Mon, Dec 24, 2012 - Page 9 News List

Violence-torn Rohingya plead for recognition

Thousands of the Burmese Muslim minority are languishing in makeshift camps with no work, no schools and no citizenship rights after a wave of clashes with a Buddhist majority who see them illegal immigrants left them virtually stateless

By Kate Hodal  /  The Guardian, SITTWE, MYAYBON and PAUKTAW, Myanmar

Villages razed to the ground since the conflict began this summer and was reignited in October have turned into breeding grounds for discontent. In Sittwe, the regional capital where much of the violence took place, the city is segregated along Muslim and Buddhist lines and a tight curfew is still in place.

“It is impossible for the Muslims to stay here now,” said Cho Cho Lwin, 41, from her tent in Mingan. “If we forgive them, they’ll just do it again. They have always wanted to expand their land, but until now didn’t have the chance.”

Many Burmese believe that the Rohingya are “illegal Bengali immigrants” who crossed over from Bangladesh during the British occupation and who aim to turn Rakhine into a Muslim state. As many Rakhine are fervent nationalists — Rakhine State was an independent kingdom until 1784 — they worry that the Rohingya are extremists in disguise.

“There are outside radical elements [at play] and this [Rohingya issue] is a tool of Islamicization,” Oo Hla Saw of the Rakhine Nationalities Development party (RNDP) said. “That is why we are afraid.”

Most Burmese refuse to consider the Rohingya as an ethnic group and claim the name has been fabricated and used to win international support. Anti-Rohingya animosity is so strong that it can be felt down in the country’s former capital, Yangon, where discussions on the issue turn into rants about Myanmar’s porous borders and a government that has been too soft on the “illegal Bengalis.”

While the Burmese government has seemingly taken steps to address the issue, a Rakhine inquiry commission set up in August raised eyebrows after it emerged that there was not a single Rohingya representative on the commission, yet its chairman, Aye Maung, heads the RNDP and another of its representatives, Ko Ko Gyi, has previously stated that Rohingyas are “invading” Myanmar.

Multiple allegations of abuse against Rohingya by security forces, including rape and torture, have been lodged with human rights groups, who have expressed concern about the prevalence of Muslims in detention. According to official figures released last week, more than 1,100 suspects have been detained in connection with this year’s violence, but three-quarters of those currently detained are Rohingya.

Abu Tahay, of the Rohingya political group National Democratic Party for Development, said that authorities have acted without warrants and Rohingya detainees have been held without bail or access to lawyers.

The Burmese government has been quick to deny international media reports of genocide and has instead described the situation as an intercommunal conflict due to underdevelopment in the state. Last month, Burmese President Thein Sein promised that his government would look at a range of solutions — among them resettlement and citizenship — in what has become Myanmar’s most pressing conflict since its transition to democracy last year.

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