Little Help for the Persecuted Rohingya of Burma
Every breath the young orphan girl took brought pain to her body and tears to her eyes. She had been abused by the family she worked for as a servant – probably sexually molested, according to her doctor, and then, so dishonoured, pushed into a fire to make her death seem accidental. They knew she had no official papers and therefore could not complain to the authorities. She was unceremoniously dumped at the gate of the Lada refugee camp in southern Bangladesh, where doctors in the camp cared for her. Horrible as her case was, the doctors knew she was but one of many similarly burnt young women they would see that month and were realistic about her slim chance of survival, lacking money for food or advanced treatment. Besides the volunteer doctors and other camp staff moved to donate money to buy her eggs or medicine, it seemed no one cared whether she lived or died. Her existence did not matter.
The story of this young Rohingya girl was told to us by an American colleague who works at Georgetown University after her recent visit to the refugee camp on the border between Bangladesh and Burma.
The “forgotten Rohingya“, whom the BBC calls “one of the world’s most persecuted minority groups”, are the little-publicised Muslim people historically located in the coastal Arakan state of western Burma, dating their ethnic lineage in this region over centuries.
When the military junta under General Ne Win, an ethnic Burmese, came to power in 1962, it implemented a policy of “Burmanisation”. Based on the ultra-nationalist ideology of racial “purity”, it was a crude attempt to bolster the majority Burmese ethnic identity and their religion Buddhism, in order to strip the Rohingya of any legitimacy. They were officially declared foreigners in their own native land and erroneously labelled as illegal Bengali immigrants.
By officially denying them citizenship, the government institutionalised the long-held and unofficial discriminatory practices in the Arakan State. As a result, the Rohingya have no rights to own land or property and are unable to travel outside their villages, repair their decaying places of worship, receive education, or even marry and have children without rarely granted government permission. In addition to the complete denial of their rights, the Rohingya were subjected to modern-day slavery, forced to work on infrastructure projects which include constructing “model villages” to house the Burmese settlers intended to displace them.
Since 1991 the steady flow of refugees in Bangladesh reached an astounding number. The non-governmental organisations from Europe and North America put the number at an estimated 300,000. Only 35,000 of these Rohingya refugees live in registered refugee camps and receive some sort of assistance from NGOs. The remaining, more than 250,000, are in a desperate situation without food and medical assistance. Torrential rain and flooding in each monsoon takes a heavy toll in the unregistered and unprotected makeshift camps with the most deplorable and inhumane conditions. Outbreaks of epidemics of waterborne diseases from the lack of sanitation and flooding in the monsoon in the makeshift camps have shocked NGOs and the international community.
There are many horror stories of the Rohingya who, no longer able to face the utter hopelessness of their lives, set forth on makeshift rafts into the sea. Too many such journeys have been abruptly ended by Thai and Malaysian naval patrols that force these rafts into deeper waters and then leave them to die.
Because the US has targeted Islamic charitable organisations in order to dry up any possible funding for al-Qaida and other such groups it has caused Muslims to become wary of giving to charity. The normal Muslim sources, that may have helped the Rohingya, have therefore been largely absent. Muslim Aid is one of the only organisations allowed to operate in the camp where the young girl was burned, and they provide the only small and overworked clinic and child feeding programme for thousands of refugees.
All the Rohingya want is reinstatement of their citizenship in their own land, revoked by the former dictator General Ne Win, and the dignity, human rights and opportunities that come with it. Only then can a democratic Burma be legitimate in the eyes of its own people, the south Asian region, and the international community. Perhaps then the suffering of the young Rohingya girl and so many like her will not have been in vain.
Akbar Ahmed is a member of the Board of Advisors and an Adjuct Scholar at ISPU. He is chair of Islamic studies at American University in Washington DC. Harrison Akins is a research fellow attached to the Ibn Khaldun chair of Islamic studies at American University in Washington DC
This article was published by The Guardian on December 1, 2011. Read it here.