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Desperation Marks Rohingyas' Fight for Rights and Survival

Wednesday, December 26, 2012
PHUKET: They scavenge for grass and plants to eat and live in makeshift camps and town slums surrounded by barbed-wire checkpoints, refugee prisoners in their own country.

Sitting among filth and garbage in a bamboo hut Ali Hassan, a 24-year-old former brick worker, pleads for the lives of his newborn twins.

''My babies are starving in front of my eyes. I cannot buy anything now I have no money,'' he says.

There is an abundance of fish in the sea and rivers of Burma's western Rakhine state, which borders Bangladesh.

There are also coconuts in the trees and rice in the fields.

But the United Nations' most senior humanitarian official, Valerie Amos, describes conditions in camps where more than 115,000 people displaced by ethnic violence are struggling to survive as ''dire''.

''I have seen many camps during my time but the conditions in these camps rank among the worst,'' she says.

The camp occupants are Rohingyas, members of a Muslim minority who are denied Burmese citizenship even though their families have lived in the country for centuries. The UN says they are among the world's most persecuted people.

Following an outbreak of ethnic violence in June and again in October and a subsequent clampdown by Burma's security forces, tens of thousands of Rohingya are prohibited by soldiers from leaving designated areas to work, forage for food or seek medical treatment.

Heartbreaking images emerging from Rakhine, also known as Arakan, point to ethnic cleansing of 800,000 Rohingya, who are seen by the Burmese government and many of the country's Buddhists as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

Video taken for Fairfax Media in a slum Muslim area of the Rakhine capital, Sittwe, shows a mother of seven, Haleema Ahmed, scavenging for grass and plants to help feed her family, reviving memories of images of starving villagers eating grass in North Korea.

''The food that is being donated to us is not enough to eat. We have to help ourselves to find our own food,'' she says. ''I have to collect grass and plants to sell and eat to fill my empty stomach.''

Zaleena Hatwa, 33, a mother of two boys and three girls, is living in a one-room hut at 'Camp Coconut,'where beachside coconut trees mark a boundary the Rohingya may not cross.

''I fled my house only with the clothes I was wearing . . . they beat and killed many of us,'' she says.

Zaleena Hatwa says before the violence she had a house and money. ''Now I am forced to live like a crazy street person,'' she says.

There are few Rohingya leaders to speak up internationally for their people, who are referred to by the Burmese Buddhist majority as ''Bengalis'' or the pejorative term for foreigner, ''kalar''.

Abdul Hakim, a cleric at a small Muslim mosque in the Aung Min Glar district of Sittwe, called for the United Nations to intervene to save his people.

''The Rohingya have been living here for 800 years but now the Buddhist want to drive the Rohingya all out of Arakan . . . they don't want to live together with the Muslim,'' he said.

''We want equal rights and we want the rule of law. We want peace and justice. The UN has the power, if they want to do something, they can.''

Baroness Amos, who visited eight refugee camps recently, called on the Burmese government to promote reconciliation in Rakhine, where she said tensions ''between communities is running very high''.

Her remarks underscored concerns about Burma's stability as it emerges from 50 years of repressive military rule under the reformist government of the President, Thein Sein.

The government and Rakhine community groups have placed extreme restrictions on humanitarian agencies working in Rohingya camps and Muslim areas.

People seen to be working with the Rohingya are often threatened.

Aid workers report seeing starving babies and toddlers so weakened by hunger they sit limply in their parents' arms.
The UN estimates there are 2900 babies and toddlers with acute malnutrition in the camps who may already be beyond help.

Satellite imagery shows extensive destruction of homes and property in Muslim areas following a rapid escalation of violence since June that led to at least 170 deaths.

One 14-hectare coastal area shows almost 1000 razed buildings, houseboats and floating barges. Reports have emerged of mass graves, and human rights organisations cite executions, torture, rapes, beatings, mass arrests and burnings by security forces, mainly against Rohingya.

The violence erupted after reports circulated that on May 28 a Rakhine Buddhist woman had been raped and killed. Retaliation was swift after details were circulated in an incendiary pamphlet.

On June 3, a large group of Rakhine Buddhists stopped a bus and killed 10 Muslims on board. Violence between Rohingya and Rakhine then swept through Sittwe and surrounding areas.

Since October more than 4000 Rohingya have paid smugglers to get on typically leaking and unsafe boats to make the perilous voyage to Muslim-majority Malaysia, where their presence is mostly tolerated.

Several hundred have drowned in at least four boat sinkings.

At least one boat a day now leaves the region, its passengers mostly Rohingya men and teenage boys seeking a new life. Many others have fled to Bangladesh, where 400,000 Rohingya are languishing in camps. Bangladesh also considers them illegal immigrants.

In Rakhine state, authorities have begun a process of verifying the nationality of all Muslims, but there are widespread calls for those deemed ''illegal'' to be deported. The goal of the survey is unclear.

A 1982 law enshrines the citizenship of Burma's officially-recognised ethnic groups but the Rohingya were excluded despite their claims to have met the criteria of having ancestors in the country before 1823, the date of the first Anglo-Burmese war.

Rohingyas say they can trace their ancestry back to an eighth-century shipwreck on an Arakan island.

Observers say widespread hostility towards the Rohingya throughout Burma is likely to inhibit their naturalisation.

''We have no plan to accept as an ethnic group those who are stateless, or any new tribes who are not officially recognised, like the Rohingya,'' said Zaw Htay, a high-ranking government official.

The opposition leader and democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi has disappointed international supporters by failing to speak up strongly for the Rohingya, prompting speculation she has her eye on 2015 elections.

In a squalid camp near Sittwe, Rashid Ahmad, 63, tells how security forces watched as a Rakhine mob attacked Rohingya residents in his village.

''They started beating and killing people, so my family and my niece's family ran away from the village to the seashore to take a boat,'' Rashid Ahmad said.

''My niece had already got on a boat but a mob of Rakhine people pulled her off the boat with her two children.

''One was a boy and the other a girl. They killed the boy with a long knife and spears . . . my niece was raped and then killed by the Rakhine mob.''

Rashid Ahmad said his people had lived in Burma for a long time and have a proud history as Muslims ''but have never felt law and justice from the government.''

''We are helpless unless we get help from another country,'' he said.

Republished by permission.


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