Bilateral repression for Myanmar's Rohingya
By Brian McCartan
BANGKOK - The exact motives behind a recent crackdown on ethnic Rohingya
refugees in Bangladesh are still unclear, but some answers may be found across
the border in Myanmar, where the ruling generals are maneuvering for votes in
the lead-up to general elections slated for later this year.
The Rohingya, a Muslim minority living mostly in Myanmar's western Rakhine
State, are ethnically, linguistically and religiously distinct from the
majority Buddhist Rakhine of the state. Tensions and distrust between the two
groups have periodically exploded into violence, and a Myanmar military
operation in 1978 forced hundreds of thousands of them to flee to Bangladesh.
Following that exodus, the Rohingya were officially declared stateless in a
1982 citizenship law.
Communal violence, which many believe was instigated by Myanmar's junta,
resulted in 250,000 Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh in 1991-1992. A United
Nations-brokered forced repatriation in the late 1990s led to about 230,000
returning to Myanmar. Continued human-rights abuses against the estimated
725,000 Rohingya in Myanmar and the denial of citizenship rights, including the
inability to own land and the necessity of obtaining government permission to
travel or even marry, has resulted in many fleeing to Bangladesh in recent
While human-rights and humanitarian groups put the present number of registered
and unregistered Rohingya in Bangladesh at around 220,000, Dhaka now claims
there are some 400,000. Of those, only 28,000 are officially registered
refugees living in three officially designated camps and receiving humanitarian
aid. The rest live either scattered among the local population or in makeshift
camps near the official ones, but without basic sanitation, water, electricity
or aid supplies such as food and medicine.
Many in the makeshift camps are facing starvation due to being denied the
ability to work or receive aid, according to a report released on February 18
by the medical organization, Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF). Researchers from
the Arakan Project, a human-rights group documenting the plight of the
Rohingya, say children from the surrounding makeshift camp are begging for food
from the refugees in the official Kutupalong camp.
The already dire situation in the makeshift camps has become worse in recent
months as the population has grown. Rohingya are seeking refuge there from a
wave of violence that has forced them out of towns and villages. An Arakan
Project report released on February 16 details incidents of theft, rape and
physical assaults against unregistered Rohingya. The allegations are supported
by the MSF report released two days later.
The violence began last year in Bandarban district of eastern Bangladesh and
spread to Cox's Bazaar district last month. So far only the unregistered
refugees living outside the official camps have been targeted. This appears to
be a result of simmering ill feelings that the foreigners are competing for
scarce jobs and are a burden on local resources. Those feelings have been
ratcheted up in recent months by an unsympathetic, and sometimes xenophobic,
Paul Critchely, MSF's head of mission in Bangladesh, who spoke to reporters at
the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand on February 18, said "Over the
last few months, we have treated victims of violence, people who claim to have
been beaten by the police, claim to have been beaten by members of the host
population, by people they've been living next to for many years."
The spike in tensions seems to have the hallmarks of a government-sanctioned
campaign, analysts say. Reports indicate direct involvement by Bangladeshi
police and the Bangladesh Rifles, a paramilitary force tasked with border guard
duties. "Refugees have reported to us that they have received beatings in the
host community by the police," Critchely said. "Our patients have told us in
some cases that they have been handed over to the border forces of Bangladesh,
beaten and forced to swim the river back toward Myanmar."
Chris Lewa, a long-time observer of the Bangladesh-Myanmar border and
coordinator of the Arakan Project, told Asia Times Online that while
Bangladeshi authorities have previously been involved in pushing back newly
arrived refugees, this violence is new. The government's documented hand in the
violence may be directed at deterring any future influxes of Rohingya refugees,
especially if Myanmar government policies leading up to the elections expected
later this year generate increased instability.
"The government is creating panic among the Rohingya to send a message inside
Burma [Myanmar] to not come and settle in Bangladesh," according to Lewa. "I
believe it is orchestrated by [Dhaka]". This seems to be corroborated by a
recent statement by the local police chief of Kutupalong, Rafiqul Islam, who
told Agence France-Presse on February 16, "If we don't stop them, the
floodgates will open."
Although the numbers have grown, Dhaka continues to refuse permission to extend
the camp infrastructure at Kutupalong and Nayapara to the swelling makeshift
areas, a long-standing policy aimed at deterring new arrivals. A European Union
delegation fact finding in Bangladesh earlier this month issued a resolution in
the European Parliament on February 11 calling on Dhaka to recognize the
unregistered Rohingya as refugees and to extend humanitarian support.
Bangladeshi and Myanmar authorities agreed to repatriate 9,000 registered
refugees on December 29. Myanmar says the process will begin as soon as
possible. A similar agreement in 2005 between the two countries to repatriate
several thousand Rohingya resulted in the repatriation of only 90 refugees
before tensions along their mutual border halted the process.
