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Burma’s forgotten people

By: Lidia Kalit

JHR McGill

In the midst of one of the greatest refugee crises in history, the stories of the Rohingya people are easily silenced. While media outlets and UN resolutions focus on Syria’s displaced millions, the atrocities being committed against the Burmese minority quickly fade in the rear view mirror.

After a 2010 general election in which military rule was officially overthrown, there was hope that a new, democratic Burma might emerge. The current situation, however, has been reminiscent of the junta days. Reports of human trafficking, forced labour and accusations of genocide are commonplace. One of the most persecuted groups in Burma is the Muslim Rohingya people, the majority of whom reside in Rakhine state. The Rohingya have been named “one of the world’s most persecuted minorities” by the UN.

The Rohingya are not granted rights due to the fact that their historical ties to the region are disputed; they are Muslim rather than Buddhist, and the color of their skin is darker. They often fall victim to forceful displacement, destroyed property, sexual abuse, and coerced labor.  In 1982 the Burmese Citizenship Law was passed which denied them the right to Burmese citizenship, leaving 800 000 people stateless. Moreover, an order put in place by the local Rakhine government limits the number of children a Rohingya family can have to two. They are denied the right to education, the right to work, and freedom of movement. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), the government denies the Rohingya the right to travel freely without paying large bribes or getting special permission.

While some Rohingya reside in Rakhine refugee camps, those that flee to Thailand or Bangladesh searching for safety are rarely better off. Many that enter Thailand are detained on claims of illegal entry. HRW reported earlier in 2013 that traffickers visit detainment sites in order to bait women and children.  Refugee camps both in and outside of Burma lack medical aid facilities and are overwhelmingly overcrowded.

In June 2012, extreme violence erupted in Rakhine state between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, and violence erupted once again in October 2012. HRW documented that Burmese military forces had aided Rakhine Buddhists in the rape, killing and arrests of Rohingya and Rakhine Muslims. Amnesty International reported that arbitrary detention of thousands of these groups took place, and that over 125 000 have been displaced due to the violence. According to the Democratic voice of Burma, as of February 2013 nearly 1000 Rohingyas were still being imprisoned, including women and children, and that roughly 68 people had died in custody. HRW confirmed in March 2013 that the Burmese government restricts humanitarian aid to Rohingya refugee camps and denies refugees the right to leave the isolated camps. Some Rohingya told HRW that they lack medicine, shelter, food and other basic needs in the camps.

Internationally, governments remain quiet about the human rights abuses in Burma. As Burma opens its economy to foreign direct investment, Burma’s largely unexploited oil and natural gas reserves continue to hold off condemnation of the blatant disregard for the rights of the Rohingya population. Ceasing foreign investment could be a potential tactic to force the Burmese government to finally grant the Rohingya people their fundamental human rights.

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