Monday, February 09, 2015

The Rohingya crisis in Burma has become 'a protracted, squalid, stateless status-quo'

Last month Yanghee Lee, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Burma (also known as Myanmar), criticised the Burmese government’s attitude towards its own Rohingya people. In Burma’s Rakhine province, there are currently more than one million Rohingya – an Islamic ethnic group – living in apartheid-like conditions.
Don’t feel too guilty if you don’t know much about this humanitarian crisis; coverage in the mainstream western media has been gradually tailing off since 2012. What you should be made aware of, though, is the fact that the Rohingya were previously recognised as the most persecuted people in the world. Just let that sink in. It has actually been possible to identify one ethnic group as the world’s most persecuted people.
But on Wednesday, rather than address its deliberately poor handling of the crisis, Burma’s ministry of foreign affairs issued a statement saying it “unequivocally” rejected the term Rohingya and labelled it “terminology which has never been included among over 100 national races of Myanmar”. The ministry went on to accuse Lee of exceeding her jurisdiction, warning that insistence on using the term Rohingya would make the current crisis more difficult to address.
The Burmese government is complicit in the persecution of the Rohingya, a group it declared stateless through the passing of the country’s 1982 citizenship law. With that law, the Burmese government effectively declared the Rohingya to be illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh. Subsequently, Burmese officials have made it impossible for them to seek any help and now, following clashes with Burmese Buddhists in 2012, 140,000 Rohingya currently live in displacement camps.
“The displacement camp is no different to a concentration camp,” says Nurul Islam, chairman of the London based Arakan (Rakhine) Rohingya National Organisation (ARNO). Formed in 1998, ARNO campaigns for the self-determination of the Rohingya within the Burmese federation, as well as the repatriation of displaced peoples and “the establishment of a welfare society based on equality, liberty, democracy, human rights and freedom for all peoples”.
While the crisis has been on-going for the last five decades, Islam says that the Rohingya are now waiting for the rest of the world to increase pressure on the Burmese government. “[The Burmese government] are persecuting their own people,” he says. “It is now up to the international community to help us. People are dying; all the ingredients for genocide are in place – a slow genocide is taking place in Burma.”
David Mathieson, a senior research for the Human Rights Watch in Burma, explained that through rejection of the term Rohingya the Burmese government are perpetuating a culture of violence against its own people. “[This] is a betrayal of the principle of self identity, and has acted to justify decades of appalling violence and repression,” Mathieson says.
“This denial has been exacerbated by growing numbers of international donors, diplomats and dubious analysts and experts who kowtow to Rakhine extremists and government hardliners like callow collaborators.
So what needs to happen? Well, most importantly, western governments need to be more vocal in their condemnation of the crisis as it stands. Military aid, supplied by countries including the UK, should of course be halted. We need sanctions and, most importantly, our politicians must use the term Rohingya. Loudly.
Both Islam and Mathieson are vocal in their condemnation of nations that have not spoken out about the rejection of the term Rohingya, describing it as “tantamount to being a co-conspirator in ethnic cleansing”. As Mathieson says, the crisis has turned into “a protracted, squalid, stateless status-quo”; it is becoming increasingly clear that we need to do more to bring about a swift resolution.

Myanmar Halts Citizenship Verification Project for Muslim Minorities

Myanmar, also known as Burma, has halted a national pilot project to verify the citizenship status of Muslim minorities in western Rakhine State.
Rakhine Chief Minister Maung Maung Ohn told VOA Burmese Thursday that since the program began last year, only 40 Muslims were given citizenship and more than 200 were granted temporary citizenship because only those who identified themselves as Bengali were accepted.
“The Rakhine situation is too complicated. The verification process is difficult since applicants are applying with an identity which does not exist in the country,” said Maung Maung.
Most Muslims in the state refer to themselves as Rohingya, a term rejected by the government, which sees the Rohingya as illegal migrants from Bangladesh and refers to them as "Bengalis."
Officials have said the verification process was being conducted under a 1982 law that bars citizenship registration using the term Rohingya instead of Bengali.
Shwe Maung, a Muslim member of parliament from the western part of Rakhine, said there may be a way around the problem.
“I want to point out we should look at the generation of those who hold temporary citizenship cards," he said. "The problem will be solved in short term if those who hold [temporary] citizenship cards and whose parents hold [temporary] citizenship cards are allowed to apply for citizenship [using] normal procedures, instead of a specific project."
For years, international rights groups have criticized government policies that deny the Rohingya citizenship and restrict their travel.
Violence between Myanmar's Buddhist majority and Muslim minority has killed more than 240 people and forced about 140,000 out of their homes since 2012. Most of the dead and displaced are Rohingya Muslims in western Rakhine state.

