“All You Can Do is Pray” / Human Right Watch

Crimes Against Humanity and Ethnic Cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Burma’s Arakan State
APRIL 22, 2013
This 153-page report describes the role of the Burmese government and local authorities in the forcible displacement of more than 125,000 Rohingya and other Muslims and the ongoing humanitarian crisis. Burmese officials, community leaders, and Buddhist monks organized and encouraged ethnic Arakanese backed by state security forces to conduct coordinated attacks on Muslim neighborhoods and villages in October 2012 to terrorize and forcibly relocate the population. The tens of thousands of displaced have been denied access to humanitarian aid and been unable to return home.

Map of Arakan State, Burma

The Rohingya: A History of Persecution

Violence between Buddhists and Muslims in Arakan State dates back many decades. The contemporary conflict can be traced at least to the Second World War, when the Rohingya remained loyal to the British colonial rulers, and the Arakanese sided with the invading Japanese. Clashes between Arakanese and Rohingya have occurred ever since. While both populations have faced oppression by successive Burmese governments after independence in 1948, governments in the predominantly Buddhist country have routinely persecuted and forcibly displaced the Rohingya population, altering the ethnic profile of Arakan State.

In 1978, the Burmese military drove over 200,000 Rohingya out of the country in a bloody rampage of killings, rape, and arson. The military repeated its anti-Rohingya campaign in 1991 with a wave of attacks that forced over 250,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh. Many of those were ultimately forced back to Burma – to northern Arakan State, where the Burmese government has sought to concentrate the Rohingya away from Arakanese-dominated parts of the state, and has subjected them to a battery of restrictive regulations and denial of rights.

Violence against Muslims in the state has continued over the years. In 2001, Arakanese mobs attacked Rohingya in Sittwe, destroying mosques and schools while state security forces stood by and watched.

Central to the persecution of the Rohingya is the 1982 Citizenship Law, which effectively denies Burmese citizenship to Rohingya on discriminatory ethnic grounds. Because the law does not consider the Rohingya to be one of the eight recognized “national races” (along with ethnic Burmans, Arakanese, Karen, and other groups), which would entitle them to citizenship, they must provide “conclusive evidence” that their ancestors settled in Burma before independence in 1948, a difficult if not impossible task for most Rohingya families. Kaman Muslims, as a legally recognized ethnic group, are Burmese citizens.

The government, and Burmese society more broadly, openly considers the Rohingya to be illegal immigrants from what is now Bangladesh and not a distinct “national race” of Burma, denying them consideration for citizenship. Official statements refer to them as “Bengali,” “so-called Rohingya,” or the pejorative “kalar.”

Despite claims that virtually all Rohingya are “Bengali,” most Rohingya in Burma were born in the country, many to families whose lineage goes back several generations. The government has made use of this denial of citizenship to deprive Rohingya of many fundamental rights. Rohingya face restrictions on freedom of movement, education, marriage, and employment – rights that are guaranteed to non-citizens as well as citizens under international law. Various other human rights violations have accompanied the persecution of the Rohingya over the years, including arbitrary detention, forced labor, rape, torture, forcible relocations, and other abuses. While the Burmese government and military has similarly mistreated the Arakanese population over the years, the oppression and abuse of the Rohingya in Arakan State has been particularly severe.

Since the June violence, thousands of Rohingya asylum seekers have attempted to flee from Burma to Bangladesh, crossing the Naf River or finding alternative routes by sea. The Bangladeshi government closed its borders, forcing asylum seekers back to sea on barely seaworthy boats in violation of its international legal obligation not to return someone to a place where they face persecution. Thailand has similarly “helped on” thousands of Rohingya asylum seekers since June, in some cases following a policy to provide boats with supplies to continue their voyage to Malaysia, but in other cases pushing them back to sea or handing them over to human traffickers.

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