Among Asia’s most discriminated people are the Rohingyas. About 1.33 million of the Muslims of South Asian descent live in Myanmar, where all but 40,000 are stateless. Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law considers Rohingyas illegal Bengali immigrants – despite the fact that many have lived for generations in the western state of Rakhine, which borders Bangladesh.
Fortify Rights, a human rights organization, said recently in a new report, Policies of Persecution , that restrictions placed on Rohingyas by the Burmese government are presented officially as a response to an “illegal immigration” problem and threats to “national security”. Yet Rohingyas as a group live in unimaginable poverty due to deprivation and displacement.
Since 2012, with easing of political restrictions in Burma, there have been several bouts of violence between the Rohingya and the Buddhist ethnic-Rakhine, who claim to feel threatened by the muslim population. Both sides have sustained casualties in the fighting but, according to Fortify rights, several hundred men, women and children have been killed and muslim communities razed.
As a result, tens of thousands of Rohingya now live in crowded camps in Burma, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Thailand, where they haven’t faired much better. Just to reach their new destination, they risk death at sea in overcrowded and unstable transport arranged by human traffickers who take advantage of their poverty and statelessness, often forcing them into bonded servitude. Killings and other ill-treatment is also not uncommon, Fortify Rights and others have said.
The most recent example of egregious discrimination against Rohingyas started with the latest census, data collection for which began on March 30th. The census, however – a first since 1983 for the population estimated at 60 million – makes use of a list of 135 recognized nationalities yet excludes Rohingyas. Initially, they were told they could write in their ethnicity but later the government backtracked and said they should self-identify as Bengalis, according to news reports.
This census simply compounds what is already an untenable situation in Burma for the Rohingya population, which suffers Burmese policies that Fortify Rights describes as, “designed to make life so intolerable for Rohingya that they will leave the country.”
Among the restrictions enshrined in state policy that the Rohingya face in Burma are those on movement, Fortify Rights said in its report. They cannot travel within or between townships without authorization and only under exceptional circumstances travel outside the state, according to 12 internal government documents obtained by the rights group. Among other restrictions are those relating to marriage, childbirth, home repairs and construction of houses of worship. There are severe criminal punishments for Rohingyas who violate restrictions, including often years in jail and fines, according to Fortify Rights.
The report calls for the Myanmar government to abolish its discriminatory policies and accord Rohingya full rights under Burmese law, including the right to protection from violence. The international community should not sit by and watch the persecution of Rohingya ahead of next year’s critical election when the military generals are expected to cede power. All Burmese, regardless of ethnicity, should share in the government’s promised reforms.