Acts of violence and arson continued to escalate from both sides in the repression of Rohingya when the Burmese government declared a state of emergency in Rakhine state. Thousands of Burmese troops and police were brought in but the crisis continues.
Report – By Mohamed Hassan
Humanitarian and human rights campaigners are condemning Myanmar authorities for failing to do enough to help its minority Rohingya people and blocking aid groups from many areas as sectarian violence has continued to flare for three months.
Amnesty International New Zealand activism support manager Margaret Taylor says the Burmese government encourages discrimination against Rohingya, and is doing little to provide help to those caught in the conflict.
“If we are allowed to enter in greater numbers, we can bring much needed aid, and to also document human rights abuses,” she says.
The state of emergency has meant that humanitarian groups are blocked from many areas.
Rakhine is a state in desperate dislocation. Its population of four million has been ripped apart by sectarian violence that continues, leaving more than 80 dead and 70,000 internally displaced.
But these are government figures that have been called “extremely conservative” by Human Rights Watch.
Officially the state of Myanmar is made up of three main ethnic groups: Rakhine, Kaman and Chin.
The Rohingya are classified by the government as “stateless”.
There are about 800,000 to one million Rohingya people, predominantly Muslim, and primarily situated in Rakhine.
On the surface, UN reports reflect violence between Buddhists and Muslims in the region. Underneath it is a much deeper rooted conflict.
On May 28 riots ignited after the rape and killing of a Rahkine woman in the Yanbye township, allegedly by three Rohingya Muslim men.
In response, an attack on a passenger bus on June 3 killed 10 Muslim males.
Acts of violence and arson continued to escalate from both sides until June 12, when a state of emergency in the Rakhine state was declared by the Burmese government.
Thousands of army troops and police were then brought in to restore order.
Reports from Amnesty International and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees have indicated hundreds of Rohingya have been detained, and emergency services have been blocked from accessing some of the most severely areas.
A report released by Human Rights Watch on August 1 titled The Government Could Have Stopped This accuses local authorities of failing to prevent violence between the two groups, and in some cases inflaming it through violence and discriminatory media coverage.
The report details mass arrests targeting Rohingya youth, and “excessive and unnecessary force” deployed by security forces.
The report states: “Rohingya in Narzi quarter—the largest Muslim area in Sittwe, home to 10,000 Muslims—described how Arakan (Rakhine) mobs burned down their homes on June 12 while the police and paramilitary Lon Thein forces opened fire on them with live ammunition.”
Government forces have stopped humanitarian aid groups from entering areas where fighting has been extensive, and UNHCR spokesperson Vivian Tan says there have been incidents where “members of the local community disrupted or blocked aid distribution, alleging that international agencies were biased in their distributions”.
However, she says in recent days this has eased.
The Myanmar Embassy in Canberra refused to comment on the situation, but a statement from the Myanmar Ministry of Foreign Affairs rejected accusations of discriminatory behaviour and abuse, saying it was committed to developing a peaceful modern nation, “setting priority to ensure peace and stability and the rule of law”.
“In light of the true circumstances and situation, Myanmar totally rejects the attempts by some quarters to politicise and internationalise this situation as a religious issue,” said the statement.
On Tuesday, Myanmar President Thein Sein said in a televised interview that the Rohingya, whom he calls Bengalis, needed “proper education” so they could realise they were not persecuted.
“And once they become educated, they will be more thoughtful and can decide what is right and what is wrong.”
Rohingya are classed as illegal immigrants in Burma, and have been refused citizenship since 1982.
“It is a very old issue that dates back to the 16th or 17th century,” says Stanley Saw, a Burmese national living in Auckland.
“Basically the Rohingya don’t belong to that part of Burma, and they have not been able to assimilate into society.”
He says the Rohingya have been disliked by the Rakhine population for decades, and therein lies a larger problem.
Since 1982, the Myanmar government has provoked anti-Rohingya sentiment, and on several occasions launched violent crackdowns in the Rakhine district, pushing more than 250,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh, where they have also been denied access to food and refugee camps in attempts to expel them.
Soe Thein from the Burmese Pro-Democracy Community of NZ, says it is a political, “immigration” issue, and not an ethnic or religious one.
“It’s a very hard issue, I do not know much about it.”
Mohamed Hassan is a Postgraduate Diploma in Communication Studies student journalist on the Asia-Pacific Journalism course at AUT University.