrests and taxation, and targeted communal riots that invariably result in death, massive destruction of their settlements, holy places of worship, economic bases and expulsion from their hearths and homes. The entire policy of the Burmese military junta is aimed at ethnically cleansing Arakan of any trace of the Rohingya Muslims. That is why, of the 30 statutes of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, when it comes to the Rohingya people, not a single one is respected by the junta.
Freedom of movement is a fundamental human right, upon which other human rights are contingent. But such rights do not apply to Rohingya Muslims whose citizenship is not recognized by the ruling junta. As a result, they cannot move from one village to another nearby village without permission and payment of fees.37
As an implication of this criminal policy, imagine that you have a sister who requires some medical treatment failing which she may die. Your sister’s chances of survival are too little. She may die in any of the many check posts before she arrives in any hospital. Even if she were to arrive in the hospital or the clinic, she may be denied access to the facility because of her ethnicity and religion. Permission to travel outside for medical reasons is not easily granted, in spite of the hefty fees one has to pay to apply.38
Households who receive visitors from another township or village must reportedly register their guests if they are spending the night. Failure to do so can result in fines or other reprisals like arrests and hefty extortion payments.39
A Rohingya Muslim must report and pay fees for every birth and death in his family, including cattle.40 A Rohingya widow must also wait a minimum of three years before she can marry.
The Rohingyas are invariably discriminated in all matters from jobs to even getting relief aid. As such, when a cyclone hit the Arakan coast on May 19, 2004 and left over 520 people dead and more than 20,000 people homeless, the local officials didn’t distribute relief aid to the Rohingya people simply saying that they were not citizens of Burma.41
The right to marry and found a family is another basic human right. Unfortunately, such rights do not apply to Rohingya Muslims. They are banned from getting married. First, they must be of certain age to apply, e.g., at least 25 years of age for man and 18 for woman. Next, they must vow not to have more than three children. To get married they must get permission from at least four different government agencies. Such permissions, in spite of paying high fees and bribes, can take years, and most are often denied. As a result, the backlog of marriages, delayed and denied, runs into thousands in many towns. There are towns where not a single marriage has taken place for years. Those who dared to marry without permission are arrested and fined heavily.42 What makes the system discriminatory is that it is only applied against Muslims and not against other religious groups (including the Rakhine Buddhists who also live in Arakan). Now those who eventually get the permission to get married must report to the government-run family planning and counseling centers before their wedding, where they are required to stay few days. Obviously, with exorbitant fees paid in advance! It is there that one of the most heinous crimes is often perpetrated by the agents affiliated with the government. The bride-to-be is raped. Obviously, the SPDC regime has become creative to open up its new weapon of ethnic cleansing, bound to terrorize the Rohingya community and forcing them to opt for exodus out of the country.43
Here below is a short list of various war crimes and abuses of human rights by the Burmese military regime against the Rohingya Muslims:
1. Denial of Citizenship
2. Restriction of Movement or Travel
3. Restriction on peaceful assembly
4. Restriction on Education
5. Restriction on Ability to work or find job
6. Forced Labor
7. Land Confiscation
8. Forced Eviction
9. Destruction of homes, offices, schools, mosques, etc.
10. Desecration of Muslim cemeteries
11. Systematic destruction of Islamic sites
12. Forced conversion to Buddhism
13. Religious persecution
14. Ethnic and religious discrimination
15. Restrictions on Marriage of Rohingyas
16. Arbitrary Taxation and Extortion
17. Registration of Births and Deaths in Families
18. Arbitrary arrest, torture and extra-judicial killing
19. Abuse of Rohingya Women and Elders including using rape as a weapon of war
20. Depopulation of Rohingya community
21. Undocumented refugees & statelessness
You may wonder how such abuses of human rights can take place in a state that claims to follow the teachings of Gautam Buddha! The sad truth is that millions of people of all ethnicities in Burma harbor racist anti-Muslim feelings, considering them vaguely and baselessly as foreigners (Ka La or blacks, a racist and derogatory term to point to their Indian heritage), immigrants, job- or land-stealers, and so on. They are looked upon as collaborators of the British Raj, especially since the Burmans allied themselves with the Japanese occupation forces during World War II.44 [More than a hundred thousand Rohingya Muslims were killed during the pogroms of 1942. Another 80,000 fled to Bengal. They are commonly called “Rohi”s in southern Chittagong.]45 The SPDC and its predecessor regimes have often exploited this in order to 'divide and rule' the civilian population. There is no doubt that they have succeeded in their criminal scheme. For instance, the Rakhine Buddhist in Arakan is now the worst adversary of the Rohingya; he/she refuses to consider anyone to be Arakanese who is not Buddhist. That is the level of racism and intolerance!
