No Place Like Home
Stateless and homeless, Myanmar’s Muslims have been abandoned by everyone
AS UNREST in Myanmar kindled flickering hopes of political change, long-suffering refugees in Bangladesh were glued to their radios. They hope for a chance to reclaim their land and their dignity. Sadly, they may be waiting in vain. Not only are there scant signs of change from the repressive ruling junta. But these are also Rohingyas, members of a poor Muslim minority never very welcome at home.
The junta’s persecution of Muslims has been extreme. But anti-Muslim sentiments have been simmering for centuries in Burma. The dark-skinned Rohingyas, who have more in common physically and culturally with Bangladeshis than with most Burmese, have always suffered abuse.
The junta has ostracised them, by refusing full Myanmar citizenship, calling them only “residents of Rakhine state”. Almost all the roughly 800,000 Rohingyas today are stateless. The military regime routinely presses them into slave labour, severely restricts their rights to travel and marry, and denies them access to both medical care and education.
In Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine (formerly Arakan), Rohingyas lead desperately poor lives. Those not pressganged into road construction at meagre wages live by subsistence farming and fishing. “It’s because we’re Muslim,” declares a trishaw driver. He says people give work to Buddhists. There are many poor Buddhists in Sittwe too. But the perception of unfair treatment lingers amongst Muslims, though some made common cause with September’s anti-government protesters.
Rohingyas have been fleeing Myanmar for decades. Many mingle among the million or so illegal Burmese migrants living in Thailand. And the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has documented 12,000 in Malaysia, but admits there may be twice that number. The largest number has fled to Bangladesh. But the Bangladeshis have been reluctant hosts. Citing overpopulation and land scarcity, successive governments have forcibly repatriated the refugees: 250,000 were expelled between 1991 and 1992, and almost as many since.
Since 1992 Bangladesh has refused to grant the Rohingyas refugee status. Only two official UNHCR camps now remain near Chittagong. But most of those repatriated to the same dire conditions they had fled have trickled back to squat in makeshift shelters and camps just across the border. Today around 8,000 live in an unofficial camp called Tal. Another 200,000 have settled in the surrounding area.
Tal was born out of Operation Clean Heart, a 2002 crackdown in which thousands of Rohingyas were rooted out of local villages. Frido Herinckx of Médecins Sans Frontières, an aid organisation, describes how the police threatened local Bangladeshis with prison unless they reported on their Burmese neighbours. Instead of returning to Myanmar, thousands of homeless Rohingyas regrouped and settled on a 30-metre-wide stretch of mud along the banks of the Naf River.
In Tal as many as 12 people are crammed into flimsy shelters patched together from reeds and plastic sheets. Floods regularly inundate the camp, and local hostility to the incomers often leads to violence. Still, most feel that life there is preferable to the daily humiliations suffered in Myanmar. “If I can’t even say ‘this house is mine,’ how can I live there?” asks one 32-year-old man. He says the regime confiscated all he had.
The government in Bangladesh has recently shown signs of softening its policies. It plans to move Tal to a drier and more permanent location. Aid workers hope the Rohingyas will eventually be granted Bangladeshi citizenship. Most Rohingyas say that if democracy is established in Myanmar, they will go back. But the junta is not their only enemy.
Published in print and online by The Economist (read)