REPRESSION, DISCRIMINATION AND ETHNIC CLEANSING IN ARAKAN

07/04/2000
Report
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The Rohingya Muslim minority in Burma is being suffering an ethnic cleansing in full view of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and with a general lack of concern. Many characters have a responsibility in this situation: among them, the Burmese authorities as well as the international community; the further, with a direct implication, the latter, with passiveness. In 1991, 260,000 Rohingyas had fled from Arakan and found refuge in Bangladesh to escape from summary executions, rape, ill treatment, forced labour and land confiscation. The massive aspect of this exodus had forced the international community to react and to involve the UNHCR in the refugee repatriation process. Eight years later, a great majority of the refugees have gone back home, most
of them forced by the Bangladeshi authorities or strongly encouraged by the UNHCR. In Arakan yet, the situation is far from having changed, and a new exodus, deep and sustained trickle of low visibility, is in progress. It is nevertheless a true ethnic cleansing that the Burmese government planned against the Rohingyas, forcing them to leave Arakan gradually.

- Lies, ambiguities and constraints from part of the UNHCR

In spite of the drastic restrictions imposed on missions by international observers in Arakan, the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) managed to get firsthand data in several dozen of villages in the North and in the East of this State, as well as testimonies in the refugee camps of Bangladesh. In a report to be published on the 17 April 2000, the nature and the mechanisms of the repression that forced the Rohingyas to leave their land for good are accurately described. And the FIDH regrets that the UNHCR became entrapped in an insane policy, in complete contradiction to its mandate: simultaneously to organise the return and prevent the departure of a population taken prey of the systematic repression of a despotic state. Regarding the modus operandi of the UNHCR, stated and corroborated by numerous testimonies, the FIDH considers that the UNHCR has to a large extent seriously failed in accomplishing its task, and has is fact deliberately contravened its mandate on many points. The UN agency has deliberately deceived the refugees in the refugee camps in Bangladesh, not only as regards the situation in Arakan, but also as regards the protection that could be ensured for them, to convince them to return to Burma. The Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed in November
1993 by the UNHCR and the Burmese government, to rule the repatriation and the reintegration of the Rohingyas, never mentions the human rights’ issue. This is all the more unjustifiable if we consider the serious and systematic violations of such rights by the Burmese authorities. And in the mean time, «The UNHCR promised [us] that if we encountered problems with the Burmese authorities as in 1991, we could go to them, and they would protect us. The UNHCR even said:"We will not leave Burma as long as you think you still need us» » explained a Maungdaw inhabitant. The reality is completely different and the Rohingyas, once they come back to Burma, have to face the same executions, the same violence, and the same discrimination that had forced them to leave their country. In fact, everything tends to show that the UNHCR considered it necessary to reach an agreement with the Burmese government at any cost, even at the expense of a serious violation of the Agency’s own repatriation principles. Even if the presence of the UNHCR has helped to prevent some abuses and support the reinstallation in Arakan of the repatriated population, and without questioning the work that this UN organisation can do in other parts of the world, it would be nonetheless far-fetched to talk about a successful «reintegration», - as the new departures of tens of thousands of Rohingyas every year since 1996 show it.

- A new exodus

The UNHCR’s attitude is all the more reprehensible that this agency now bears a heavy part of responsibility in the current exodus of the Rohingyas: between 1996 and 1999, some 50,000 to 100,000 Rohingyas crossed once again the border to find refuge in Bangladesh. And while the regular and steady exodus of the Rohingyas has never ceased, the UNHCR carries on denying acknowledging the scope of the movement. The UN agency maintains its close ties to the Burmese government, the repressive policy of which are the root cause of these departures. Such ties aim at preventing the Rohingyas to leave their country, and raise the basic issue concerning the mission and the UNHCR’s own principles. One can question the UNHCR’s policy aiming at dissuading, or even at preventing a population from leaving, when they are clearly victims of a repressive policy. The issue is also that of the ambiguity of such a close collaboration with a dictatorial government - and indeed one of the most repressive in the world -, which violates fundamental human rights massively and systematically. One can understand that the UNHCR, by the very nature of its mandate, should co- In fact, everything tends to show that the UNHCR considered it necessary to reach an agreement with the Burmese government at any cost, even at the expense of a serious violation of the Agency’s own repatriation principles. ordinate its work with the Burmese authorities; but that it has been led into the implementation of a policy of dissuasion which excludes neither violence nor coercion from the Burmese army is unacceptable. On top of this fundamental issue, the credibility of the agency within the very population it is supposed to help has seriously been shaken. Collaboration with the Burmese government indeed seriously compromises the image of the UNHCR. The Rohingyas do not really consider the agency as an independent organisation likely to help
and protect them, but rather as a partner of the government. Though the UNHCR’s responsibility is fully implicated with regards to the price paid by the Rohingyas because of the repressive policy from part of the Burmese authorities, it is by no means the only one. It is the duty of the international community - i.e. the
states - to put sufficient pressure on the Burmese government for this repression to stop; or to grant help to Bangladesh, including financial assistance, so that this country offers a safe asylum to the refugees. One cannot but take note of the failure, indeed the lack of any substantial attempt from the international community to help the Rohingya minority, whatever the manner.

