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Asia-pacific

‘Burma’s Rohingya minority are the Roma of Asia’

Text by Charlotte Oberti

Latest update : 2012-06-22

More than 80 people have been killed and thousands displaced in a wave of violence between Muslims and Buddhists in west Burma. Among those targeted in the clashes is the Muslim Rohingya minority, called “Asia’s Roma” by researcher David Camroux.

Western Burma has been rocked by violence since the start of June, when the rape and murder of a 27-year-old Buddhist woman, allegedly by local Muslims, triggered a series of reprisals between communities.

The first wave of violence (report from June 15)

The attacks have left more than 80 people dead and have displaced thousands, prompting the government to declare a state of emergency in Rakhine, a state formerly known as Arakan.

According to David Camroux, a researcher at the Paris-based Sciences Po-Ceri (Centre for international studies and research), the wave of communitarian violence was a disaster waiting to happen in a country torn between different ethnic groups.

A deeply divided society

Named after a Buddhist ethnic group that makes up the majority of the population, Rakhine state also counts a sizeable Muslim minority, which includes the Rohingya, a particularly persecuted group.

The 800,000-strong Rohingya are pariahs: they are stateless, and pejoratively called “Bengalis” by the Burmese, who consider them to be refugees from neighbouring Bangladesh.

David Scott Mathieson, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, on Burma and the long-standing issue of Rohingya marginalisation

But those who have tried to flee by boat to Bangladesh, where they are equally despised, have been turned back.

“The Rohingya are the Roma of Asia, nobody respects their human rights,” David Camroux told FRANCE 24.

In a country where 89% of the population embraces Buddhism and only 4% Islam, anti-Muslim sentiment is rampant.

“British colonisation left its mark on Burma. Britain’s strategy was to divide and conquer, pitting the various ethnic groups against each other. After independence [in 1948] the Burmese became more nationalist, and nowadays xenophobia is common,” said David Camroux.

The Rohingya, who were stripped of their Burmese citizenship in 1982 by military dictator Ne Win, are not represented in parliament, whereas other ethnic minorities such as the Karen, the Shan and the Kachin are.

“They have no political leader and they live in poverty,” said David Camroux.

Forgotten by the international community

Since securing independence in 1948, Burma has struggled to create a feeling of national unity from a patchwork society. The Burmese government, which has renamed the country Myanmar, officially recognises 135 distinct ethnic groups – but the Rohingya are among them.

Opposition figure Aung San Suu Kyi called for national reconciliation in her Nobel Peace Prize speech in Oslo last Saturday.

On her first trip to Europe in two decades, she also told Burmese exiles “we have to avoid saying and doing things that will make the problem worse, we have to calm it down,” referring to the sectarian clashes.

Burmese refugees in Thailand fear reform process

“But she stopped short of adopting a clear stance [on the Rohingya issue],” said David Camroux. “The Rohingya have been forgotten by the international community.”

Meanwhile, the situation on the ground remains unclear, especially as much of northern Rakhine state is a no-go area for journalists and independent observers, making it difficult to verify conflicting versions of events.

While local authorities say calm has returned to the area, a statement on Thursday by the Myanmar Ethnic Rohingya Human Rights Organizations Malaysia (Merhrom) said the situation was becoming “worse day by day”.

Date created : 2012-06-22

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