“Conflict, discrimination and humanitarian challenges
By Chris Lewa, Forum
Delivered at the EU –
In contrast to
the Thai-Burma border, very little international attention has been given to conditions
on the Bangladesh-Burma border. Consequently,
But Arakan is no less than
a microcosm of
Arakan was an independent kingdom until 1784, encompassing at times the
southern part of today’s
British colonial period, a large number of people of Indian origin settled throughout
Muslims and Buddhists co-existed in the Arakan region for many centuries, and until WWII, the two communities did not show any sign of strong animosity towards each other. However, in 1942, the Japanese conquest and the withdrawal of the British created a political vacuum which gave room for accumulated tensions sparked by the Indian immigration to explode and the first major communal riots broke out in Arakan.
Ruthless campaigns and discriminatory policies against them prompted two
massive exoduses of more than
250,000 Rohingya refugees to
The military regime’s
monolithic concept of nation building promotes assimilation, rather than
integration of all ethnic minorities, within a primarily Burman
Buddhist nation. In Arakan, the junta
has implemented policies of exclusion against the Muslim population, while
attempting to forcibly assimilate the Rakhine Buddhists through “Burmanisation”. This
divide-and-rule tactic is very effective as, by denying all rights to the
Rohingya population, depriving them of citizenship and labelling them as
illegal immigrants from
The conflict in
Recognition as an ethnic
In addition, emphasis is also given to the Islamic faith professed by this population. The consensus of Burmese opinion is that the Muslims can enjoy religious freedom but they will be relentlessly barred from obtaining political representation on the basis of their religion.
Policies of exclusion and discrimination imposed on the Rohingyas by successive Burmese military regimes have
prevented them from developing socially and economically, and are deliberately
designed to encourage departure to
1) Denial of citizenship:
The Rohingyas have been rendered stateless
2) Restrictions on freedom of movement:
The Rohingya are subject to strict
restrictions of movement. They are
virtually confined to their village tracts.
They need to apply for a travel pass, which they have to pay for, even to
visit a neighbouring village. Since February
2001, Sittwe has remained off-limits for the Rohingyas
3) Obstacles to family development
A series of measures has been imposed to control birth and to limit expansion of the Rohingya population. Unlike other peoples of Burma, the Rohingya must apply for permission to get married, which is only granted in exchange for high bribes and can take up to several years to obtain. Polygamy has been prohibited, and widows must wait at least 3 years to remarry. To register their children’s birth, parents are charged fees that have significantly increased over the last year. In several areas, women’s dignity is greatly offended, as they have to declare their pregnancy to the NaSaKa and sometimes show their belly. Moreover, building a new house, extending existing dwellings and even maintenance and repair also require authorisation, resulting in overcrowded and precarious living conditions.
4) Construction of “model villages”
The establishment of “model villages” to resettle
Buddhists (Rakhine and Burman) onto Muslim land has
been going on since the
1950s. Such demographic engineering is
designed to alter the ethnic composition of the region. There are already 26 such model
villages of about 100 houses each in
In addition to these policies of exclusion specifically targeting the Rohingya, economic policies are being pursued to maintain underdevelopment. These are also practised in other ethnic areas, but considering that 60% of the Rohingya population are landless and depend on a hand-to-mouth existence, the related loss of income greatly contributes to food insecurity. It appears as a deliberate attempt to induce starvation and trigger departures. The main elements are:
5) Forced labour
As documented by the ILO in early 2003, forced labour is far from being eradicated in
6) Arbitrary taxation
Arbitrary taxation and other forms of extortion are common practices. These informal taxes range from cattle registration fees to a multitude of ad-hoc donations to be made to the authorities in kind or in cash. An increase in monetary contributions appears to compensate for a slight decrease in forced labour. The tactic of arresting people for minor offences and demanding high bribes in return for their release is also widespread.
7) Control of the economy through a monopoly system
Business monopolies are granted in exchange for licences obtained against high bribes. All economic sectors are controlled through a monopoly system based on licences, which totally forbids any free-enterprise initiative. Anyone engaging in an economic activity must either sell his product to the licence holder below market price or pay him a tax. As soon as a new income-generating endeavour appears, a new monopoly is installed. The authorities grant or revoke licences annually and always guarantee the monopoly to the highest bid.
