Ethnic tensions have shaped the multi-ethnic state of Myanmar. In particular, the borderline racist disdain towards a specific group seems very worrying: it is the minority of the Rohingya that prays and looks differently than the Buddhist majority.
About 1.2 million Rohingya live either interned behind barbed wire in camps or are seeking refuge in neighbouring countries. The United Nations call the Rohingya the worst affected of the persecuted ethnic minorities. A sad record that has its origin in the withdrawal of citizenship from the Rohingya in 1982, further escalated by a mass exodus of Rohingya seeking refuge by boat in 2015, and today marked by the killing of thousands while hundreds of thousands are fleeing.
The Burmese army is accused of murder, pillage and mass rape. In addition, some radical Buddhist monks have turned their religion into an aggressive and ultra-nationalist ideology. Their association “Ma Ba Tha” supports the hatred towards the Rohingya and does not shy away from the use of violence
About 1.2 million Rohingya live either interned behind barbed wire in camps or are seeking refuge in neighbouring countries.
Let’s have a talk with…
Kyaw Soe Aung is himself a Rohingya and represents the positions of his ethnicity in the Democratic and Human Rights Party. We met him for an interview in Yangon.
Mister Kyaw, how is the situation for you in Myanmar?
As Rohingya, we live a stateless existence and are not accepted in our home country. We neither get an ID card nor a passport. We are not allowed to have more than two children due to a birth regulation. We are not allowed to have our Muslim birth names. When we want to marry we have to ask the state of Myanmar for permission. Due to this rule, we often need to wait years before we can be lawfully married. Additionally, we are not allowed to leave the country legally. However, when we succeed leaving the country, we are not permitted to enter the country of Myanmar once again.
Most Rohingya live in the state of Rakhine. In the capital city of Sittwe living feels like an open-air prison. We live in a ghetto that we are not allowed to leave. Other Rohingya live in IDP camps (IDP stands for internally displaced people).
How is life in these camps?
The situation is catastrophic! People do not have access to drinking water and access to foodstuff is scant. There are not enough tents, blankets and barely any sanitary stations. We don’t have schools, doctors, anything. Lots of children suffer from intestinal or dermal infectious diseases. The child mortality rate is high, the number of pregnant woman dying is double than in the rest of Myanmar. Many NGO’s work permission have been withdrawn. Our people are not safe.
Are the Rohingya safe in neighbouring countries?
Tens of thousands of us are fleeing regularly by boat to Bangladesh, Thailand and Malaysia. First, you need to bribe the coast police, to pay the tugs and survive a long and dangerous journey on an overcrowded fishing boat. In Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia, they are sold as work slaves and partly as sex slaves. As stateless people we are endangered to be victims of human trafficking because we are nowhere officially registered as missing.
Kyaw Soe Aung is himself a Rohingya and represents the positions of his ethnicity in the Democratic and Human Rights Party.
How does the government of Myanmar justify the withdrawal of citizenship?
In 1982, the government decided that the ethnicities that have not lived in Myanmar before 1824 should not be citizens of Myanmar. Despite of historic evidence that Rohingya are part of Myanmar for centuries, our citizenship was cancelled. There are various degrees of citizenship and some of them are theoretically accessible for us. In practice, we are hindered due to harassing regulations and in reality this form of citizenship not accessible. As a result, we are stateless. We cannot do anything against the arbitrary treatment by police, military and authorities.
What do you wish for the future?
I wish for peace between the religions and the peoples in Myanmar. Still, the situation has escalated to a degree that is almost unsalvageable without the pressure of the international community. We need to change the legal situation of the Rohingya and other minorities. The world needs to put pressure on the government of Myanmar. We have put great hopes in Aung San Suu Kyi but she is too weak to counter the military and the radical groups of Buddhists in the country. An UN mission by blue helmets would be the first step to ensure a secure future for our people. And NGOs must be given full access to the refugee camps, so the humanitarian catastrophe will finally come to an end.