A report released on Tuesday by Thailand-based watchdog Fortify Rights, detailing discriminatory and persecutory policies targeting Rohingya Muslims in Arakan, has been met with mixed reviews, evincing the deep divide within Burma on the “Rohingya question”.
“The information we’ve collected through leaked documents, analysis of public records, and testimony indicates that all the elements needed to demonstrate crimes against humanity are in place in Rakhine [Arakan] State,” Matthew Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights, told DVB. “We don’t make these allegations lightly and we hope the government responds in a way that promotes and protects human rights.”
While patterns of harassment and oppression are already well-documented, the report – entitled Policies of Persecution: Ending Abusive State Policies Against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar – is the first to publish official documents corroborating observed patterns, shedding light on the mechanics of a long-running campaign to deny the Rohingya basic rights.
National identity in Burma is perhaps best defined by its complexity. Its most prominent sacred cow is the notion that only members of “indigenous” ethnic groups – subdivided into 135 arbitrary categories – are deserving of “full” citizenship. The Rohingya are not on this list, making the term itself contested territory. Their detractors see the word as an “artificial” term, a fraudulent attempt at asserting indigeneity devised to drive the Arakanese from their land. Government officials and Arakanese nationalists prefer the term Bengali, which implies origins in neighbouring Bangladesh.
The documents pertaining to Arakan acquired by Fortify Rights date between 1993 and 2008, and these “instruct law enforcement agencies to impose abusive action on Rohingya, including enforced birth control, coercive limits on childbirth, restrictions on marriage and private relationships, and restrictions on movement.” The report also draws on four government documents dating to March 2013, “relating specifically to Muslim citizens in areas outside Arakan State,” but – for “security reasons” – Fortify Rights has chosen not to make their contents public.
“Arakanese people have been living with the Muslim community for many decades, but the so-called Rohingya are calling for their own sovereignty,” said Kyaw Myint, the vice-chairman of the Arakan League for Democracy (ALD), which has itself been on the receiving end of government repression. The party inked a deal last month to amalgamate with another nationalist party, the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, but Burma’s electoral commission has not yet approved the merger. “I have many Muslim friends … but after the Bengali people created the name Rohingya, there is a separate feeling,” he said.
Arakanese nationalists feel trapped between a union government that does not have their best interests at heart, and the alleged threat posed by the Rohingya. Despite empirical evidence to the contrary, conventional wisdom teaches that the Rohingya are multiplying much faster than their Arakanese neighbours, and that northern Arakan is suffering from the effects of a wave of migration from the other side of the border. For this reason, Kyaw Myint agrees with the mobility restrictions and birth control measures documented in the report, and claims that the fundamental issue preventing progress is a failure to uphold “the rule of law” – including a controversial 1982 citizenship law that has left the vast majority of Rohingya stateless.
This feeling of entrapment has prompted wild theories to emerge. “The current Rakhine state government is not elected by the Arakanese people. It is authorised by the central government, which is blocking the Bengali refugees from returning to Bangladesh. The reason is because they might need to get more votes [in the 2015 elections],” Kyaw Myint said. “Over a million people have been provided white cards [temporary IDs] and will be allowed to vote, and they will vote for the [USDP]. Rakhine people are scared.”
But it is not as though the Rohingya have many friends on the national stage. Contacted by DVB for this article, presidential spokesman Ye Htut slammed the report, claiming Fortify Rights “has been lobbying for the Bengalis all the time, and so we have nothing to comment about their one-sided allegations, and we neither respect nor pay attention to them.”
A particular point of contention has been the presence of foreign relief agencies in Arakan. In recent weeks, thousands of protesters have demonstrated against their activities in Sittwe, the capital of Arakan State. “Most of the INGOs are funded by Islamic countries, so that’s why people don’t have faith in INGOs. They feel that they are only to aid [Muslims],” said ALD secretary Myo Kyaw. “They’re dressed like NGO workers, but their real message is Islam.”
Naypyidaw has wholeheartedly denied allegations that it incited bouts of anti-Muslim violence that spread from Arakan to other parts of the country starting early last year. But the unreleased documents in Fortify Rights’ possession, which relate “specifically to Muslim citizens in areas outside Rakhine [Arakan] State,” may serve to corroborate a widely held belief that anti-Muslim violence around the country has been coordinated by elements within the government and/or security services.
The Burmese government’s policies towards the Rohingya constitute crimes against humanity, according to Fortify Rights, but its policies in Arakan may run afoul of Burmese law, as well. “The current activities imposed on Rohingya Muslims are illegal, because the… orders are not consistent with the constitution,” said Shwe Maung, Member of Parliament for Buthidaung Township in northern Arakan. A Rohingya himself, his advocacy for Rohingya rights in Parliament has earned him many detractors in his home state.
“When I read the report, I saw some recommendations that are urgent for national identity. Instead of naming on the ID cards religious names or ethnic names, it’s better to have [one national name],” he said. In Burma, identity cards list individuals’ ethnicity as well as alternate ethnic names, where applicable. “According to the constitution, the state, or any law, should not discriminate by race, religion, sex, etc.”
Despite Shwe Maung’s efforts, there is little political will in Naypyidaw to address the plight of the Rohingya. “The perpetrators of abuse against the Rohingya are now firmly outside the reach of domestic courts, which is another way to say these abuses are happening with complete impunity,” Smith said. For Kyaw Myint, the issues are much more clear-cut. “There is an old Burmese saying,” he said. “The Bengali never speaks the truth except by accident.”