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Who are the Rohingya, why are they called ‘security threat’ and ‘nowhere people’

Human rights organizations describe the systematic targeting of Rohingyas by the Myanmar government and Buddhist nationalists as ‘ethnic cleansing’.

india Updated: Sep 18, 2017 15:35 IST
Zehra Kazmi
Rohingya refugees shelter from the rain in a camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, September 17, 2017. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton
Rohingya refugees shelter from the rain in a camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, September 17, 2017. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton(REUTERS)

Allowing Rohingya refugees to stay in India would lead to “social unrest” in the country, the government has said about about the Muslim people who are fleeing Myanmar to escape what the United Nations has branded ethnic cleansing.

A Reuters report said the latest spasm of violence in western Myanmar’s Rakhine State began on August 25, when Rohingya insurgents attacked police posts and an army camp, killing about 12 people.

Rights monitors and fleeing Rohingya say Myanmar security forces and Rakhine Buddhist vigilantes responded with what they describe as a campaign of violence and arson aimed at driving out the Muslim population.

Buddhist-majority Myanmar rejects that, saying its forces are carrying out clearance operations against the insurgents of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, which claimed responsibility for the August attacks and similar, smaller, raids in October.

The Rohingyas are counted among the world’s most persecuted communities. Human rights organizations describe their systematic targeting by the Myanmar government and Buddhist nationalists as ‘ethnic cleansing’, which the country denies.

As the international community once again confronts a looming Rohingya refugee crisis, an explainer on the historical and political reasons that have left the community stateless:

Who are the Rohingya?

The Rohingya are Burma’s Muslim minority who reside in the northern parts of the Rakhine region(historically known as Arakan), a geographically isolated area in western Burma, bordering Bangladesh.

The Rohingya are ethnically, linguistically, and religiously different from Myanmar’s dominant Buddhist community. The Rakhine region is Myanmar’s least developed region, with more than 78 per cent of households living below the poverty line.

About 1.1 million Rohingyas are said to live in Myanmar’s Rakhine region.

Updated map of northern Rakhine state in Myanmar showing areas where fires were detected from satellite imagery. Nearly 125,000 refugees, mostly Rohingya Muslims, have entered Bangladesh since August 25, the United Nations said Tuesday. (AFP)

Why does Myanmar not recognise the Rohingya?

According to the International Observatory of the Stateless, after the British annexed the Rakhine region in 1824-26, they encouraged migration from India. Successive Burmese governments have maintained that the Rohingyas are illegal migrants from India and Bangladesh and have refused to recognize them as one of the country’s 135 ethnic groups.

The Myanmar government’s refusal to grant Rohingya citizenship status or any legal documentation has effectively made them stateless, reports Council for Foreign Relations.

In 1962, after General Ne Win’s Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) seized power, the military government dissolved Rohingya social and political organisations.

In 1982, a citizenship law by the military junta effectively stripped Rohingyas of their Burmese nationality and basic rights, rendering them stateless. Along with the Rohingyas, an unknown number of Persons of Indian Origin (PIOs) who reside in Burma are also stateless, though they have lived in the country for generations. According to the Indian government’s estimates, as many as 2.5 million PIOs could be living in Burma.

In the 1990s, the Rohingya Muslims were issued identity cards, known as ‘white cards’, categorizing them as temporary citizens.

In 2014, the government held its first census in 30 years, backed by the United Nations. It initially permitted the Muslim minority group to identify as ‘Rohingya’, but backtracked in the face of opposition by Buddhist nationalists.

Why are the Rohingya fleeing Myanmar?

The Rohingyas have been the targets of violence perpetrated by both the state as well as Buddist nationalist groups. They are denied basic rights, restrictions are placed on marriage, employment, religious choice. Coupled with this, the abysmal poverty and lack of development in the Rakhine region had fuelled Rohingya migration.

But an unparalleled refugee crisis has been brewing since 2012, when Buddhist nationalists burned Rohingya homes and killed more than 280 people and displaced tens of thousands in retaliation for the alleged rape and killing of a Buddhist woman.

According to the International Organization for Migration, more than eighty-eight thousand migrants took to sea from the Bay of Bengal between January 2014 and May 2015. The Rohingya often pay people smugglers to find them a way outside the country. The resulting boat journeys are dangerous, and have claimed hundreds of lives.

After attacks on border posts in October 2016, the ruling government, helmed by Nobel Laureate Aung Sang Suu Kyi, intensified its crackdown on Rohingyas. The government forces were accused of arson, rape, extrajudicial killings and human rights abuses that they denied.

Human Rights Watch has periodically released satellite imagery showing wide-spread fire-related destruction in Rohingya villages. The latest release on September 2, 2017 estimates that 700 buildings were burned down.

Where are they migrating to?

According to the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 123,000 Rohingya refugees have fled western Myanmar since August 25.

Bangladesh hosts the maximum number of Rohingya refugees in the world. The country was already hosting nearly 34,000 registered Rohingya refugees in Kutupalong and Nayapara camps, as well as several hundred thousand undocumented Rohingya living in makeshift sites and local villages. Bangladesh, however, considers Rohingyas illegal infiltrators and plans to relocate them and refuses to take in any more refugees.

Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia also host Rohingya refugees. In 2015, Rohingyas fleeing bouts of violence were stranded on their boats as country after country refused to take them in, earning them the title of ‘boat people’.

What is India’s stance on the Rohingyas?

India is home to approximately 40,000 Rohingyas, according to the Ministry of Home Affairs. About 16,500 Rohingya living in India are registered with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), but their actual numbers are much higher. The UNHCR says Rohingya refugees are spread across six locations in India — Jammu, Nuh in Haryana’s Mewat district, Delhi, Hyderabad, Jaipur and Chennai.

The Indian government has issued Long Term Visas to 500 Rohingyas, which will help them open bank accounts and secure admission in schools.

While New Delhi had accepted Rohingya refugees, it has been wary of taking a strong stance on the issue, fearing China’s influence on Myanmar. K Yhome of the Observer Research Foundation who has studied India-Myanmar relations closely says, “India’s position is that this is an internal affair of Myanmar.”

On August 9, 2017, the minister of state for home affairs, Kiren Rijiju, told parliament that the government has issued detailed instructions for deportation of illegal foreign nationals including Rohingyas.