In the late 1970s (Naga-Min Operation) and again in 1991-92 (Pyi Thaya Operation), the Burmese military dictatorship launched pogroms against the Rohingya Muslims of Arakan State in the hope that Buddhist Rakhines, many of whom are rabidly anti-Muslim, would swing over to the 'government' side – forgetting their growing anger at Burmese Army repression and redirecting it against the Muslim community. In each of those pogroms more than a quarter million of Rohingyas were forcibly evicted from their ancestral homes to seek refuge in Bangladesh. Most of their possessions now belong to Buddhist settlers.
Almost all of the evicted Rohingyas have now been forcibly repatriated to Burma by the Bangladeshi government in cooperation with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), but those who return still face continued persecution both from the SPDC and the Rakhine Buddhists; so a small but steady exodus is continuing.46 The UNHCR and the Bangladeshi authorities refuse to recognize any of these new or repeat refugees, so tens of thousands of them have disappeared into the illegal labor markets of Bangladesh and elsewhere in the past eight years.
Some of the major armed operations against the Rohingya people, orchestrated by the Burmese government since 1948, are mentioned below: 01. Military Operation (5th Burma Regiment) – November 1948 02. Burma Territorial Force (BTF) – Operation 1949-50 03. Military Operation (2nd Emergency Chin regiment) – March 1951-52 04. Mayu Operation – October 1952-53 05. Mone-thone Operation – October 1954 06. Combined Immigration and Army Operation – January 1955 07. Union Military Police (UMP) Operation – 1955-58 08. Captain Htin Kyaw Operation – 1959 09. Shwe Kyi Operation – October 1966 10. Kyi Gan Operation – October-December 1966 11. Ngazinka Operation – 1967-69 12. Myat Mon Operation – February 1969-71 13. Major Aung Than Operation – 1973 14. Sabe Operation February – 1974-78 15. Naga-Min (King Dragon) Operation – February 1978-79 (resulting in exodus of some 300,000 Rohingyas to Bangladesh) 16. Shwe Hintha Operation – August 1978-80 17. Galone Operation – 1979 18. Pyi Thaya Operation – July 1991-92 (resulting in exodus of some 268,000 Rohingyas to Bangladesh) 19. Na-Sa-Ka Operation – since 1992. It is not difficult to understand why half the Rohingya population, numbering some million and a half, has opted for a life of exile and uncertainty. They live as unwanted refugees and illegal immigrants in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Malaysia and the U.A.E.
Part 4: Plight of Rohingya Refugees and Recommendations for Regime Change
4.1 Condition of Refugees in Bangladesh:
In Bangladesh today there are approximately 20,000 “documented” Rohingya refugees, out of a quarter million that had arrived in 1991-2, escaping military persecution in Burma. They live in two camps of Kutupalong and Nayapara. Most of the original refugees were forcibly repatriated into the lawless country of Burma, where they continue to face all sorts of human rights abuse in the hands of Myanmar authority. The remaining refugees have refused to return because they fear human rights abuses, including religious persecution.
Unfortunately, the condition within those two refugee camps is simply awful and lack adequate facilities for a healthy living. Children are deprived of their basic education and healthcare. They also face harassment from the government authorities.47
Besides, hundreds of thousands of “undocumented” Rohingyas are living outside these two camps in sub-human condition with all their uncertainty. Many refugees are camped at a roadside facility at Teknaf, a border town in south-east end of Bangladesh under unpleasant conditions. There is no help from any quarter for these refugees.
These refugees are also blocked from nominal opportunities of re-settlement in a third country or settlement within Bangladesh.
The NGOs, international human rights and humanitarian bodies are often not allowed to visit the areas of undocumented refugees.
The UNHCR has announced on March 12, 2006 that it will reduce refugee Subsistence Allowance (SA). A refugee who is a head of family will receive 45 taka (72 cents) and a dependent will receive 22.50 taka per day. Previously, refugees received 90 taka per day for the SA. This decision is bound to worsen the misery of the refugees.