Thursday, February 05, 2015

Thousands of Rohingya refugees evicted in Bangladesh


Groups cleared from informal settlements without warning or assistance in order to make way for tourism

Authorities in Bangladesh's southeastern Cox’s Bazar district forced out thousands of undocumented Rohingya refugees from their makeshift refugee camps on Wednesday, leaving them homeless.
Rohingya Muslims living in about 2,500 homes were driven out of the pine forests of Shamlapur, a fishing village about 50 kilometers from Cox’s Bazar town. Officials estimated no more than 7,000 were evicted, but Prothom Alo, the country’s most popular Bengali daily reported the figure to be 35,000.

The refugees had lived in the area since the 1990s, occupying dilapidated houses and relying on fishing for their livelihood. All had fled sectarian violence in their native Rakhine state, in Myanmar just across the border.

Officials said the eviction is a part of a policy to reclaim the area from illegal encroachers along Marine Drive Road that runs through the country’s most popular tourist destination.
“We have followed instructions from the Prime Minister’s Office to clear government land close to Marine Drive Road. We have received many complaints that Rohingyas have been involved in various criminal activities in the area,” said magistrate Jahid Iqbal, assistant commissioner of land in Teknaf sub-district who led the eviction assisted by police and border guards.

“We didn’t force them out of their settlements. We asked them to move out and they left their places,” he said.
Iqbal said the evicted refugees won’t be sent across the border and that he was waiting for further instructions from higher authorities as to what aid would be provided to them.
“We have written to the government for a rehabilitation package and aid. We will have its response soon,” he added.
The evicted Rohingyas meanwhile disputed Iqbals claim that they were not forced out, saying their homes were torn down by authorities.

“At around 10am police came and told us to leave our home, but we didn’t move because we had nowhere to go. Then they smashed our home and now we are living rough,” said Hasina Begum, 45, a widowed mother of three.
“We have no roof over our heads. My children are hungry and I have nothing to feed them,” she added.

Though Rohingyas have lived in Myanmar for generations, the government considers them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and has resisted offering them citizenship. Those who have fled across the border to escape persecution are equally unwelcome in Bangladesh.
Since 1978, thousands have fled, many to the Cox’s Bazar district where around 30,000 Rohingyas reside in two official camps, relying on government and NGO aid for survival. As many as 300,000 reside in unofficial makeshift camps, where they face strict restrictions on movements and are frequently exploited for cheap labor.

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in November said the government was planning to relocate Rohingya refugees to a “better place” from their camps in Cox’s Bazar district. Details as to where that “better place” is have yet to be released.

Anger at secret moving of Rohingya


PHUKET: Residents in Nakhon Sri Thammarat's Hua Sai district were upset after the provincial office for social development and human security yesterday relocated 99 Rohingya people from the shelter where they had stayed for 22 days to elsewhere without advance notice, an informed source reported yesterday.

The relocation prevented media from taking photos. Police were notified but not local Muslim people who had provided the Rohingya with food and commodity products and raised funds to cover their well-being for three months. The source claimed that some Rohingya family members were separated in the move.

The Rohingya were divided and sent to three locations; 44 to the Nakhon Sri Thammarat Shelter For Children and Families, 22 to the Songkhla's office for social development and human security, and 35 to the Surat Thani's office for social development and human security. 

