Wed 21 Nov 2012
Filed under: News,Refugees,Regional
The first time that a leader of any consequence had spoken about the plight of the Rohingyas of Myanmar, considered one of the most persecuted minorities in the world, was when the Burmese opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi visited India last week. She told an Indian news channel that the violence against the Muslim minority group was a “huge international tragedy” and that she would try her best to help the situation.
Rohingya asylum seekers in India say the attention is coming too late.
“Nothing would ever help us, not elections, not military, not Daw Aung San Suu Kyi,” says Noor Begum, a Rohingya who lives in a makeshift camp outside Kalindi Kunj on the Delhi-Noida border.
Close to 800,000 Rohingyas, who are not recognized as citizens by Myanmar, live in desperate conditions in refugee camps, making them one of the largest groups of stateless people in Asia. According to the United Nations, they are among the world’s most persecuted minorities.
Human Rights Watch said Sunday that satellite imagery showed violence, arson and extensive destruction of homes in Rohingya Muslim areas in Arakan state in western Myanmar by ethnic Arakans in October, which the organization said was carried out with support of state security forces and local government officials.
All political parties in Myanmar, including Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, had been silent on the plight of the Rohingyas until the Burmese opposition leader’s visit to India. India, which houses 5,000 Rohingya asylum seekers, has also said little on the matter.
Udai Bhanu Singh, senior research associate at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis in Delhi, said such apathy cannot last longer, especially in India. “The Rohingya problem is currently not India’s main refugee problem, but it can soon be,” he said. “Bangladesh is getting stricter with its policy on the Rohingyas — their only refuge is India.”
Myanmar’s neighbors should pressure President Thein Sein of Myanmar to take steps toward the settlement of the Rohingya community, Mr. Singh said. “It is unsettling that Suu Kyi hasn’t come down heavily on the establishment for letting things go out of control on this issue,” he said.
Since Bangladesh has moved to evict the Rohingya settlers inside its border, more people like Ms. Begum are moving to India.
Ms. Begum landed in the small makeshift camp about a month and half ago. She fled Myanmar after Burmese Army soldiers took away her husband, Mohammad Gul, from their one-room house in Rakhine state, also called Arakan, in western Myanmar two months ago.
It was not the first time the army had threatened her — eight years ago she committed a crime by getting married, which was punishable by death. The Rohingyas are not permitted to marry in Myanmar because the authorities fear the Muslim ethnic group’s population would increase otherwise. Ms. Begum had to pay a “marriage tax,” which cost the couple all their savings, to escape punishment.
“The first thing one does when one marries surreptitiously is cross the river into Bangladesh,” said Mohammad Haroon, a 44-year-old Rohingya refugee in the same camp. “When we voted for Suu Kyi, one of her main promises was to abolish the marriage tax. She didn’t do that. She was put under house arrest before she could act.”
Now that Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi has returned to politics, Mr. Haroon held little hope that things would get better for the Rohingya. “It doesn’t matter who comes and goes,” he said. “Even Suu Kyi doesn’t want to say anything with respect to our matter, because that will affect her politically. The Buddhists wouldn’t like it.”
Another Rohingya, Maulana Abu Tayuub, 32, taught mathematics, English and Islamic studies in Arakan state. A month ago, his madrassa was demolished and a shop was built in its place. Knowing fully well that he would be the next target, he fled to Bangladesh, barely managing to inform his wife and son.
He has been teaching the kids of the refugee camp in Delhi since then. He said he doesn’t want to think of the life his wife and son would lead without him, as he was certain he would never see them again.
Mr. Tayuub said he knows nothing about the impending elections in Myanmar, scheduled in 2015, nor does he believe that any political party would change his situation in his country. “Whether it is the army or Suu Kyi, it is all the same. We will not be given our freedom,” he said.
On Monday, before a historic visit by President Obama, Thein Sein, the president of Myanmar, announced that his government would take “decisive action” to stop violence against the Rohingyas. But it will take much more than promises by politicians and presidents to convince the Rohingya refugees to return to Myanmar.
As Ms. Begum mixed sugar in rice batter, a simple meal to fill the stomachs of all her children, she said, “I would rather live in this country with dignity than go back to my own,” she said.