4.2 Situation of Refugees in Other Countries:
There is no international agency to look after the interest of the stateless Rohingya. Because of their lack of legal identity, they are not allowed to work or hold work permit by any name. An estimated 15-20,000 Rohingyas work as illegal workers in Thailand. Their children are deprived of basic human rights. As with most new refugees in Thailand, the Thai authorities reject most new Muslim arrivals whether they are Rohingyas or Karens or from any other state, claiming that they cannot be refugees since they are not 'fleeing fighting'. They are allowed to stay in the camps but are frequently threatened with repatriation. The situation is only likely to get worse in the near future with the new Thai policy of not allowing any new refugees to come to Thailand. Thailand's hostile policy toward migrant workers makes working in Thailand very risky, and many have been sent back as illegal immigrants, who face persecution in Burma.
The number of refugees in Malaysia is estimated at 8,000. The situation there is slightly better than that faced in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Thailand. However, they face constant threat of deportation. Some of the refugees in the Arab countries have been able to find gainful jobs.
Overall, lack of their citizenship papers makes it difficult for them to integrate and find better jobs wherever they are. A concerted effort is required from prosperous countries to integrate the refugee community. The push-in attempts towards repatriation of the refugees is criminal and must be stopped. Adequate facilities must be provided in the refugee camps so that their basic rights to health, education, food and welfare are met.
The SPDC regime has learned to exploit religious sentiments to persecute non-Buddhists and ethnically cleanse the Rohingya from the Arakan. Their power is rooted in the deep racism that has permeated Burmese society since its beginnings; not only the racial supremacy complex which many Burmans are brought up with, but the racism of the Karen against the Burmans, the Burmans against the Shan, the Shan against the Wa, the Wa against the Shan, the Mon against the Burmans, the Rakhine against the Rohingyas, the Burmans against the Chinese, the Christians against the Buddhists, and everyone against the Muslims. The list goes on and on, and the military has always exploited it to turn people against each other and thereby increase its hold onto power.
The SPDC propaganda encourages a blind racist nationalism, full of references to ‘protecting the race’, meaning that if Burmans do not oppress other nationalities then they will themselves be oppressed, ‘national reconsolidation’, meaning assimilation, and preventing ‘disintegration of the Union’, meaning that if the Army falls then some kind of ethnic chaos would ensue.
A transition to democracy alone will not be enough to prevent the people tearing each other apart, particularly if it is a unitary, non-federal democracy. The first and biggest step in bringing about an end to the racism problem is to admit that it exists and to recognize its scale. Freedom-loving, democratic-minded groups working outside must form a united front to iron out their differences and shun racism and bigotry. If they fail to do so, Burma will remain a country at war with itself, whether or not today’s SPDC is replaced by another government – civil or military.
The SPDC regime is guilty of non-compliance of each of the 30 articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Oppression of Muslims in Burma, esp. the Rohingyas in Arakan who live there has not eased a bit despite the assurances from the SPDC and the UNHCR. No one should be fooled by the empty promises and assurances of the pariah regime that rules Burma. What the SPDC junta is doing to the Rohingya people is nothing short of a genocidal and ethnic cleansing campaign. It is one of the worst crimes of our time when we ignore the gargantuan crimes of this rogue regime, especially its treatment of the minority Rohingya people, who have been effectively denied their citizenship right. Policies of confiscation, destruction, exclusion, discrimination, socio-cultural depravation and restriction on movement have prevented them from developing socially and economically, and are deliberately designed to strangulate them as a community. These policies, which amount to ethnic cleansing, are creating push-factors for forced migration and therefore constitute the root causes of the ongoing refugee exodus. If these processes of marginalization and gross violations of human rights against the Rohingya people are allowed to continue there won’t be a single Rohingya left in Arakan within the next fifty years. They will be an extinct community, much like what had happened to the native population of Tasmania.
I often question what is the basis for a nation's claim to independence or self-determination? Must a people wander in the wilderness for two millennia and suffer repeated persecution, humiliation and genocide to qualify? Until now, history's answer to the question has been pragmatic and brutal – a nation is a people tough enough to grab the land it wants and hangs onto it. Period!
How about the rights of a minority community to survive with their culture and traditions intact? Do they need to be ‘children’ of a ‘higher’ God or follow Judeo-Christian morality to qualify? What makes the children of a ‘lesser’ God to be forgotten and denied the same treatment and privilege that was granted hitherto to the people of East Timor and some other hotspots? Could not a U.N.-sponsored plebiscite determine the fate of these forgotten people of our time to decide for themselves what is best for them? What about all those scores of statutes and articles of Declaration of Human Rights, Geneva Convention, Treatment of Prisoners (political and non-combatants), etc., etc.? Don’t they matter? Which agency is responsible to guarantee those rights? If it is the U.N., why is it inactive to bring about desired change? How shall we all be judged by our posterity for letting such colossal abuses of human rights to continue for this long?
