Current News

Burmese Muslims Stateless at home and no refuge elsewhere!

Mayu Press:
February 26th, 2013
Syed Neaz Ahmad

Dhaka: THEY are
thought to be the world’s most persecuted refugees. It is also argued that they
are one of the most forgotten too. In Jeddah prison I saw and met hundreds of
inmates from Burma. Thousands of Burmese Muslims from Arakan – often called
Rohingyas – were offered a safe haven in Saudi Arabia by King Faisal but with
the change in rulers in Saudi Arabia the rules underwent a change too. A
permanent abode of peace that was offered to these uprooted Arakanese is now
nothing less than a chamber of horrors.
There are some
three thousand families of Burmese Muslims in Makkah and Jeddah prisons
awaiting their deportation. Women and children are held in separate prisons
nearby. The only contact the men have with their wives and children is through
mobile phones.But the interesting question is: Where will they be sent? Burma
(Myanmar) doesn’t want them. Bangladesh with a large population, porous border
and poor economy doesn’t have the inclination or the ability to handle a
refugee population of this size. The Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh are having
a rough time as it is. Pakistan’s offer to accept part of the Rohingyas –
awaiting deportation in Saudi prisons – is seen as mere a diplomatic exercise.
Against the background of Islamabad’s treatment of some 300,000 stranded
Pakistanis – living a miserable life in camps in Bangladesh – senior Rohingya
inmates look at Pakistani overture with suspicion.But who are these people
called Burmese Muslims, Arakanese or Rohingyas? The people who call themselves
Rohingyas are the Muslims of the Mayu Frontier area, present-day Buthidaung and
Maungdaw townships of Arakan (Rakhine) State, a province isolated in the
western part of the country across the river Naf which forms the boundary
between Myanmar and Bangladesh.After Myanmar had gained independence, a
concentration of nearly ninety per cent of the area’s population – of Islamic
faith formed an ethnic and religious minority group on the western fringe of
the republic. In the beginning they favoured a policy of joining Pakistan. This
policy faded away when they could not gain support from the government of
Pakistan. Later they began to call for the establishment of an autonomous
region instead.Their insistence to call themselves ‘the Muslims of Arakan’ and
adoption of Urdu as their national language indicated their inclination towards
the sense of collective identity that the Muslims of Indian subcontinent showed
before the partition of India (Department of Defence Service Archives, Rangoon:
CD 1016/10/11).