8) Paddy procurement
The paddy tax is based on a pre-set quota of baskets per acre rather than on yield and is sold directly to the government at a price well below the market rate. It can represent up to 50% of small farmers’ paddy production. In April 2003, the SPDC announced the scrapping of its paddy procurement policy. Starting from the next harvest in late 2003, farmers would be allowed to sell their products through local rice trading committees. Many observers are sceptical about this reform and believe that a new monopoly system will soon be put in place.
The distressing realities in which the Rohingyas live in Arakan are the outcome of the policies listed above, and demonstrate that there is no willingness on the part of the Burmese government to integrate this population. As long as these policies remain in place, attempts to develop these communities are bound to fail, and the cycle of exodus will not be stemmed.
In 1994, after considerable
international pressure to repatriate the 250,000 Rohingya refugees who fled to
UNHCR’s intervention to address the Rohingyas’ status of statelessness prompted the government to issue them with a temporary registration card (white card), which clearly states that it does not constitute evidence of citizenship. To date, only a third of the Muslim population has been issued with this card, which does not grant any legal status, merely residency already acknowledged through the system of family lists. This initiative does not change the nature of the citizenship problems.
UNHCR and WFP have managed to significantly reduce the amount of compulsory labour by taking over responsibility for building local road infrastructure, but the practice is still widespread when it comes to activities for the direct benefit of the military.
Moreover, UNHCR’s protection mandate has been seriously hindered by restrictions of movement, making access to UNHCR problematic for the Rohingyas.
Efforts have been directed at improving educational and health services by rehabilitating government-run schools and health centres, and providing training to teachers and health workers. However, obstacles were encountered, as Rohingyas cannot apply for any government posts. The majority of staff are thus Rakhine, who are generally not attracted to serve in isolated, rural areas dominated by Rohingyas. Some of the newly built facilities therefore remain unused.
NGOs have been attempting to tackle the food security situation of the poorer strata of this population by implementing income-generation projects and other development activities. However, food security continues to deteriorate steadily. Over the last year, increased pressures through arbitrary taxation, tighter control of the local economy as the licence system extends to new commodities and activities, as well as restricted access to forest resources, have led to a crisis, which can only be stopped if direct food assistance is immediately delivered to the most vulnerable segment of the population, estimated at one third of the total population of Northern Arakan State.
Despite these shortcomings, the presence of international NGOs and UN agencies has been crucial in providing some degree of protection to the Rohingya, and somewhat alleviates their conditions. UNHCR’s presence is vital since it is the only international agency with a protection mandate. Without the programmes of UN agencies and international NGOs, it is likely that a new exodus of refugees could no longer be contained.
In July 2003, high-level
officials from UNHCR headquarters in
Repatriating refugees when
the conditions at home have not improved and when a return in safety and
dignity cannot be achieved raise many questions. The probability that they may soon come back
The root causes
of the humanitarian crisis in
The solution to the Rohingyas’ problems requires that new policies be put in
place to eradicate their statelessness and respect their fundamental human
rights. Political will is required to
end these policies of exclusion and discrimination and to improve the lot of
the Rohingya people for, as long as they are considered illegal immigrants from
While it is unlikely that
one could expect any positive move from the military junta, there is also no
guarantee that discriminatory policies would be removed with the emergence of a
democratic government. The Rakhine
Buddhist population, public opinion in
The intransigence of all protagonists makes it extremely difficult to find a solution, and in the meantime, providing assistance and protection to the Rohingya population is both a moral and a legal obligation of the international community.
 Martin Smith, The Muslim “Rohingyas” of
 In response to UNHCR, Secretary-1 wrote in 1998, "this issue is essentially one of migration, of people seeking greener pastures ... these people are not originally from Myanmar ... they are racially, ethnically, culturally different from the other national races in our country. Their language as well as religion is also different”.
 The NaSaKa is the Border Administration Force and comprises five different government agencies: the police, military intelligence (MI), Lone Htein (riot police), customs, and immigration.
 In relation to ILO Liaison Officer’s visit to Northern Arakan State in January 2003, the ILO Governing Body report GB.286/6 of March 2003 stated in paragraph 7: “While it is her impression that there is probably less use of forced labour in central parts of Myanmar, the situation in areas near to the Thai border where there is continuing insecurity and a heavy presence of the army, as well as in northern Rakhine State, is particularly serious and appears to have changed little.”
Garly Andersen, “Analysis of the livelihood situation
of the Muslim population in
 Concern only handed over their medical and nutritional programmes. They are still providing education, sanitation and social counselling in the camps.