Ethnic and religious violence continues to flare in the Rakhine (formerly Arakan) State of western Burma after an incident last month in which a local woman was raped by three men, allegedly of Rohingya minority. The Rohingya are a largely Muslim ethnic group that lives mainly along the border between Burma and Bangladesh. They are not recognized by the Burmese military government as citizens in Burma, nor have they been permitted to obtain citizenship in Bangladesh. According to United Nations estimates, there are approximately 800,000 Rohingya living in Burma, many of whose families have lived in the country for generations. An estimated 300,000 currently live in Bangladesh. The Burmese refer to Rohingya as “Bengalis,” illustrating the widespread perception of the Rohingya people as unwelcome foreigners in Burma. Nor have members of the minority received much support from their supposed country of origin. Boats of Rohingya refugees seeking asylum in Bangladesh are being turned away by government authorities, who have effectively closed their border to refugees fleeing persecution in Burma.
The conflict risks creating greater political strife within the country at a time when the government is especially vulnerable to instability due to the recent “liberalization” undertaken by the ruling military regime. Many government officials are hesitant to address the issue publicly. Even Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace Prize winner and leader of Burma’s National League for Democracy has remained tight-lipped on the plight of the country’s Rohingya population. The NLD spokesman Nyan Win would not comment on Suu Kyi’s position but said, “The Rohingya are not our citizens.”
The three men accused of committing the rape that are believed to have initiated the conflict have been arrested and charged for the crime, yet the ethnic tensions sparked by the incident have continued to evoke violence in the region. After the attack, a group of Buddhist Burmese citizens boarded a bus and beat ten Rohingya passengers to death, some of whom were apparently thought to have been involved in the rape. Since then, clashes between the Arakanese (members of the ethnic Burmese population in Rakhine state) and the Rohingya community have included rioting, arson, and a continuing cycle of revenge attacks. Government officials report that the month of clashes has resulted in eighty deaths. The Rohingya community believes the death toll to be much higher.
In response to the violence, the military regime has instituted a state of emergency in the Arakan state, a situation which gives the military full governing rights under the 2008 constitution. While the government claims the measures have been undertaken to ensure the safety and security of the local population, a declared state of emergency robs the state’s civilian government of what little power and authority it previously enjoyed in the region.
It’s time for the international community to recognize the plight of the Rohingya people in Burma by increasing humanitarian aid to the region and openly calling for the military junta to end its oppression of minority groups in Burma, a trend that has characterized the regime’s rule for decades. In addition, the international community should call for Bangladesh to reopen its borders to refugees fleeing the violence in Burma and allow international humanitarian aid to enter the country. As Human Rights Watch has noted, Bangladesh is obligated under international law to provide temporary protection to refugees and asylum seekers. While Bangladesh is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol, it is a party to the Convention against Torture, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. These treaties and customary international law establish the obligation of states to respect the principle of nonrefoulement, which holds that refugees should not be forcibly returned to a place where their lives or freedom would be threatened and that no person should be returned to a place where they would be subjected to torture.
Post by: Adrian Lewis