Things are only getting worse for Burma’s Rohingya Muslims

BURMA’S Muslim minority, the Rohingya, have long been victims of systematic persecution by the military government. Their plight has become increasingly desperate over the past year as government policies, human traffickers and natural disasters have exacerbated their vulnerability. National elections are scheduled for early November, but without a voice at this important juncture, there are fears that conditions for the most persecuted refugees on Earth will begin rapidly deteriorating.

A 2014 report by Fortify Rights, ‘Policies of Persecution: Ending Abusive State Policies Against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar’, details the systematic oppression under which the Rohingya persevere. They suffer from restricted access to basic public services such as education and health care and, in the absence of basic freedoms, their movements, marriage rights and childbearing rights are all suppressed. Recently their plight has been raised by Pope Francis who stated the continued persecution of the Rohingya constituted war against these people.

In Burma, also known as Myanmar, it’s not only government policies that have targeted the Rohingya, rising nationalist sentiment continues to play a significant role in their persecution. Among those encouraging hatred towards the Muslim community are ultra-nationalist groups. Ashin Wirathu, a Buddhist monk and prominent member of nationalist groups the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion (Ma Ba Tha) and Movement 969, has become infamous for his outspoken anti-Muslim rhetoric in which he refers to Muslims as the enemy. He recently lashed out at the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights, Yanghee Lee, calling her a “whore” for highlighting the unjust treatment of the Rohingya. In the run up to the national elections the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion has become an increasingly powerful organization influencing the policies of both the ruling party and the opposition party.

It is against this backdrop that tens of thousands of Rohingya have fled Burma, only to fall prey to human traffickers in many cases. The situation reached crisis point in May this year after authorities in Thailand began cracking down on human trafficking and slavery. A new report from UNHCR has collated the experiences of refugees who were abandoned at sea in May. Their stories tell of terrifying ordeals – violence, drownings, starvation and attempts by Southeast Asian nations to redirect the destitute refugee towards neighboring territories.

At the end of July natural disaster struck communities in Rakhine State as Cyclone Komen sent Burma into a state of emergency. Cyclone Komen, the worst natural disaster to hit Burma since 2008, caused over 100 deaths, destroyed homes, submerged villages, damaged essential infrastructure and displaced more than a million people. The townships of Maungdaw, Minbya, Mrauk-U, Kyauktaw, Buthidaung, Ann and the Rohingya IDP camps where among the worst affected areas.

Muslim communities living a borderline existence in Rakhine were particularly vulnerable and unprepared to cope with the floods. According to UNICEF over 140,000 Rohingya children were affected by the heavy rains and flooding. The work of charities and NGOs trying to assist the flood victims was hindered by government policies. As Tun Khin, president of Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK, explained: “This crisis has been made worse by existing restrictions on aid to Rohingya IDPs.”

Even in the face of this natural disaster the Rohyinga continued to experience persecution with government officials accused of abandoning them, as state aid was only made available at Buddhist shelter areas. The ‘Burma Times’ reported that Rohingya children, had been refused treatment by local hospitals and there were further reports that Rohingya families were turned out of emergency shelters in Kyauktaw.

The worst of the flooding has passed but Muslims in Rakhine are still living in dire conditions. Jason Bray, a documentary filmmaker who joined the relief effort in Rakhine explained the desperation in the region. “Rakhine State was without doubt one of the poorest places I’ve ever been too. In other countries like Philippines, Ethiopia, India there are slum dwellings, red light districts and poor villages scattered amongst middle class and even richer areas. But here it was just impoverished everywhere! The floods just made things worse,” he said.

The legal status of the Rohingya has been gradually eroded away and these communities have now lost their right to vote. The Rohingya and other Muslims previously had temporary identification papers known as “white cards” which had enabled them to vote in earlier elections. These white cards have now been discontinued, denying the Rohingya citizenship and the right to vote. It is estimated that 500,000 Rohingya Muslims have been removed from voter registration lists prepared for the national elections this November.

But even with right to vote, ethnic Rohingya communities would be unlikely to find any candidate to champion their cause. Few Muslims trust the quasi-civilian leadership of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), has failed to field any Muslim candidates. The lack of Muslim representatives is believed to be a result of pressure from Buddhist nationalist organisation Ma Ba Tha and fears that ultra-nationalists could attack political parties for being unpatriotic if they were to field Muslim candidates.

Shwe Maung, a former lawmaker and member of the USDP, had intended to run as an independent in the upcoming election. But he has since been struck off the candidacy list after the Union Election Commission determined his father had not been a citizen at the time of his birth. His attempts to appeal the decision at a court in Rakhine state have been rejected.

In response, Charles Santiago from the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights accused the government of blocking Muslim candidates to appease nationalist groups such as Ma Ba Tha.

No one was expecting Burma to leap from military dictatorship to fully fledged democracy overnight, but any hopes of making genuine progress towards democracy require national elections open to all ethnic and religious groups. The growing influence of ultra-nationalists who claim to have been instrumental in excluding Muslims from the upcoming elections is a serious cause for concern. If local political parties who share the ultra-nationalists’ ideologies gain power in Rakhine state, there is genuine reason to fear that a mass atrocity will soon take place in Burma.