Briefing: Myanmar's Rohingya crisis
BANGKOK, 16 November 2012 (IRIN) - Five months after communal violence erupted in Myanmar's Rakhine State, the plight of the 800,000 Muslim Rohingya there has worsened: Renewed violence in late October left more than 100,000 displaced, according to the government.
Clashes between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in June 2012 razed homes and places of worship in northern parts of the state, killed an estimated 80 and displaced tens of thousands more. The government imposed a night-time curfew and declared a state of emergency in six townships, including Maungdaw and Buthidaung near the border with Bangladesh.
Who are the Rohingya?
The Rohingya are a Muslim minority ethnically related to the Bengali people living in neighbouring Bangladesh's Chittagong District. They form 90 percent of the one million people living in the north of Rakhine State in Myanmar, which borders Bangladesh and includes the townships of Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Rathedaung. While residents in northern Rakhine State are predominantly Muslim, ethnic Rakhines - primarily Buddhist - are the majority of the state's three million residents. In 1989 the military-led government changed the state's colonial name of Arakan to Rakhine.
The government lists 135 national "races" (a translation from Burmese for "people type") classified by ethnicity and dialect, of which the biggest groups are Burman, Kachin, Kayah, Karen, Chin, Mon, Rakhine and Shan.
Myanmar's indigenous Burman accounted for 69 percent of the country's population, according to the last official census of 1983.
What is the government's position?
Some Rohingya have been in Myanmar for centuries while others arrived in recent decades; regardless of how long they have been in country, Burmese authorities consider them undocumented immigrants and do not recognize them as citizens or as an ethnic group.
As a result, Rohingya are de jure stateless, according to the 1982 Burmese Citizenship law, and are viewed as a source of instability in the country.
In July, Burmese President Thein Sein shocked human rights groups by saying Rohingyas should be placed in UN-sponsored refugee camps, while at the same time offering to resettle Rohingyas in any other country willing to accept them.
"Burma will take responsibility for its ethnic nationalities but it is not at all possible to recognize the illegal border-crossing Rohingyas who are not an ethnic [group] in Burma," said a statement on the President's Office website.
At the same time, the President's Office announced on 31 October that it will continue to "take actions against individuals and organizations responsible for the conflict" to prevent further violence, and that investigations are under way.
What are the roots of inter-communal tensions?
Muslims living along the coast of Rakhine State can be traced back to the eighth and ninth centuries when Arab traders settled in the area. Muslims and Buddhists have historically lived on both sides of the Naaf river, which marks the current border with Bangladesh. The British annexed the region after an 1824-26 conflict and encouraged migration from India, including that of labourers, merchants and administrators. Since independence in 1948, successive Burmese governments have considered this migration illegal.
Without citizenship, Rohingya cannot legally leave the townships of Rakhine State and, since 1994, must request special permits (often available only through bribes) to marry, which restricts Rohingya couples to having two children, a limitation other ethnic groups do not face. Common-law couples are vulnerable to prosecution. The government includes the Rohingya in official family registries and gives them temporary registration cards. However, such documents do not mention place of birth and are not considered as evidence of birth in Myanmar.
As a result of statelessness, suspicion, and deep-seated hatred, the Rohinyga continue to face persecution and are subject to discrimination through targeted restrictions (like family size) and requirements (unpaid forced labour for security forces).
So divisive is their status in Myanmar that even pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi remains largely silent on their plight, out of fear of losing popular support, while the government of the reform-minded Burmese president could well face a major public backlash if it were unilaterally to grant them citizenship, experts warn.
How many are displaced?
In June 2012 violence between ethnic Rakhine and Rohingya residents following the alleged rape of an ethnic Rakhine woman by a group of Muslim men displaced nearly 75,000, mostly Rohingya; most are still in nine overcrowded camps in Sittwe township, the capital of Rakhine State. After relative calm, violence resurged in October, spread into a larger area and displaced an additional 35,000, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Yangon.
This displacement is on top of the estimated more than 200,000 Rohingya who have fled earlier crackdowns and discrimination, seeking refuge in Bangladesh, where they are also seen as illegal migrants or elsewhere in the region.
What is happening now?
Sporadic reports of violence continue to be reported from Rakhine State where the situation remains tense. There is a heavy security presence in Rakhine State with locals fearing for their safety should the armed forces leave. Most of the displaced people have little or no access to food and shelter.
The US-based rights group, Human Right Watch (HRW), released satellite pictures taken on 9 and 25 October that show extensive destruction of homes and other property in Kyaukpyu District, a predominantly Rohingya Muslim area. More than 800 homes and buildings were destroyed, with many Rohingya fleeing by sea towards Sittwe, 200km to the north. Non-Rohingya Muslims have also been displaced, raising fears violence could spread to other parts of Myanmar. Muslims form some 4 percent of the estimated 59 million population.
Can humanitarians get in?
Aid workers report not being able to get travel authorization to reach the displaced outside of Sittwe.
More than 100,000 people were displaced across eight Rakhine townships (Kyaukpyu, Kyauktaw, Minbya, Mrauk-U, Myebon, Pauktaw, Ramree and Rathedaung)
Blocked from reaching affected communities, the medical aid group, Médecins sans Frontières (MSF), has pulled out of Rakhine State, where it has worked for two decades, after its staff received death threats.
In June MSF suspended most health programmes, leaving thousands of patients across Rakhine State cut off from medical services.
Monsoon rains interrupted humanitarian and development assistance in Rakhine State near Sittwe; the World Food Programme (WFP), the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and a number of NGOs resumed some activities in September.
That month the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) announced an agreement with the government to open an office in Rakhine State, but following protests from Buddhist monks, the government rescinded permission.
Who is helping, and what is missing?
In response to the June clashes, the government has been providing food, shelter, non-food items and medical supplies to internally displaced persons (IDP), with the support of the international community. In July an inter-agency plan was launched to provide assistance to an estimated 80,000 people affected by the crisis.
The Rakhine Response Plan estimated it will take some US$32.5 million to cover basic emergency needs until the end of the year for an estimated 80,000 displaced.
According to the UN database which records international humanitarian aid, the Financial Tracking Service, and not-yet-recorded recent donor announcements, nearly $24 million has been pledged or contributed to humanitarian assistance in Rakhine State this year, including $4.8 million from the UN Central Emergency Fund (set up in 2005 to provide more timely humanitarian assistance to those affected by natural disaster and armed conflict globally).
In response to an increase in displacement, a revised plan is expected to be launched shortly to cover emergency needs in Rakhine State until June 2013.
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