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As Burmese Rohingya bleed, immigrants in Karachi share grief

August 02, 2012

Myanmar's ethnic Rohingya Muslims display placards near the British embassy in Kuala Lumpur on July 19, 2012.  Rohingya refugees protested outside the British High Commission to end violence and humanitarian crisis against Rohingya in Arakan State in Burma. — File photo by AFP
Myanmar's ethnic Rohingya Muslims display placards near the British embassy in Kuala Lumpur on July 19, 2012. Rohingya refugees protested outside the British High Commission to end violence and humanitarian crisis against Rohingya in Arakan State in Burma. — File photo by AFP

As the world rallies in favour of non-violence and mobilises against unjust oppression, a small community in Pakistan’s largest city struggles to raise its voice: these are Karachi’s Rohingya Muslims – a small band of immigrants who managed to escape from the Burmese oppression when the time was right. Today, they helplessly look upon the citizens of the world for a gleam of hope as their kith and kin are persecuted in Myanmar’s Arakan province.

Mahmud, a Rohingya Muslim living in Karachi says that over 90,000 men, women and children have been left displaced in Arakan. “Many were pushed into the water whilst they were trying to escape to neighbouring Bangladesh and several were beaten to death. We know this because we have been using the internet to stay in touch,” he says.

Pakistan’s stance on this issue of contention remains shrouded. Following Tehrik-e-Taliban’s threat directed towards the governments of Myanmar and Pakistan, the Pakistani Foreign Office said in a brief statement on July 26 2012 that there were reports claiming that the situation in Arakan had improved.

This claim made by Pakistan’s Foreign Office goes against Amnesty International’s report on the persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Arakan. The report states that ‘targeted attacks and other violations by security forces against minority Rohingyas and other Muslims have increased’ since emergency was declared six weeks ago and that ‘Amnesty International has also received credible reports of other human rights abuses against Rohingyas and other Rakhine Muslims– including physical abuse, rape, destruction of property, and unlawful killings – carried out by both Rakhine Buddhists and security forces.’

It goes on to state that the ‘authorities’ should prevent such acts from occurring. The solution proposed by these ‘authorities’, namely Myanmar’s President, runs along the lines of forcing the nation’s Rohingya Muslims numbering close to a million, into refugee camps run by UNHCR or deporting them to a third country.

But UNHCR has rejected President Thein Sein’s proposals, claiming that the solution to this conflict is that Arakan’s Rohingya Muslims should be granted citizenship of Myanmar. And third countries don’t seem to want the Rohingya Muslims either.

According to reports the Bangladeshi government has given orders to force back Rohingya refugees whilst Burma Campaign UK (BCUK) claims that Rohingya Muslims fleeing to Bangladesh “are getting no aid or protection, while thousands more are turned back by the government of Bangladesh, literally at gunpoint, in violation of international law.”

The justification put forward by the Bangladeshi government for their actions is that their country does not have the capacity to bear a large influx of refugees. Nevertheless, this does not constitute as a valid justification for forcing back destitute immigrants to a land where, according to the United Nations, they are subject to many forms of “persecution, discrimination and exploitation”.

Says Nurul Islam, Chairman of London based Arakan Rohingya National Organisation: “Under present circumstances, it is impossible to get the exact number of casualties. What is coming to the press is largely distorted. However, it is estimated that many hundreds of Rohingya Muslims have been gunned or killed down whilst thousands of homes have been destroyed. Those who are injured have no access to medical treatment. People are now dying of starvation and disease.”

“Do you know that the Rohingya settled in Arakan centuries ago?” asks Ismail, a resident of Karachi. “My grandparents migrated from Myanmar to Pakistan in 1962. That was their good fortune. The Rohingya Muslims in Arakan are fired at from helicopters. When they try to escape to Bangladesh in open boats, they are pushed back into the high seas. How can you possibly rely on a death toll that puts the numbers fatalities close to a hundred?”

Specialist in Burmese Ethnic Relations, Professor Abid Bahar’s book, Burma’s Missing Dots states that Arab traders began to settle both in Arakan and Chittagong of present-day Bangladesh from the years 785 to 957 and that Persian was made the official language of Arakan under General Wali Khan’s rule of the region in the year 1431. It goes on to mention that a British historian, Francis Buchanon Hamilton, met some Rohingya people in Burma conversing in a language they called Roinga in the year 1799. His colleague, Dr Habib Siddiqui’s book mentions similar facts.

The United Nations estimates that there are approximately 800,000 Rohingya Muslims in Arakan. Yet, Myanmar’s Citizenship Law of 1982 does not recognise the members of this ethnic group as citizens. They are thus stateless and protection-less within their own country.

A statement jointly released on this issue by 34 organizations including the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development, BCUK and the International Federation for Human Rights states that Myanmar’s Citizenship Law is not compatible with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or with Burma’s legal obligations under international treaties. Furthermore, the statement proposes that the 1982 Citizenship Law should be repealed, and replaced with a new law founded on basic principles of human rights, should honour equality and non-discrimination, and help create an inclusive and tolerant Burma.

A report published in 2006 by the Alternative Asean Network on Burma brings to light, unheard warnings sounded in the past. The report states that “the campaign of displacement, denial of culture and identity, restrictions on the right to marry and form a family, killings, rape, torture and denial of food are a slow-burning genocide”.

It also mentions United Nations Resolution 47/144 passed in December 1992 which urges the Government of Myanmar to ensure full respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms and the protection of the rights of persons belonging to ethnic and religious minorities. Twenty years post, the Rohingya community is languishing in Arakan.

“Official restrictions on the Rohingya including marriage and reproduction are relevant to the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The harsh responses by racist extremists, the traditional role of the authorities in targeting the Rohingya for abuses, the absence of independent witnesses and the UN in the area,  and Bangladesh's refusal to allow fleeing Rohingya to seek protection all point to the strong possibility of genocide,” says Debbie Stothard, coordinator of the Alternative Asean Network on Burma.

As the violence in Arakan escalates to new levels and the number of people displaced climbs, it has become increasingly evident that the time for action is ripe.

“The governments of Burma and Bangladesh need to allow provision of basic supplies to the displaced and free access to independent fact-finding teams to establish the facts. There have to be effective community relations mechanisms to resolve conflicts between individuals and groups and to prevent them from escalating,” says Debbie Stothard, regarding the path towards establishing stability in Arakan.

She adds: “Most importantly there has to be rule of law where the law is fair to all sides and is implemented impartially. Many laws must be reformed to reflect modern standards and values, including the Citizenship Law. I am extremely concerned that the lack of effective responses could lead to similar situations for other minority groups in the country.”

The government of Myanmar has allowed UN investigator Tomas Ojea Quintana to visit the volatile region from July 30 to August 4. This measure should serve as a precedent for Myanmar’s authorities. It is imperative that transparent international humanitarian organizations and journalists are granted access to Arakan in order to bring all forms of human rights abuse to a halt and provide Arakan’s impoverished inhabitants with much needed aid and protection. Only then will this crisis turn towards the path of resolution.

The author is a freelance contributor based in Karachi.