- Ethnic cleansing

If the most visible and most violent forms of repression seem to have decreased - probably due to the presence of the UN agencies and international NGOs - the Burmese authorities try by every mean possible to bring the Rohingyas to a point of utter political, social, economical and cultural precariousness: this population then has no other possibility than crossing once again the border to Bangladesh. Everything is acceptable to the Burmese government - except a massive exodus that could warn the international community - provided it reaches its supreme goal in Arakan: to empty this region from its Rohingya population. In such conditions this government implements and co-ordinates a true ethnic cleansing in a most striking
indifference. The means for this ethnic cleansing are numerous: while they deny to the Rohingya the Burmese citizenship, the Burmese authorities control very closely their movements and pursue a pragmatic policy of settlement in Northern Arakan, and simultaneously lead a forced underdevelopment policy, that pushes slowly but surely the Rohingyas out.

The 1982 law on Citizenship makes the Rohingyas foreigners in their own country. The consequences of this no-citizenship are many: lack of freedom of association, impossibility to appeal to justice, or to apply for the public service, limited access to higher education... Among these consequences, one of the toughest for the Rohingyas is the lack of freedom of movement, which, by preventing them from finding a job in other villages and from trading, leads to an accelerated impoverishment of this population. Simultaneously with a larger militarisation of the region, Rangoon leads a pragmatic policy of settlement, by means of the building of model villages for the Buddhists coming from other parts of Arakan, Rangoon, or elsewhere. This settlement policy go hand in hand with forced relocations of Rohingya villages; large-scale land confiscation; building permit bans for the Rohingyas; discriminative policy against Muslims in terms of religion; education and health. Forced labour finally, though common through Burma, harshly affects the minorities, particularly the Rohingyas.

Among the reasons for leaving, « there is the power of attraction of Bangladesh. Although they are not welcome, and although Bangladesh is one the poorest and most overpopulated on earth, the situation the Rohingyas face will always be better than the one they are subject to in Arakan. The image of Bangladesh remains positive for many Rohingyas, for one main reason: even if their living conditions are far from being easy, even if they are illegal, they feel that they can at least more or less control their destiny. »
Extract from the FIDH’s Report

The Burmese government can accept everything, provided it reaches its
supreme goal in Arakan: to empty this region from its Rohingya population.

- A forced underdevelopment policy

The Burmese authorities also lead a genuine predatory economy in Arakan, with a system of arbitrary and abusive «taxes». All sectors - from production to transport and sale - of an economy based on culture and to a lesser degree on fishing, are severely taxed. Formal taxes to which numerous informal taxes have been added since 1992, are nothing but a genuine racketeering of the population. Such taxes have widely contributed to a deeper impoverishment of the Rohingya population, and correspond to a planned underdevelopment policy from part of the Burmese
government. Compared to the beginning of the 1990’s, the goal of Rangoon has remained the same: only the means have changed. Every piece of information the FIDH has collected tend to show that the Burmese government aims at emptying Arakan of its population, though in an insidious an incremental way so as not to attract the attention of the international community, as it had been the case in 1991-1992. Since 1996, the departures have been discrete but regular. Each village of Northern Arakan has experienced departures, although no village has been completely emptied. Departures are piecemeal, never massive. The Burmese authorities, with the collaboration of the UNHCR, prevented the massive departures. The UNHCR still refuses to acknowledge the scope of the movement, and considers the testimonies of the refugees as not credible, and claims that the Rohingyas are
«economic migrants». The FIDH believes, on the contrary, that there is a deliberate policy of discrimination and repression against the Rohingya population aimed at increasing its precariousness. Political reasons are therefore at the core of the repeated Rohingya exodus; characterising the refugees as «economic migrants» is not credible, and can merely mislead as to the genuine situation of the Rohingyas, endanger their lives and give the Burmese government free hand to carry on its policy. Once again, in a thundering silence dictated by economical and political interests of all kinds, a people is left abandoned to its fate by the international community - even encouraged to submit to it by the only organisation supposed to protect it.

Forced labour, so-called «community work» go hand in hand with ill treatment
which can lead to death. Extract from the FIDH’s report

Political reasons are therefore at the core of the repeated Rohingya exodus;
characterising the refugees as «economic migrants» is not credible.

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