Arakan Project coordinator Lewa says that similar kinds of statements were
previously issued after high-level bilateral discussions. This time, however,
she believes that the statement is a political one aimed at domestic
consumption. Bangladesh claims that it is unable to deal with the continued
influx due to its own poverty problems. Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Dipu Moni
said in August that the major social and economic problems brought on by the
unregistered refugees had put a "heavy burden" on Dhaka.
If the aim of the crackdown is to keep more Rohingya from coming to Bangladesh,
it appears to be working. Last year some 8,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar for
Bangladesh, an increase from the previous year before. This year, there have
been almost none, according to the Arakan Project's research. On the other
hand, few unregistered Rohingya have chosen to return voluntarily to Myanmar.
According to human-rights groups, there is little to return to. Rohingya who
have left for an extended period of time are taken off village registration
lists in Myanmar, making them completely unrecognized. While the 9,000 refugees
accepted by Myanmar in December will be resettled, the remaining registered and
unregistered refugees are still unrecognized by the junta. Rohingya who have
returned after being taken off the lists have often been sentenced to five
years in prison for violating immigration laws.
Of concern to human-rights activists is whether the violence will lead to an
increase in the number of Rohingya willing to risk the sea journey across the
Indian Ocean in rickety boats to seek work and refuge in Thailand and Malaysia.
Lewa says it is too early to tell whether the violence will push people to the
boats since the "season" has just begun. She does say, however, "The situation
will probably encourage people to go by boat." At least two boats are known to
have left Bangladesh already and others have left from Sittwe on the Rakhine
coast, southwest Myanmar.
Some analysts believe that the possibility of heightened instability in Myanmar
in the lead up to and during the elections may cause thousands more Rohingya to
seek refuge in Bangladesh. This is a situation Dhaka wants to avoid and the
ongoing crackdown may be a not-so-subtle message that the door is closed.
One possible flashpoint is recent attempts by the regime to win over Rohingya
voters at the expense of the majority Rakhine. Reports from exile media
organizations and human-rights groups indicate that Myanmar authorities have
become especially keen to enlist members of the Muslim community, including the
Rohingya, to vote. Memberships are being offered by both the regime-affiliated
National Unity Party (NUP) and its mass organization, the Union Solidarity and
Development Association (USDA).
The recruitment of Muslims is confusing to many Myanmar watchers since it is
unclear how a people not recognized as citizens could be given the vote in such
an important election. Very few Rohingya have received the red identity cards
granting them full citizenship, and those who have received the cards are
usually wealthy businessmen and their families.
In the lead up to the 2008 constitutional referendum, many Rohingya were
granted temporary identity cards. The cards, while legal, are really designed
for citizens who have lost their permanent cards and do not confer full
citizenship rights on the Rohingya. However, the authorities made it clear that
card holders would be expected to vote.
More cards are being issued now, according to reports. The Kaladan Press, a
Rohingya exile news agency, reported in December that NUP members were waiving
the usual fee for the identity cards for voting age Rohingya. The effect is to
encourage Rohingya who previously found the cost of the cards to be prohibitive
to get one.
The Narinjara News Agency, an exile Rakhine news organization, cited a USDA
official earlier this month as claiming that the group has begun recruiting
Muslims into the organization. This marks the first time that Muslims have been
accepted into the USDA since its formation in 1993. The effort has been
apparently ongoing since at least January.
For the Rohingya, there may be some hope that by participating in the election
and supporting the NUP and USDA, there may be granted citizenship in exchange.
The junta has previously promised that the cards will be exchanged for
permanent citizenship cards following the elections. There is also the
possibility that these groups may allow Muslims to be candidates in their
parties. However, it is unlikely a Muslim party will be allowed to register.
"I believe the Rohingya may get more rights after the elections, but not full
citizenship rights. It only makes them dream," said Lewa.
The policy seems aimed at pushing up the numbers of votes for junta-affiliated
candidates as well as blocking the aspirations of the Rakhine majority in
Rakhine State. As pointed out in a recent Amnesty International report on
repression of ethnic activists in Myanmar, the protests that became the 2007
Saffron Revolution began in Rakhine State. With this in mind, the regime
appears to be keen to prevent this from happening again.
There are already indications that the regime's moves to enlist Rohingya
support are making the ethnic Rakhine nervous. Relations between the two
communities have been difficult and on occasion have exploded into violence.
The Rakhine would certainly be opposed to regime efforts to put the Rohingya
put in a privileged minority position after the elections.
The regime has attempted to play on these ethnic tensions on several occasions,
including the 1991-1992 attacks on Rohingya that led to a mass exodus to
Bangladesh and widespread anti-Muslim riots in 2001. Should violence break out
between the two communities over the election, as Myanmar's policies seem to be
aggravating, a new mass flight of refugees into Bangladesh could be on the way.
Brian McCartan is a Bangkok-based freelance journalist. He may be reached