The Bangladeshi authorities have been condemned for refusing to allow hundreds of stateless Muslims to escape from ethnic violence that has gripped western Burma for the past two weeks. The crisis is a challenge for Burma’s president Thein Sein, who has promised to work towards democracy and national reconciliation.
On the day that opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi left Burma for a tour of European nations, reports said boats containing up to 1,500 members of the Rohingya community had in the last few days been prevented from entering the waters of neighbouring Bangladesh, where hundreds of thousands live in unofficial camps.
At least 21 people have been killed and more than 1,500 homes set alight in recent days as some of the worst ethnic violence in decades took hold of Burma’s Rakhine state. As the UN pulled its staff from the area, President Thein Sein announced a state of emergency and dispatched troops to keep order.
Ethnic tension in that part of Burma has existed for decades and the Rohingya have been described as among the world’s most persecuted communities. Though they have lived in Burma for centuries, they have barely any rights and campaigners say they are routinely mistreated.
Refused citizenship, the Rohingya are obliged to follow strict rules that even govern where they can live. At least twice in recent years following widespread violence - in 1977 and 1992 – large numbers have poured into Bangladesh.
In Bangladesh the situation is little better. Not wanting to encourage more migrants, the authorities do what they can to deter them. Around 28,000 refugees are registered with the government and anywhere between 200,000 to 500,000 live illegally and get no official support.
The trigger for the latest violence appears to have been the rape and murder on 28 May of a Buddhist woman, Thidar Htwe, allegedly by three Muslim men. Less than a week later, a 300 strong mob stopped a bus carrying Muslim pilgrims and clubbed ten of them to death. One of the women was raped.
Chris Lewa, a veteran campaigner and head of the Arakan Project, said yesterday that tension had been growing for months and that those opposed to the Rohingya had been taking the benefit of Burma’s increasingly free media to make “hate speeches” against the community.
“The government is trying to control the situation. That is a necessity,” she (CORRECT) said. “Finding a solution to the problem is quite difficult but a first step could be repealing all the laws that have left the Rohingya with no rights.”
Tun Khin, who heads a Rohingya organisation in Britain, said while the situation had eased in the last 24 hours, it was essential that Burma’s central government took control of security, rather than the local authorities. “The state government is still arresting people, going into villages and harassing them,” he said.
Campaigners have called on Bangladesh to allow those fleeing the violence to enter the country. “By closing its border when violence in Arakan State is out of control, Bangladesh is putting lives at grave risk,” said Bill Frelick, of Human Rights Watch. “Bangladesh has an obligation under international law to keep its border open to people fleeing threats to their lives and provide them protection.”
Thein Sein has vowed to lead Burma on a journey towards genuine democracy. One of the issues that still troubles many observers is the ongoing clashes with ethnic communities, most recently in Kachin state. The violence in Rakhine is another problem for the purportedly civilian government.
Democracy activists have not been heartened that a number of former political prisoners have blamed the Rohingya for the violence and claimed they have no right in Burma. Earlier this week, Ko Ko Gyi of the 88 Generation Students group, said “The Rohingya are not a Burmese ethnic group. The root cause of the violence…comes from across the border and foreign countries.”