Whatever Happened to Mercy Towards the Rohingya?

The Rohingya are often referred to as the “Boat people” since many of them try to escape the persecution in Burma by boat. Photo: IPS on flickr.The Rohingya people not only suffer from oppression by the Burmese government, they are also systematically denied citizenship and subject to a number of different repressive restrictions. The country’s authorities have directly taken part in violence against this Muslim minority group, which lives in the state of Rakhine in Northwestern Burma. This mistreatment is why the Rohingya are frequently referred to as the Romani of Asia, as well as the most persecuted minority group in the world.

The Rohingya are a stateless people. Their origins are contested and, depending on whom one asks, the answer to the question varies. The best-known explanation is that they are related to the Indo-Aryan peoples of what today is India and Bangladesh and where they lived in the city of Rakhine, which was claimed by Burma from its former independent kingdom in the 18th century. Other scholars explain that “Rohingya” is Arabic for rahm, which means mercy. The story goes that an Arab ship ran aground off the coast of Burma in the 8th century and that the survivors begged the local king for rahm, hence the name Rohingya.

The historian Aye Chan from Burma’s Kanda University of International Studies presents a third alternative in which he argues that the Rohingya descend from the Bengali people, coming to Burma and the Rakhine region during English colonial rule in the 1950s. He claims that the term Rohingya was unknown before this era.

The many different explanations regarding the origins of the Rohingya people cause problems when it comes to citizenship and civil rights. The Burmese government is not willing to take responsibility for an ethnic group that may not derive from Burma. Wherever the Rohingya may originate from, they face many difficulties where they are situated now. One million Rohingya live in Burma today, nearly all of them in refugee camps since they are not allowed to own land. The Rohingya people’s situation is problematic because they are not officially recognized as refugees, due to the fact that they still live in Burma. They are instead categorised as IDPs (internationally displaced persons). Today over 400,000 people in Burma are defined as IDPs and the UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) helps around 150, 000 of these.

The riots in 2012 in the Rakhine state affected many people and forced several thousands Rohingya to flee. Photo: thestateless on flickr.

In 1982 discriminatory measures against the Rohingya people were passed into law, prohibiting them from obtaining citizenship, travelling outside of their town without special permission, and forbidding them to leave their displacement sites, thus making it difficult for them to find work. If a Rohingya wishes to get married or have children certain restrictions apply.

In June 2012 the Burmese government declared a state of emergency in Rakhine State due to riots between Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists. Violence erupted after rumours spread about a Rohingya man abusing a Buddhist woman. After this a vicious persecution of the Rohingya people started, developing into a conflict involving both Rohingya and Buddhists of the Rakhine state.

Human Rights Watch issued a report asserting that Burma’s government had not intervened to stop the violence and protect the people. The state of emergency declared by the Burmese government could in fact be seen as an attempt to prevent the riots from spreading, rather than to protect the people. Shortly after these riots had taken place, government officials started subjecting Rohingya communities to violence and burning down their homes. Today the Rohingya are still suffering from the aftermath of the conflict and ethnic tensions in the state have increased.

One of many refugee camps where the Rohingya live under horrendous conditions. Photo: Austcare – World Humanitarian Aid on flickr.

After the conflict of 2012 more than 125, 000 Rohingya have been displaced into camps that are situated in places particularly vulnerable to flooding during the rainy season. The United Nations among other actors has pointed out that the Rohingya are at imminent risk of a humanitarian crisis when the rains come in May. Despite this, Burma’s president claims that the Rohingya have enough shelter to manage.

Recently the political situation in Burma has appeared to improve and the Western world, including the US president, has praised what seem to be potential political openings. Ban Ki-moon has urged the Organisation of the Islamic Cooperation to treat issues surrounding the Rohingya “carefully”. The reason for this is that any interference could risk Burma’s apparent positive development and political reforms.

No matter how the political situation in Burma develops, the Rohingya are still suffering from discrimination and a lack of support. As long as they are denied citizenship, the Rohingya people will continue to endure persecution and inhumane living conditions. Hence their future seems to remain as unclear as their history.


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