Originally published in August 2015 at ActivDevelopment.org

The ongoing persecution of the Rohingya by Myanmar’s military government has led this Muslim minority to acquire the unenviable title of being among the world’s most persecuted minority groups.

And while the general populous in Myanmar are experiencing improvements to civil and political liberties, the plight of the Rohingya is becoming increasingly desperate.

Prejudice in Myanmar towards the Rohingya can be traced back to the British colonization of the Indian Subcontinent and the subsequent partition in 1947. The Rohingya have lived for centuries at the crossroads of the South Asia and Southeast Asia. The Rohingya’s homeland Arakan, now the Rakhine State in Myanmar, had previously been a part of the British-ruled Indian Subcontinent. When Burma and India won their independence the Rohingya found their homeland on the boarders between these new nations.

As Nirmal Ghosh explains, “When colonialism ended and new borders were set, many people who had moved fluidly across regions found themselves accidental foreigners,” adding, “The Rohingya are the residue of this history.”

In 1947, the Rohingya approached the president of Pakistan to incorporate Arakan into East Pakistan, the country that would later become Bangladesh. The proposal was never accepted and the Rohingya were consigned to life in Burma. Experts say it was this move to join East Pakistan which has informed successive governments’ attitudes and prejudice towards the Rohingya. The Rohingya have since been portrayed as a threat to Myanmar’s national security and the military has perpetuated the fear that the Muslim minority are not to be trusted. Since the 1962 coup d’état which introduced the country to five decades of military rule, the Rohingya have been systematically deprived of their political and civil rights.

A 2014 report by Fortify Rights, ‘Policies of Persecution: Ending Abusive State Policies Against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar’, details the systematic oppression under which the Rohingya persevere who suffer from restricted access to basic public services such as education and health care and, in the absence of basic freedoms, their movements, marriage rights and childbearing rights are all suppressed.

Matthew Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights, explained the government’s systematic persecution of the Rohignya, “Thein Sein’s government has deliberately implemented policies that are destructive to the Rohingya people, particularly their livelihoods and social fabric.”

Ethnic conflict between the ethnic majority Buma and the Muslim Rohingya erupted in 2012, with, what is believed to have been, state-sponsored violence at 13 townships in Rakhine State. The violence resulted in deaths, widespread destruction of property, and large-scale internal displacement. Those perpetrating the violence have never been held accountable and the Myanmar government has failed to facilitate a credible, independent investigation.

A recent report by Fortify Rights which was submitted to the United Nations in the run up to Myanmar’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the United Nations Human Rights Council, gives further details of the suffering and hardships of the 140,000 Rohingya Muslims detained in the internally displaced persons (IDP) camps. The state controlled IDP camps are dangerously crowded and frequently lack adequate food and health care, children at these camps are also exempt from formal education. Furthermore, the Myanmar authorities continue to restrict Rohingya births, freedom of movement, marriage, home repairs, construction of places of worship, and other aspects of everyday life.

One inhabitant of the Sittwe Township told Fortify Rights of his desperation, ‘For three years we have lived in a tent on the ground. There is not enough food, no school, no medical attention…We can’t take this pain anymore.”

The erosion of the Rohingya Muslim’s rights has coincided with a tide of rising nationalism which has been bolstered by an organization of radical Buddhist monks known as Ma Ba Tha (Association for the Protection of Race and Religion). Ashin Wirathu, a Buddhist monk and prominent member of nationalist groups the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion has become infamous for his outspoken anti-Muslim rhetoric in which he refers to Muslims as the enemy. He recently lashed out at the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights, Yanghee Lee, calling her a “whore” for accentuating the unjust treatment of the Rohingya. While monks are exempt from being directly involved in politics, these radical monks have become increasingly influential and the organization has been responsible for drafting and promoting recent legislation that further restricts the Muslim-minority’s human rights.

It is from this environment of systematic persecution that tens of thousands of Rohingya have fled Myanmar only to then fall prey to human traffickers. The situation reached crisis point in May this year after authorities in Thailand began cracking down on human trafficking and slavery. A new report from UNHCR has collated the experiences of refugees who were abandoned at sea in May. Their stories tell of terrifying ordeals – violence, drownings, starvation and attempts by Southeast.

As the international media begin highlighting widespread human trafficking and slavery in the fishing industry, regional governments have made some efforts to crack down on these activities but the ASEAN region has yet to decisively tackle this thorny issue. The root cause of this human trafficking is Myanmar’s mistreatment of the Rohingya and if their plight is not improved, there is every reason to believe that thousands more refugees will take to the seas in the hope of a better life in Malaysia or Indonesia.

On 8th November, Burmese voters will head to the polls in what will be Myanmar’s most important election since military rule took grip of the country in 1962 and expectations are high that these elections will be a significant step forward along the path to democracy, but without a voice at this important juncture, there are fears that conditions for the most persecuted refugees on Earth will deteriorate even further as ultra-nationalists seem destined to gain power in the Rakhine State.

As bad as things are at the moment, there are fears that things will get worse and this systematic persecution of the Rohginya’s will be exacerbated with new regulations introduced by local leaders who share the Ma Ba Tha’s ultra-nationalist ideologies. Unless international pressure is put on Myanmar’s newly elected government to stop the state’s persecution of the Rohgyina and remove the restrictions that intrude on their basic human rights, there is genuine reason to fear that a mass atrocity will soon take place in Myanmar.

 

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Daniel is an English Literature graduate from the University of London who has spent the past 20 years living and working in Southeast Asia. Passionate about education, health care, sustainable development, equality and human rights, Daniel is a regular contributor to Asian Correspondent, Ajarn, The Educator and Bangkok Post.

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