Rohingya refugees say traffickers in Malaysia abuse and kill

Abul Kassim, a Rohingya asylum seeker, was snatched from his home in the northern Malaysian state of Penang on Jan. 12. The next morning, his beaten and bloodied body was found.
That day, police moved on the 40-year-old's alleged killers. Raiding a house in the neighboring state of Kedah, they rescued 17 Rohingya migrants being held against their will, according to a statement by Penang police.
Eight alleged traffickers from Malaysia, Myanmar and Bangladesh were arrested.
The murder of Abul Kassim casts rare light on what Rohingya activists say is widespread abuse by human traffickers in Malaysia, who are willing to use extreme methods to protect their lucrative but illegal business.
Abul Kassim regularly supplied police with information on the activities of traffickers, said Abdul Hamid, president of the Kuala Lumpur-based Rohingya Society in Malaysia.
Since 2012, more than 100,000 stateless Rohingya Muslims have fled violence and poverty in Myanmar. Most travel in traffickers' boats to Thailand, where they are held by traffickers in squalid jungle camps before a ransom is paid.
Relatively wealthy Malaysia to the south is the destination for most Rohingya who flee. For some, it is far from safe.
Relatives and witnesses told Reuters of three abductions in Penang in 2013 and 2014, from a home, a coffee shop and the street. In addition, a Rohingya man was confined and tortured after being brought by traffickers through Thailand.
Three of the four cases ended in murder, they said.
Fortify Rights, a Southeast Asia-based rights group, documented another three suspected killings of Rohingya by traffickers last year.
Banned from legally working and fearful of police harassment, few victims bring their case to authorities. Those who do say police have taken little action.
Confirming cases is difficult. Local media give the issue little coverage and Penang state police did not respond to further questions about Abul Kassim's killing. National police spokeswoman Asmawati Ahmad did not reply to Reuters' questions on that case or other suspected Rohingya murders.
Interviewed by Reuters in late 2014, Penang police chief Abdul Rahim Hanafi denied traffickers had killed any Rohingya in the state that year.
Police quoted in the local media said Abul Kassim's killing was likely to be connected to a money dispute.
A Kuala Lumpur-based Rohingya leader, who declined to be named for fear of retribution, said quantifying crimes was difficult due to the power and reach of traffickers in northern Malaysia.
"If we try to get information about the traffickers, they will simply target the person who tries to get information. We are not safe," he said.
Such cases include the alleged abduction and murder of Rohingya cousins Harun and Sayed Noor in 2013 and 2014, according to witnesses interviewed by Reuters.
Harun, 35, had his first run-in with traffickers in early 2013, when he was kidnapped from a Penang shop and held for a week for a ransom of 7,000 ringgit ($1,942), recalled his uncle, Mohammad Salim, 50.
After his release, Harun lodged a complaint with police and fled into hiding, Salim said.
In retaliation, traffickers took his cousin Sayed Noor, aged about 30, and held him as barter for Harun and 50,000 ringgit, Salim said. Several months later, Sayed turned up dead, his body showing signs of torture and mutilation.
In early 2014, the traffickers caught up with Harun.
Months later, his uncle, Salim, received a call from a Thai mobile number, telling him to leave town.
"The trafficker told me himself he had killed Harun."
A similarly chilling message was sent with the alleged murder last March of Sadek Akbar, 17, who had traveled from Myanmar with the help of traffickers.
After passing through a Thai camp and being ransomed for release, Sadek was imprisoned in a safehouse in Penang. Traffickers then demanded 2,000 ringgit for Sadek's release, his uncle, Altaf Hussain, told Reuters.
"We couldn't afford it, so they beat him to death and dropped him by the side of the road," Altaf, 48, told Reuters.
Altaf's account of retrieving the body from hospital was verified by another Rohingya witness and a Malaysian journalist, who both declined to be named.
Hampering a full account of the problem is Malaysia's patchy record of protecting millions of migrants, including nearly 150,000 registered refugees and asylum seekers living there.
Relatives of victims are reluctant to report crimes to police, fearing months of detention for migration violations and shakedowns for bribes, according to Fortify Rights executive director Matthew Smith.
"There are millions of dollars being made through the trafficking of Rohingya. It's unsurprising that illicit profits of that magnitude would bring out violent behavior," he said.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) declined to comment on specific criminal cases, but has received "regular reports of abuse, intimidation and exploitation of Rohingya refugees," said spokeswoman Yante Ismail.
"Under Malaysian law, all refugees are treated as undocumented and illegal migrants, and there is no national system in place to provide them with protection."

(Additional reporting by Trinna Leong in George Town, Malaysia; Editing by Mike Collett-White)