In June 1951 All-Arakan Muslim Conference was held in village Alethangyaw, and
‘The Charter of the Constitutional Demands of the Arakani Muslims’ was
published. It called for ‘the balance of power between the Muslims and the
Maghs (Arakanese), two major races of Arakan.’ The demand of the charter read:
North Arakan should be immediately formed a free Muslim State as equal
constituent Member of the Union of Burma like the Shan State, the Karenni
State, the Chin Hills, and the Kachin Zone with its own Militia, Police and Security
Forces under the General Command of the Union (Department of the Defence
Service Archives, Rangoon: DR 1016/10/13).
It is noteworthy
that in the charter these peoples are mentioned as the Muslims of Arakan and
not Rohingyas. The word ‘Rohingya’, it is claimed, was first suggested by Abdul
Gaffar, an MP from Buthidaung, in his article ‘The Sudeten Muslims’,
During his campaign
for the 1960 elections, Myanmar Prime Minister U Nu promised statehood for
Arakanese and Mon people. When he came to power the plans for the formation of
the Arakan and Mon states were forgotten. Naturally, the Muslim members of
parliament from Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships denounced the plan and called
for the establishment of a Rohingya state. (SOAS bulletin of Burma research,
In 1973, Ne Win’s
Revolutionary Council sought public opinion for drafting a new constitution.
The Muslims from the Mayu Frontier submitted a proposal to the Constitution
Commission for the creation of a separate Muslim state or at least a division
for them (Kyaw Zan Tha, 1995).
‘The proposal was
turned down. When elections were held under the 1974 Constitution the Bengali
Muslims from the Mayu Frontier Area were denied the right to elect their
representatives to the “Pyithu Hlut-taw” (People’s Congress). After the end of
the Independence war in Bangladesh some arms and ammunitions flowed into the
hands of the young Muslim leaders from Mayu Frontier. On 15 July 1972 a
congress of all Rohingya parties was held at the Bangladeshi border to call for
the Rohingya National Liberation’ (Mya Win, 1992).
successive military regimes persisted in a policy of denying citizenship to
most Bengalis, especially in the frontier area. They stubbornly grasped the
1982 Citizenship Law that allowed only the ethnic groups who had lived in Burma
before the First Anglo-Burmese War that began in 1824 as the citizens of the
country. By this law those Muslims had been treated as aliens in the land they
have inhabited for more than a century.
‘According to the
1983 census Muslims in Arakan constituted 24.3 percent and they were
categorized as Bangladeshi, while the Arakanese Buddhists formed 67.8 percent
of the population of the Arakan (Rakhine) State’ (Immigration and Manpower
Department 1987:I-14).
‘In the 1988 Democracy
movement Muslims raised the Rohingya issue. Subsequently when the military
junta allowed the registration of the political parties they asked for their
parties to be recognized under the name “Rohingya.” Their demand was turned
down and so they formed the National Democratic Party for Human rights (NDPHR)
that won in four constituencies in 1990 elections – eleven candidates of the
Arakan League for Democracy (ALD) were elected to the legislature. However, the
Elections Commission abolished both the ALD and the NDPHR in 1991. Some of the
party members had to go into exile.’
In 1978 the Burmese
junta created a situation for the Arakanese Muslims that forced them to leave
their country for safety elsewhere. However, those who crossed over to East
Pakistan or Thailand were never considered as welcome visitors. The Myanmar
government has consistently refused to recognise the Rohingyas as citizens, who
have been forced to flee their homeland since 1978 – to neighbouring Thailand
and as far as Japan.
According to
Amnesty International, in 1978 over 200,000 Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh,
following the Burmese army’s Operation Nagamin. Most – it is claimed by Yangon
– were eventually repatriated, but around 15,000 refused to return. In 1991, a
second wave of about a quarter of a million Rohingyas fled Myanmar to
The reports that in January, shocking news emerged of the
mistreatment by Thai security forces of over a thousand ‘boat people’
travelling from Bangladesh and Myanmar to Thailand and Malaysia. Most of them
were Rohingyas. They drifted at sea for weeks, without sufficient food and
water, after having been beaten, towed out, and abandoned. The Indian navy
rescued about 400 in different batches; Indonesia rescued a further 391. The
rest were reported missing, presumed dead.
In Bangladesh, it
is said that there are over 250,000 Rohingyas, some 35,000 of them in
overcrowded camps.
There are a further
13,600 registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in
Malaysia (although there are thousands yet unregistered), an estimated 3,000 in
Thailand, and unknown numbers in India.
All of these
countries have not ratified the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of
Refugees, its 1967 Protocol, the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of
Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.
Most Rohingyas in
Asia are considered irregular migrants. Without official papers, they are often
subject to arrest, detention, punishment for immigration offences and
deportation. Forced to work in the informal labour market, they are often
exploited and cheated.
In Malaysia, where
some Rohingyas have resided since the early 1990s, they continue to be rounded
up in immigration operations, whipped, and handed over to human traffickers on
the Thai-Malaysia border. Some have been deported multiple times; some have
‘disappeared’ along the way. Around 730,000 remain in Myanmar, most of whom
live in the Arakan state. The State Peace and Development Council, the military
regime that rules Myanmar, continues to disavow Rohingyas as citizens.
Consequently, the
Rohingyas are still subject to forced labour, forced eviction, and land
confiscation. Strict restrictions are placed on their freedom of movement,
freedom to marry, and freedom to own property. Many who return from abroad have
been imprisoned for years, punished for crossing the border ‘illegally’.
Conditions in the Arakan state continue to deteriorate, increasing the
likelihood of further outflows into neighbouring countries.
The UNHCR has been
allowed limited access inside Burma. The UN agency claims that it has helped
more than 200,000 to get better healthcare and some 35,000 children to
education. But this kind of help is merely a drop in the ocean. It’s an irony that
countries in Asia and elsewhere – particularly Muslim countries – have shown
little or no desire to help ease the situation.
The UNHCR spokesman
in Asia, Kitty Mckinsey says: ‘No country has really taken up their cause. Look
at the Palestinians, for example, they have a lot of countries on their side.
The Rohingyas do not have any friends in the world.’
Obviously, an
immediate and sympathetic solution is needed; otherwise, it can plunge
Rohingyas into deeper suffering, cause resistance amongst host societies, and
fail at stemming the onward movement of Rohingyas into the region.
The late King
Faisal’s decision to offer them a permanent abode in Saudi Arabia was a gesture
that reflected his noble approach to the problems faced by Muslims in other
countries. However, later Saudi rulers have found the Burmese Muslims a thorn
in their side. With strict regulation on their employment and movement within
the Kingdom Saudi police find them easy targets for extortion and torture.
Although Myanmar
Muslims have showed collective political interest for more than five decades
since the country gained independence, their political and cultural rights have
not been recognised. On the contrary, the demand for the recognition of their
rights sounds like a direct challenge to the right of autonomy and the myth of
survival for the Arakanese majority in their homeland.
It is said that
there are some 250,000 Burmese Muslims in Saudi Arabia – majority living in
Makkah Al-Mukarramah’s slums Naqqasha and Kudai. They sell vegetables, sweep
streets, work as porters, carpenters, unskilled labour, and those fortunate
enough become drivers.
The correct number
of the Rohingya refugees living in Asian countries – Bangladesh, Pakistan,
India, Thailand, Malaysia, Japan and Saudi Arabia – is anybody’s guess. But
this diaspora of refugees attracts human traffickers. It is not uncommon for
poor Rohingyas to marry off their very young – sometimes underage – daughters
to old and affluent Saudis in the hope of getting ‘official favours’. But with
a high rate of divorce in Saudi Arabia in the Saudi society this hasn’t worked
for many. Rohingya wives of Saudi men are not easily accepted in the Saudi
society and they have to survive – as second class wives – on the periphery of
the social infrastructure.
Those whom I met in
Jeddah prisons seem to have accepted the situation as fait accompli. But it is unfair
that these innocent people be made to suffer in a country which is considered
the citadel of Islam, that houses the two holiest places of worship on earth
and the rulers style themselves as Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.
King Abdullah is
not only the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, he is also the Custodian of
those living in that country, including Rohingya refugees who were invited by
one of his illustrious predecessors. Will Saudi Arabia live up to its promises
and expectations? Dhaka with friendly ties with the country must impress upon
Riyadh to find an early solution to this thorn in the side of humanity.
Syed Neaz Ahmad,
who taught at Umm Al-Qura University, Makkah, is a London-based journalist. He
writes for British, Arab & Bangladeshi press. He anchors a chatshow on NTV
Europe. His book on Saudi Arabia, The Kingdom & I is expected to be
published in December 2013.
(The above article
– initially a shorter version written for London Guardian – was published in
UNCR’s Refugees Daily: Refugees Global Press Review, Media Relations and Public
Information Service, UNHCR)