"They told us, 'You are Bengalis – there is no such thing as the Rohingya,'" the imam recalled. "They said, 'If you claim that you are Rohingya, you will be thrown into the sea.'"
We were speaking in one of the internally displaced person (IDP) camps reserved for the Rohingya – Burma's persecuted Muslim minority – near the city of Sittwe in Burma's troubled Rakhine state. Last year, mob violence in the area left hundreds dead and well over 100,000 homeless, the vast majority of them Rohingya.
I was told that the alleged visits to the camps by members of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP) – an ethnic nationalist political organisation, accompanied by police and the notorious, now-disbanded border force known as the Na Sa Ka – were linked to ongoing government efforts to document who was eligible for citizenship in preparation for an upcoming national census. The Rohingya, despite their presence in Burma for centuries, are officially regarded by the government as "illegal immigrants" from Bangladesh and, as such, are denied citizenship, rendering them a stateless people.
The pre-census measure has been criticised as an attempt to deepen efforts to totally marginalise the one million Rohingya residing in the country, which would be achieved by officially identifying them as foreign interlopers – "Bengalis" – who have no place in Burma and therefore no rights. When asked to condemn the violence against the Muslims on the Today Programme this morning, Aung San Suu Kyi demurred, equivocating with non-statements like, “I condemn hate of any kind.” She said, “This is what the world needs to understand: that the fear is not just on the side of the Muslims, but on the side of the Buddhists as well,” despite the fact that the Muslims make up four per cent of the population and have been targeted for violence. As a victimised minority, you know you’re in trouble when a Nobel Peace Prize laureate won’t speak out for you.
I asked the imam how many times these delegations had visited the camps. "Four times," he replied.
The repeated threats – issued against an already heavily traumatised minority by the RNDP, a powerful group in the region's political landscape – were obviously intended to intimidate. A report by Human Rights Watch identified the RNDP and Buddhist organisations as the chief orchestrators of last year's violence, in which a series of atrocities amounting to crimes against humanity were committed as part of an attempt to ethnically cleanse the Rohingya people from Burma, demonstrating their campaign against the group has been ongoing for quite some time.
The report also pointed the finger at agencies of the state (including the Na Sa Ka and other government-administered security forces) that had allegedly failed to protect Rohingya victims during the pogroms and, at times, directly participated in attacks against them.
"Before this, the Na Sa Ka ordered all of the Rohingya religious leaders to go to their main office [in the camps]," the Imam explained. "They said you cannot put the name Rohingya on citizenship registration papers but have to instead identify yourself as Bengali." If they did not do this, the religious leaders were warned, the authorities would allow local ethnic Rakhine mobs to attack them again.
The implication of his account was clear: that the RNDP and security forces under the command of the national government were collaborating to pressurise the Rohingya to officially deny their identity, resorting to aggressive coercion to get their way. What makes these particular claims so disturbingly plausible is that they parallel details of testimony I heard regarding similar incidents earlier in the year and echoed media reports of forced registration in the camps.
After speaking to the imam, I caught up with some of the newer arrivals to the already crowded IDP camp. Most of them had recently arrived from Aung Mingala, the only neighbourhood of nearby Sittwe that the Rohingya still occupied, albeit in total confinement behind well-guarded police check-points.
A government spokesman told the press that the new contingent had left their former home "voluntarily", but considering this is the same government that's been accused of complicity in the Rohingya's ethnic cleansing, it's hard not to be slightly suspicious of their claims.
"Rakhine state officials ordered us to move," one man told me. "They said if you stay in Aung Mingala you will get no food there – life will better in the camps. [But] we haven’t been given any food – we just live off aid from other people here." This was met with emphatic nods of agreement from anyone listening nearby.
On this evidence alone, it's pretty difficult to shake the idea that these people had been purposefully duped. I asked an elder from the group how he felt about moving and whether he was happy in his new home. His blunt response – "We were forced here" – didn't leave much room for interpretation.
"Some of the Rohingya community leaders who co-operate with the military and Hlun Thin [riot police] came and ordered me to go. People whose houses were burnt down in the violence last year were told they had to go to the camps," he explained.
"I am unhappy here," said another elder – an incredibly frustrated woman – as we trudged through the mud and the rain. “My [community] moved here so I came with them. They said we could get more food – what could I do?"
And had there been more food, I asked. "No!" she replied, gesturing as if it was obvious from the surroundings.
In another part of the camp, I spoke to a community leader who had left Aung Mingala several months before the new group arrived. He told me that while he was still in Sittwe in April of 2012 – just after the government had announced it would hold a census – Deputy Immigration Minister Kyaw Kyaw Win had visited and explained that he was under pressure from the RNDP to determine who among the Rohingya were eligible for citizenship. At that point, no threats were made, but the minister reportedly told community elders, "The union [national, as opposed to state-level] government could not use the word Rohingya."
His statement corroborated the account of a source based in Naypyidaw, the nation’s administrative capital, who spoke to me on condition of anonymity about the government’s citizenship validation drive. "Kyaw Kyaw Win visited Aung Mingala just before things went bad," he said.
￼The source, who is the close to various MPs in the national parliament, informed me that Immigration Minister Khin Yi had admitted that the pre-census measures targeting the Rohingya were undertaken by the government "because of Rakhine complaints". He also observed that the RNDP have long wanted to excise the Rohingya from their community, and "now the government has given them the green light".
"There are at least 50 [Rohingya] mass graves in Rakhine state. Many more than people think," he added, grimly. So far, only a few have been reported.
Phil Robertson from Human Rights Watch believes, "It’s been clear all along that Burmese government policy, at both the union and state level, is all about denigrating and destroying the Rohingyas’ self-realisation as a distinct ethnic group. In this, the ruling RNDP is a primary protagonist in this war on identity. Which is not at all surprising, since Human Rights Watch also found that local leaders of the RNDP were actively involved in planning and implementing ethnic cleansing violence against the Rohingya."
He added that, despite their behaviour, "The union government continues to happily devolve responsibility for handling the Rohingya to the [RNDP-dominated] state government."
Such a practice does appear to indicate, at the very least, tacit government acquiescence to the RNDP’s anti-Rohingya agenda, and judging from the testimonial evidence detailed above, perhaps even more.
Regardless of who is ultimately responsible, the question remains as to what the ultimate purpose of this apparent ethnic cleansing effort against the Rohingya is. Visible mass-murder doesn't seem likely. It's far more likely instead that the Rohingya will simply be left struggling in limbo, while more and more of them are rounded up and sent to the camps, in which malnutrition, endemic misery and disease prompt those with relative means to leave the country as soon as possible.
Not long after returning home, I spoke to another anonymous source who said NGO workers attending a co-ordination meeting with the local government had revealed that some or all of the aid to the Rohingya was due to be restricted or even terminated, as the period of "resettlement and aid" had been formally announced to be over. The same sources had revealed to them that officials intend to set-up police stations in every significant block of the camp to keep an eye on everything the Rohingya are doing.
"Restrictions on journalists entering the camps have been tightened even further," they added.
A few weeks later, a woman in her nineties was stabbed to death by Rakhine mobs. For now, the Rohingya are stuck between a rock and a hard place, with little chance of relief; either they can stay in their homes and risk murder, or flee to ghettos that are becoming disease-ridden and dangerous.
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