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Muslim Groups Increasingly Worried About Fate of Burma's Rohingyas


A Muslim Indonesian holds a banner during a protest in front of the Burma Embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia, July 13, 2012.

A Muslim Indonesian holds a banner during a protest in front of the Burma Embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia, July 13, 2012.

Muslim groups worldwide are increasing pressure on the Burmese government to stop human rights abuses committed against ethnic Rohingya Muslims.

The plight of the technically stateless group in Burma's western Rakhine state has long been a concern of the global Muslim community. But attention has intensified in recent weeks after longstanding tensions erupted between the Rohingya and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists, leaving dozens dead and tens of thousands displaced.
Rights groups such as Amnesty International say Rohingyas are the victims of state-sanctioned violence and discrimination in a country that has a long history of mistreating ethnic minorities.

But others, including the government of Iran, have gone much further, calling the conflict a religiously inspired "genocide" and spreading what observers say are doctored photos and fabricated stories of the conflict.

Several extremist groups have also joined the conversation, including the Pakistani Taliban, which on Thursday threatened to attack Burma to avenge the abuses against the Rohingya population.

Outside pressure may not help

Increased attention from Muslims globally could help pressure Burma's government to give more rights to Rohingyas, says Jim Della-Giacoma of the International Crisis Group. But he adds that it could also make the situation worse.

"This is an issue around which Burmese or ethnically Burman nationals rally around, and that is part of the problem," says Della-Giacoma. "So any sort of threats from outside groups would only enforce or harden that nationalism and definitely not help the problem."

Rohingyas reject Taliban threats

Maung Kyaw Nu, a former political prisoner turned activist who works with Burmese Rohingya Association of Thailand, says he not only doubts the threat of an attack should be taken seriously, but the message runs counter to his group's goal of a peaceful solution.

"Even we don't like it," he says. "You know my political attitude toward Burma is to restore the peace and the rule of law so that we don't like this kind of group, and we condemn them, you know, not only regarding Burma, regarding any area particular area in the world."

Despite the rejection from some prominent Rohingyas, Chris Lewa of the Arakan Project, an NGO that monitors Rohingya issues, says there may already be repercussions from the outside threats. Lewa said that Burma's military reportedly arrested 38 Muslim religious leaders in northern Rakhine state Thursday following the terror threat by the Taliban.

"It appears that [the Burmese military] has responded in arresting a number of imams and mullahs from Maungdaw and Buthidaung along the border with Bangladesh," says Lewa, who says a number of other religious leaders have been arrested recently in a crackdown seemingly aimed at preventing protests during the religiously important month of Ramadan.

The violence and discrimination against Rohingyas is not genocide according to Lewa, who says such exaggerations are partly the result of recent statements from Burmese President Thein Sein. The president said earlier this month that deportation or refugee camps were the only solutions for the Rohingyas, who are denied citizenship in both Burma and neighboring Bangladesh.

Not just about religion

Benjamin Zawacki, a Burma researcher at Amnesty International, insists that it would be a mistake to view the conflict through only religious lenses, saying it should be viewed in the wider context of Burma's struggles with ethnic minority groups.

"I think that religion is clearly a part, but my assessment is that it is more secondary than it is primary in terms of why these violations and this discrimination takes place," says Zawacki.

Not only do Rohingya have a clearly different physical appearance from the majority of Burmese, says Zawacki, they have also adopted what some consider to be a "foreign" or "minority" religion.

But he says the widespread prejudice and discrimination against Rohingyas in Burmese society is partly the offspring of government policies that limit the rights of the minority group.

"If you look at the sort of discrimination that Rohingyas have faced for decades, it's very much part of the institution," says Zawacki. "The restrictions on marriage, the restriction on education, the restriction on movement - these are all systems within Myanmar [Burma] society."

Zawacki says these kinds of policies have the effect of making Burmese citizens feel they are justified in treating Rohingyas differently from other groups. Rights groups such as Amnesty International say the crisis can begin to be resolved when Burma amends its 1982 citizenship law that says Rohingyas are not citizens.

Many were encouraged that democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi this week called for laws to protect the rights of ethnic minorities. But Zawacki said she should go a step further, and clearly state that Rohingyas should receive the same rights as all other Burmese citizens.

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