Why Burma's Rohingya Muslims are among the world's most persecuted people

Denied citizenship, forced into manual labour and forbidden to marry without permission, Burma's Rohingya Muslims are often called one of the world's most persecuted people. Now they're turning to dangerous methods to change their fate.

Denied citizenship, forced into manual labour and forbidden to marry without government permission

They're denied citizenship, forced into manual labour on government projects and forbidden to marry without official permission. Burma's Rohingya Muslims are often called one of the world's most persecuted people, and now they are turning to dangerous methods to change their fate.

In harrowing attempts to migrate to nearby countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia, many Rohingya ended up stuck on overcrowded boats at sea, with no country willing to grant them safe landing. Hundreds of others have died when such migrant boats capsized.

And, recently, Malaysian authorities discovered mass graves and barbed wire pens at camps abandoned by human traffickers. A similar discovery occurred in Thailand earlier this year.

These human trafficking networks hold Rohingya and other minorities captive, demanding ransom from their families.

Where are they from?

Many Rohingya Muslim live in western Burma, also known as Myanmar. The majority reside in the northern part of Rakhine state, which borders Bangladesh and the Bay of Bengal.

Estimates for how many Rohingya Muslims live there vary, but most hover between one million and 1.5 million. Another several hundred thousand have fled Burma in favour of Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Thailand or Malaysia.

What kind of persecution do they face?

In Burma, Rohingya Muslims are not considered citizens. The country's 1982 Citizenship Act does not recognize them as one of the country's national races.

To acquire citizenship, Rohingya can attempt to prove their ancestors settled in Burma before 1823, but only a handful have been successful thanks to "the onerous burden of proof" required, according to Human Rights Watch.

Adulamin, 22, lives at a refugee camp in Burma after being released from a human trafficking ship. Many Rohingya Muslims have returned to their IDP camps after spending months on migrant boats that did not make it to Malaysia. (Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters)

As an essentially stateless people, this minority community is prohibited from attending public high schools. They can't work for the government or be voted into public office. The government restricts their movement within Rakhine state and beyond its borders.

Rohingya Muslims are often forced into unpaid labour to help government-run projects, like breaking stones to build roads. Human Rights Watch reports some children have been forced into free labour as early as seven.

It has also been alleged that some Burmese military officials coerce Rohingya Muslims to hand over goods or animals, sometimes as a bribe to secure a travel permit.

What provoked the recent tensions?

On May 28, 2012, three Muslim men raped and killed a Buddhist woman. This violent crime sparked a group massacre of 10 Muslims at a government checkpoint several days later, according to a 153-page Human Rights Watch report on Burma's ethnic cleansing of Muslims.

It also resulted in days of riots in Rakhine state that led security forces to remove about 75,000 Muslims from their homes and arrest a large number of male Muslims.

A fishing boat carrying Rohingya Muslim and Bangleshi migrants is pulled to shore by fisherman off the coast of Indonesia on May 20, 2015. Since 2012, more than 86,000 Burmese people have fled the country on boats. (Antara Foto/Syifa/Reuters)

That fall, nine townships in the state witness renewed violence against Muslims. About 40,000 Muslims were forced to leave their homes and at least 70, including 28 kids, died during the attacks.

Local security often did not attempt to stop the violence, Human Rights Watch alleges, and sometimes participated in it during both sets of riots.

The army-run Burmese government has denied any systemic discrimination against Rohingya Muslims.

Violent attacks against Muslims have continued since the October 2012 fighting

Some 140,000 people now live in internally displaced person camps in Burma in dire need of humanitarian aid, according to the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Many others are trapped in remote villages without the ability to travel freely.

Why are they persecuted?

This recent violence stems back to decades of persecution in Burma.

Human Rights Watch traces the conflict back to the Second World War when Burma was still under British rule.

When the Japanese invaded Burma in 1941, Rohingya Muslims maintained their loyalty to Britain, sparking decades of violence between the country's Muslim and non-Muslim populations.

Nearly 90 per cent of Burmese people practice Buddhism, making Muslims a minority that is often targeted by the ruling government.

Separate military campaigns in 1978 and 1991 forced more than 450,000 Rohingya Muslims out of the country with systematic murders and arson, according to some estimates. When many of them returned, they were grouped into northern Rakhine state, where the violence hasn't stopped.

The government's unwillingness to offer safe residence to the group seems to stem from its belief they are illegal immigrants. 

Although the Rohingya can trace their Burmese ancestry back to the eighth century, the government believes they came from Bangladesh and aren't nationals worthy of citizenship.

Burmese President Thein Sein even suggested after the June 2012 attacks that all Rohingya Muslims in Burma should be deported to other countries.

What is the human toll?

It's unclear how many Rohingya Muslims have died directly because of the violence in Burma, but estimates suggest between 200 and 300 people since 2011.

Two Rohingya Muslim migrants arrived in Indonesia and await medical treatment on May 16, 2015. Some migrants remain stranded on boats as no countries are permitting them to disembark. (Beawiharta/Reuters)

In addition to the approximately 140,000 at IDP camps, more than 86,000 Burmese people have fled the country on boats since 2012, attempting to migrate to Thailand, Malaysia or Indonesia, the UN Refugee Agency estimated in June 2014.

The majority of those people were Rohingya Muslims. The agency reports 615 people died making that journey in 2013.

Some migrants who arrive safely are taken to smugglers' camps where they are held for ransom from their families. Some spend months in cramped cages, enduring beatings until they die or their family can pay the ransom fee, the UN reports.

Others arrive at a country's shores only to be denied entry. As of Friday, according to the UNHCR, 3,500 migrants were stranded on boats in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea with no country willing to take them.

With files from the Associated Press


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