Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Burma’s Gaza?

APRIL, 2009 - VOLUME 17 NO.2
The Irrawaddy News

Citizenship and land rights are hot issues in Arakan State

MAUNGDAW, Arakan State—In a simple house on the edge of this small town near Burma’s border with Bangladesh, a Rohingya resident carefully adjusted his cheap Chinese-made radio. Six other Rohingyas also huddled around the radio, straining to hear its crackling broadcast.

“Here we go,” said 52-year-old Ahmed triumphantly. “It’s VOA reporting on what the international community is saying about the Rohingya issue. Listen carefully.”

A small convenience store in Maungdaw. (Photo: Min Khet Maung/The Irrawaddy)

Ahmed said he and his friends tune in nightly to Western broadcasts in the hope of hearing news about efforts by the international community and humanitarian agencies to pressure Burma’s military government to improve their living conditions.

In a teashop near Ahmed’s home, a small group of ethnic Rakhine people discussed the same issue—but from a different viewpoint. They were united in opposing any move to grant citizenship to the Rohingya people of Arakan State.

One man in his late thirties claimed the state and its majority Buddhist population would fall under the influence of Muslim Rohingyas if they became Burmese citizens. “They [Rohingyas] are like a virus,” he said.

Another man, in his early fifties, agreed. “Let’s hope the government doesn’t pay attention to international pressure,” he said. “The Rohingya are not among the 150 ethnic groups of Myanmar [Burma].”

His claim, supported by most Rakhine people and reflected in regime policy, is disputed by many scholars and historians, who trace the arrival of the Rohingyas in the Arakan region back to the eighth century.

Ethnologists say the Rohingya—far from being a homeless migrant people—are a distinct ethnic group derived from a bewildering ancestral mix of Arabs, Moors, Persians, Turks, Mughals, Pathans, Bengalis, Chakmas, Rakhine, Dutch and Portuguese.

For centuries, Muslim Rohingyas and the Buddhist Rakhine people of the Arakan region lived in harmony. They enjoyed the same rights, guaranteed by the 1947 constitution and the 1948 Citizenship Acts.

A Rohingya boy carries items to a local village near Maungdaw. (Photo: Min Khet Maung/The Irrawaddy)

Rohingyas were able to participate fully in post-colonial political life. They could vote and stand for public office in local and national elections, and they were granted Burmese passports and complete freedom of employment.

The 1962 military coup that brought Ne Win to power ended all that. Anti-Rohingya sentiments were allowed to fester. Race riots disrupted life in Arakan State.

“The Rakhine-Rohingya relationship was poisoned by the military junta,” said one moderate Rakhine historian in Maungdaw.

Denied protection by the Ne Win government and the current military regime, Rohingyas have been mercilessly exploited by many Rakhines, who are accused of treating the Muslim minority as a cheap workforce. The fiction that these dark-skinned people were illegal Bengali immigrants has been allowed to spread without much contradiction.

Discrimination against the Rohingya now permeates all levels of society in Arakan State, from local government departments to community life.

“The military government is systematically encouraging ‘divide and rule’ in our state,” said the Rakhine historian. “It can then exploit the instability it causes in order to rein in the people.”

Observers say the policy has inevitably fuelled racial tensions, leading to clashes between Rakhine residents and resentful Rohingyas.

Fear is said to reign not only in Rakhine towns and villages but also areas with Rohingya majorities—including Maungdaw Township, where more than 90 percent of the 493,000 inhabitants are Rohingya. One other township in Arakan State has a large Rohingya majority—Buthidaung, where more than 80 percent of the 279,000 inhabitants are Rohingya.

Building on Rakhine prejudice and exploiting social tensions, the current military regime has progressively tightened restrictions on the Rohingya, denying them not only citizenship but also the most basic rights.

Freedom to travel is severely curtailed, and permission has to be sought from local immigration departments for journeys even within Arakan State. Permits are issued for a maximum of 14 days.

A main street in Maungdaw. (Photo: Min Khet Maung/The Irrawaddy)

The travel restrictions make life difficult for the Rohingya on many levels, including education. The university in Sittwe, the capital of Arakan State, has no faculties for medicine or engineering, meaning that young people wanting to study those subjects must enroll at universities in Rangoon. But that option is denied Rohingya students, who have difficulty enough trying to cope with the discriminatory practices and bureaucracy of Sittwe University.

Some restrictions are patently racist—one, for instance, requires Rohingya couples to sign an agreement that they will have no more than three children when seeking official approval to marry.

Many Rohingyas hope the general election planned for 2010 could bring about a relaxation of restrictions or even an end to them.

For one young Rohingya, who graduated from university two years ago, citizenship is the most important right he would like to see restored. “If democracy is restored, then we must be given the chance to ask for citizenship,” he said.

Yet the Rakhine historian warned that social tensions could increase if the Rohingya are granted citizenship and land ownership rights.

“If the government does not solve the problem wisely,” he said, “ this could be a hot spot of the future—another Gaza.”

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