Since 1999, the USA has designated Burma as a “Country of Particular Concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act for severe violations of religious freedom. In a new report, entitled ‘Threat to Peace’, Bishop Tutu of South Africa and former President Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic have called on the UN Security Council to take up the situation in Burma immediately. Recently the European Union has taken a similar stand. But such designations and reports are not enough. These powerful nations need to walk the talk. They cannot say one thing and do nothing, or worse still reward and condone heinous crimes against humanity through their business dealings with the pariah regime to whom human rights mean nothing. Greedy for profit, shamelessly, the British and American Tobacco and oil companies are the greatest sponsors of the rogue SPDC regime providing a lifeline for its survival.
Of particular concern is the current hobnobbing of the Burmese regime with its neighbors. One of these neighbors is the most populous country and the other the so-called largest democracy on earth. The bilateral trade between China and Myanmar hit $1.2 billion last year (accounting for nearly a quarter of Myanmar’s total trade volume).48 Predictions are that it will grow significantly this year. The bilateral Burma–India trade volume is projected at $2 billion for this year. It was around $470 million during the 2003-04 year. What a blatant mockery of people’s trust! And then there are powerful governments that don’t mind invading a sovereign country on false charges, killing hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, but are not perturbed about the most repressive and savage regime of our time when clear evidences of gross violations of human rights are so plenty and sufferings so unbearable!
It is high time that our generation takes a stand against the Myanmar regime demanding action from our respective governments so that the democratic and basic human rights of all ethnic and religious communities, including the Rohingya people, are protected and guaranteed under the UN supervision. The Myanmar regime must be forced to step down and tried for war crimes against humanity. All trades and commerce that sustain this evil military regime must immediately be halted. All political prisoners
must be released, and the democratic forces that had participated in the 1990 election be allowed to run the country under a Federal system, granting autonomy to each of the States and Divisions (something granted in 1948).
Dr. Habib Siddiqui
[About the author: Dr. Habib Siddiqui is a long-time human rights activist. He has written extensively in Op/Ed columns in newspapers, magazines, journals and the Internet. His writing combines meticulous research with personal experience of displaced Rohingyas from Arakan in Myanmar (Burma). He has also worked on human rights issues in Chechnya, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Palestine, and among American Muslims in the post-9/11 era.]
Notes : _
1 See the report ‘Easy Targets: the persecution of Muslims in Burma,’ Karen Human Rights Group, May 2002; Muslim Quarter in the heart of Maungdaw town ordered to vacate, Rohingya Times, July 16, 2003.
2 Confiscation of 315 Acres for Nasaka Business and Forced Labor, Buthidaung, Kaladanpress Network, September 17, 2004.
3 Forced Labor for Model Village, Maungdaw, Kaladanpress Network, August 26, 2004 .
4 See the KHRG report, op. cit., for details.
5 Na Sa Ka forces fired shots at Rohingya wood cutters, one critically injured, Taungbro (Burma-Bangladesh border), July 15, 2003, Rohingya Times.
6 See the KHRG report, op. cit., for details.
7 Nasaka Raped a 12-Year Old Girl and Strangled, Maungdaw, Kaladanpress Network, May12, 2004; Crackdown On Rohingya Villagers Maungdaw, Kaladanpress Network, September 24, 2004; One woman killed after rape and another jailed for 20 years, Buthidaung, Kaladanpress Network, September 26, 2004.
8 One woman killed after rape and another jailed for 20 years, Buthidaung, Kaladanpress Network, September 26, 2004.
9 See the Internet article: Understanding Burma, www.ibiblio.org.
10 Confiscation of 315 Acres for Nasaka Business and Forced Labor, Kaladanpress Network, September 17, 2004.
12 KHRG report, op. cit.
13 Confiscation of 315 Acres for Nasaka Business and Forced Labor, Kaladanpress Network, September 17, 2004; See the Amnesty International report: Myanmar – The Rohingya Minority: Fundamental Rights Denied, May 2004.
14 See the Amnesty International report, op. cit.
15 The KHRG report, op. cit.
16 ibid.; Barbaric Killing of a Religious Teacher in Nasaka Custody Maungdaw, Kaladanpress Network, April 28, 2004; A Religious Teacher Sentenced a 7-year Jail Sentence, Kaladanpress Network, August 07, 2004.
