|May 31, 2000||atimes.com|
| Southeast Asia |
Burmese Rohingya still need protection
By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON - Almost 10 years after some 250,000 Rohingya people fled their homeland in Burma for Bangladesh, their rights in both countries remain under threat, according to a new report released here Tuesday by Human Rights Watch (HRW).
In Burma, to which most of the refugees were repatriated, Rohingyas are still denied their citizenship rights and ''subjected to restrictions on their freedom of movement, arbitrary taxation, and extortion by local officials'', according to the report, Burmese Refugees in Bangladesh: Still No Durable Solution.
And in Bangladesh, where 22,000 Rohingyas remain in refugee camps, more than 100,000 others who fled Burma since 1992, are living ''in precarious circumstances'' without documentation and vulnerable to being forcibly repatriated.
''Burma must improve the treatment of the Rohingya, who are abused and treated like aliens in their own country,'' according to Gary Risser, refugees researcher for HRW's Asia Division. ''That's why refugees keep coming to Bangladesh, and thousands of them are afraid to go back.''
HRW is calling for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to strengthen its role in protecting the Rohingya, especially in Burma's Arakan state where most of this Muslim minority lives.
The UNHCR, which established a presence there in 1994 when it began repatriating the Rohingyas in Burma, is handing over responsibility for their welfare to the UN Integrated Program (UN-IP), an umbrella group of other UN agencies concerned with development in Burma. But reducing UNHCR's presence in Arakan will increase the returnees' vulnerability to abuses, according to the 28-page report. While UN-IP agencies have expressed interest in human-rights protection, it says, ''they lack both the mandate and the expertise necessary to ensure adequate protection for the Rohingya.''
The Muslim Rohingya were once part of the larger Mrauk-U kingdom in Arakan which was squeezed between the Buddhist kingdoms of Burma to the east and the Muslim Moguls to the West. While Buddhist kings ruled Mrauk-U, Muslims played a significant role at court.
In 1784, Burman King Bodawpaya conquered and incorporated the Arakan region, setting off an exodus of Muslim refugees, including Rohingyas, to southern Chittagong in modern-day Bangladesh, where many settled. Under the British, who administered Burma as part of India until the Japanese invasion in 1942, the border was open, and migration in both directions frequent.
After Burmese independence in 1948, tensions between the new Burmese government and the Rohingya grew, particularly after a group of Arakanese Muslims called for the integration of Maungdaw and Buthidaung into what was then East Pakistan. As a result, Rangoon denied the Rohingya rights to citizenship, and they were banned from military service and the civil service.
By 1950, some Rohingyas launched an armed insurgency which was put down only four years later. After the military seized power in Burma in 1962, repression of the Rohingyas was stepped up, so that, by 1978, more than 200,000 had fled to Bangladesh which tried to have as many as possible repatriated.
The most recent outflow took place in 1991-92, when more than 250,000 Rohingya fled forced labor, rape and religious persecution at the hands of the ruling Burmese State Law and Order Restoration Council (Slorc). When Bangladesh announced that they would have to be repatriated, their plight drew international attention.
The UNHCR became involved in assuring that the rights of the refugees in Bangladesh were adequately protected, that all repatriations were voluntary, and that the refugees who decided to return, would be safe from persecution or retribution. Despite a series of problems in both the Bangladesh camps and in Arakan, all but about 22,000 Rohingya eventually returned to Burma as of June 1999 when the UNHCR announced that it intended to phase out its assistance program in both countries by the end of this year.
But little has changed in Burma, according to the new report, which found that Rohingya still lack basic citizenship rights. For example, Rohingya villagers are required to obtain a travel permit from the local government officials to cross township boundaries, and their children are denied access to state-run schools beyond the primary level.
Rohingya also must routinely pay higher fees for travel than other Burmese and are frequently subject to extortion and theft from army battalions, according to the report. Local government authorities also require Rohingya to perform forced labor, and children as young as seven years old have been seen on forced-labor teams.
The situation for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh is also precarious. Despite improvements in conditions since an inmate uprising froze the repatriation process in 1997-98, abuses, including beatings and other forms of physical abuse against refugees who fail to abide by camp rules, continue. Distrust between the refugees and the camp administration remains high, according to the report.
The plight of the more than 100,000 Rohingya who have fled to Burma since 1992 is no better. Virtually none of them has formal documentation that would entitle them to certain kinds of assistance and protection, and their willingness to work for low wages has spurred anti-Rohingya sentiment that has sometimes boiled over into small-scale clashes. They are especially vulnerable to trafficking rings.
''Persons found to have a well-founded fear of persecution in Burma should be provided international protection in Bangladesh,'' according to Risser. ''Under the current climate in Burma, there should be no summary deportation of Rohingya.''
For that reason, the UNHCR should intensify, rather than reduce, its operations in both countries, but especially in Burma. ''So long as Rohingya in Arakan continue to be the target of systematic human rights violations, further refugee flows out of Burma will occur,'' it said. ''Limited resources should not be a pretext for sweeping the problem under the rug.''
(Inter Press Service)
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