The London School of Economics (LSE) hosted a panel discussion on Monday evening to debate the crisis in western Arakan State and to express support for the Rohingya community.
Many members of the Burmese community crowded into the packed theater alongside London-based activists and members of NGOs. On the panel were Chris Lewa, the director of the Arakan Project and a leading voice on behalf of the Rohingya, and US photographer Greg Constantine who recently released a book of black and white photography titled “Exiled to Nowhere: Burma’s Rohingya.”
Constantine has specialized in documenting the plight of stateless people around the world, and since 2006 has made eight trips to Bangladesh to document the conditions in which the Rohingya communities live.
“One of the things that is lost in the discussions of the issues of statelessness—particularly with the Rohingya—are human stories,” he said.
He recounted to the audience the story of 20-year-old Kashida who had to flee to Bangladesh with her husband. The Burmese authorities had denied her permission to get married, but when they discovered she had married in secret and was pregnant they took away all her family’s money and cows and goats. They forced Kashida to have an abortion, telling her: “This is not your country; you don’t have the right to reproduce here.”
Constantine said that some Rohingya families had lived in Burma for centuries, but were “denied by successive governments the right to belong to the country of their birth.”
He explained to the audience how the Rohingya people—whom many Burmese consider to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh—are denied the rights to get married, to travel freely and to practice their religion. They are also subjected, he said, to arbitrary land seizure for military use or to make model Burmese villages for Buddhist communities.
Since the 1982 Citizenship Act, the Rohingya have been denied citizenship in Burma, but are also denied the opportunity to seek entry into any other country.
“They are denied the right to an identity, the right to belong, the right to have their language, heritage and culture respected and included in the larger fabric of society,” said the American photojournalist.
He urged NGOs and governmental organisations such as Britain’s Department for International Development (DFID) and USAID not to forget the Rohingya as Burma opens up and development pours in.
Chris Lewa then addressed the issue of violence in Arakan State.
“What started as communal violence between Rakhine [Arakanese] and Rohingya has now turned into state-sponsored violence targeting the Rohingya,” she said.
This was illustrated by President Thein Sein’s statement last week to the UNHCR rejecting the Rohingya as a minority group in Burma and suggesting that they be relocated to camps run by the UNHCR and sent away to third countries, she told the audience.
“Official policies of discrimination and denial of citizenship to the Rohingya create an environment in which ethnic clashes are virtually inevitable,” she said.
Lewa pointed at instances of anti-Rohingya campaigns in Burma that stoked the violence which erupted following the rape and murder of an Arakanese Buddhist woman on May 28, allegedly by three Muslim men.
Lewa then laid out a chronology of events throughout June, including the murder of 10 Muslim pilgrims, riots in Maungdaw, and the burning of Arakanese Buddhist shops and homes by mobs of Rohingya men followed by reciprocal acts by Arakanese on Rohingya communities.
Many of the incidents in northwestern Arakan State are disputed by one or other side during the seven weeks of sectarian violence. Many Arakanese sources claim, in fact, that it is primarily Rohingya gangs who are responsible for the violence.
Lewa said state-sponsored abuse of the Rohingya started on June 25, and she accused the army, the nasaka (border security forces), police officers and riot police of conducting mass arrests of Rohingyas, and raids that involved looting, robbery, rapes, beatings, torture and killings.
Lewa also criticized the Burmese government’s figures, which said only 80 people have died and 55,000 have been internally displaced. She said that in reality hundreds have died, many more have been injured, thousands of properties have been destroyed and an estimated 100,000 people have been displaced.
There have been many attempts to block aid from UN agencies and international NGOs, said Lewa, even by Buddhist monks who are playing a leading role in rejecting aid and exhorting their communities not to do business with the Rohingya.
Despite the claims by the UN, she said the Arakan Project has no evidence of any Rohingya in Maungdaw receiving any assistance, and said they are receiving increasing reports of children dying of malnutrition.
She said that the Burmese leadership, from Thein Sein to the NLD, must work to find solutions.
Finally, she said, the 1982 Citizenship Law has to be repealed and “nationality in Burma should not be based on race, but rather on descent and birthplace.”
Meanwhile, a representative of DFID said the situation in Arakan State “is very concerning.
“The British ambassador has repeatedly raised concerns with ministers and directly with the president about the humanitarian and political situation in Arakan and called on all sides to allow unrestricted humanitarian and political situation in Arakan and called on all sides to allow unrestricted humanitarian access for international and local aid agencies to the affected communities,” he said.
He said DFID is providing aid to Arakan State through the UNHCR, UNICEF and the World Food Programme.