17 A Rohingya chopped to Death in Western Burma, Maungdaw, Kaladanpress Network, June 22, 2004.
18 Ban on Marriages, Another Yoke on Rohingya Muslims by Marwaan Macan-Markar, IPS, December 6, 2005.
19 Rohingya Barred from Cyclone Relief in Arakan Though Rohingya donated US$ 267,000 for Cyclone Victims, Kaladanpress Network, June 18, 2004.
20 From the reports of human rights groups, it is confirmed that when a Muslim villager failed to ‘worship’ a Buddhist monk, which was demanded by the monk, the latter became infuriated and started beating him, and plucked his eyes out. The villager died of the injury. See also, Human Rights Watch briefing paper ‘Crackdown on Burmese Muslims’ (July 2002) on Taungoo Violence, May 2001.
21 See the KHRG report for details.
23 The material above is excerpted from already available materials published by various human rights groups (e.g., Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Karen Human Rights Group), the US State Department Reports on Religious Freedom.
24 US State Department Report; CIA Fact book.
25 KHRG report, op. cit.
26 The Rohingyas are not recognised as one of the 135 ‘national races’ by the Myanmar government, which proclaims: "In actual fact, although there are (135) national races living in Myanmar today, the so-called Rohingya people is not one of them. Historically, there has never been a ‘Rohingya’ race in Myanmar. The very name Rohingya is a creation of a group of insurgents in the Rakhine State. Since the First Anglo-Myanmar War in 1824, people of Muslim Faith from the adjacent country illegally entered Myanmar Ngain-Ngan, particularly Rakhine State. Being illegal immigrants they do not hold immigration papers like other nationals of the country." (Press Release of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Union of Myanmar, 26 February 1992.)
27 Demolition of Mosques in Northern Arakan Buthidaung, Kaladanpress Network, September 16, 2004.
28 The previous serious outbreak of violence occurred in cities across Burma from February to October 2001 when many Muslims were killed and their properties including mosques were destroyed.
29 See the report “Crackdown on Burmese Muslims,” Human Rights Watch Briefing Paper, July 2002, for a detailed analysis on Taungoo violence against Muslims. The U.S. State Department's Annual Report for International Religious Freedom issued in October, 2001, notes "…there were credible reports that the monks that appeared to be inciting at least some of the violence were USDA or military personnel dressed as monks. After two days of violence the military stepped in and the violence immediately ended."
30 For a detailed report on condition of Muslims in today’s Burma, esp. in the Karen State, see the KHRG report, op. cit.
31 The Rohingya Problem, ARNO, August 31, 1999.
32 See Dr. Abdul Karim’s ‘The Rohingyas: A short account of their history and culture,’ The Arakan Historical Society, Chittagong, Bangladesh, and the references therein.
33 See Dr. Muhammad Enamul Haq and Abdul Karim Shahitya Visharad’s work "Bengali Literature in the Court of Arakan 1600-1700."
34 A Short Historical Background of Arakan by Mohammad Ashraf Alam, Arakan Research Society, Chittagong, Bangladesh.
36 The Rohingya Problem, ARNO, August 1999.
37 See the Amnesty International report: Myanmar – The Rohingya Minority: Fundamental Rights Denied, May 2004.
40 Amnesty International report, op. cit.
41 Rohingya Barred from Cyclone Relief in Arakan Though Rohingya donated US$ 2,67,000 for Cyclone Victims, Kaladanpress Network, June 18, 2004.
42 Ban on Marriages, Another Yoke on Rohingya Muslims by Marwaan Macan-Markar, IPS, December 6, 2005.
43 Situation report on Rohingyas, NDPHR Press Release, 2005.
44 By the time of Japanese occupation of Burma, nearly a million Muslims were chased out by Aung San’s Burma Independence Army, a Burman armed group that collaborated with the Japanese occupation.
45 Ashraf Alam (Op. Cit.) gives a list of 294 villages completely destroyed in the pogroms of 1942: (1) Myebon in Kyaukpru District 30 villages; (2) Minbya in Akyab District 27 villages; (3) Pauktaw in Akyab District 25 villages; (4) Myohaung in Akyab District 58 villages; (5) Kyauktaw in Akyab District 78 villages; (6) Ponnagyun in Akyab District 5 villages; (7) Rathedaung in Akyab District 16 villages; and (8) Buthidaung in Akyab District 55 villages.
46 See the latest report on "Burma’s Forgotten Rohingya" by Mike Thomson of BBC, March 2006.
48 The total trade volume for Burma was 5 billion USD; http://www.burmanet.org/news/2006/03/07/knight-ridder-newspapers-china-uses-trade-to-prop-myanmar-regime-tim-johnson