Plan requiring Muslims to qualify for citizenship or get deported described by rights groups as ethnic cleansing
SITTWE (Myanmar) — The Myanmar government has given the estimated one million Rohingya people in the western coastal region of the country a dispiriting choice: Prove that your family has lived here for more than 60 years and qualify for second-class citizenship, or be placed in camps and face deportation.
The policy, accompanied by a wave of decrees and legislation, has made life for the Rohingya, a long-persecuted Muslim minority, ever more desperate, spurring the biggest flow of Rohingya refugees since a major exodus two years ago. In the past three weeks alone, 14,500 have sailed from the beaches of Rakhine State to Thailand with the ultimate goal of reaching Malaysia, said the Arakan Project, a group that monitors Rohingya refugees.
The Rohingya have faced discrimination for decades. They have been denied citizenship and evicted from their homes, their land has been confiscated and they have been attacked by the military. After one such attack in 1978, about 200,000 fled to Bangladesh.
The latest flare-up began with an outbreak of sectarian rioting in 2012, in which hundreds of Rohingya were killed and dozens of their villages burnt to the ground by radical Buddhists. Since then, close to 100,000 have fled the country and more than 100,000 have been confined to squalid camps, forbidden to leave.
As conditions in the camps have deteriorated, international pressure has mounted on the government to find a humane solution. Instead, the it appears to be accelerating a strategy that human rights groups have described as ethnic cleansing.
For many Rohingya, the new policy, called the Rakhine Action Plan, represents a kind of final humiliation, said Mr Mohamed Saeed, a community organiser in a camp on the edge of Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State. “People really fear this plan,” he said. “Our community is getting less and less. This is where they want us — out.”
Many Rohingya came to Myanmar in the 19th century when the British ruled all of what is now India, Bangladesh and Myanmar. But the government’s demand for proof of residence since 1948 is too onerous for many, who either do not have the paperwork or fall short of the six-decade requirement, human rights advocates said.
Those who can prove their residence qualify only for naturalised citizenship, which carries fewer rights than full citizenship and can be revoked. Moreover, they would be classified as Bengali rather than Rohingya, suggesting that they are immigrants from Bangladesh and leaving open the possibility of deportation.
Under the plan, Rohingya who cannot meet the standards for naturalised citizenship or who refuse to accept the Bengali designation will be placed in camps before being deported. Human Rights Watch described the plan as “nothing less than a blueprint for permanent segregation and statelessness”.
The policy comes on top of an increasingly dire situation in Rohingya camps and villages. In the camps around Sittwe, where about 140,000 Rohingya live, health services are virtually non-existent. The main medical provider, Doctors Without Borders, was chased out six months ago and has not been able to return.
Most Rohingya who want to leave the camps or villages in northern Rakhine pay brokers US$200 (S$259) just to board a boat. Once in Thailand, the refugees must pay smugglers an additional US$2,000 for the second leg to Malaysia. Some, such as Nor Rankis, 25, who said she wanted to join her estranged husband and brother in Malaysia, do not pay anything, an almost certain sign that she would be sold into servitude by traffickers in Thailand.
“I don’t want to live here; I cannot survive,” she said one evening as she waited for a smuggler to take her away. She had packed a few things in a pink plastic basket: A bottle of perfume, a new sarong and a box of vitamins — though nothing to protect her against the equatorial sun that would beat down on her across the Bay of Bengal.
A spokesman for Rakhine State insisted the Rohingya did not belong in Myanmar and defended the Rakhine Action Plan as necessary because the higher Muslim birth rate threatened the Buddhist majority. He said: “There are no Rohingya under the law. They are illegal immigrants. If they need labour in the United Arab Emirates, why don’t they ask people to go there?” THE NEW YORK TIMES