Persecuted and Stateless: The Crisis of Rohingya Muslims

Recently the RFP sat down with Dr. Wakar Uddin, director general of the Arakan Rohingya Union, to talk about the persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. What follows is a transcript of the interview.

By: Wakar Uddin, RFP Staff

Religious Freedom Project (RFP): Good afternoon, Dr. Uddin. Could you tell us a bit about who you are, where you work, and why you’re here today? 

Dr. Wakar Uddin (Uddin): I am Dr. Wakar Uddin. I am Rohingya, an ethnic minority in the Arakan state in Burma, currently known as Rahkine state. I’m here today with the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center to answer your questions about Rohingya Muslims and religious freedom in Burma.

I am a professor at Penn State University, and I also serve as the director general of the Arakan Rohingya Union, a global Rohingya confederacy consisting of 61 different Rohingya organizations worldwide. As the director general, I am in frequently in touch with people across Burma. I’ve received reports of terrible things happening. 

RFP: Could you tell us about your life in Burma before you moved to the United States? 

Uddin: In the far western part of Arakan, I was brought up and raised in a town called Mondo. When I was a young student, I was fortunately able to leave Burma and come to the United States to study here. 

When I was growing up, I witnessed some discrimination against Rohingya people—but it was very subtle, not pronounced. It came gradually over time; it did not come all of a sudden in one day.

In terms of government policies, there was clearly discrimination, and it became worse after I left. Religious persecution started as a form of ethnic cleansing. The Burmese government has developed a policy of ethnic cleansing, starting from when the military—under the leadership of General Ne Win—took over the civilian government in 1962.

RFP: What are some of the early signs of religious persecution?

Uddin: The first sign was the ban on calling for prayer. And then the government imposed restrictions on building mosques. Even today, Rohingya Muslims are not allowed to renovate their mosques, and they are not allowed to renovate or expand their religious schools, either. They are not allowed to build any new structures.

And then in the center part of the city, the larger mosques are closed down. You are not allowed to pray in those larger mosques, and people are forced to pray in the smaller mosques on the outskirts of the towns, in the villages. And in some places, people have to convert homes to mosques. Some rooms are converted to a prayer space.

At the same time, the government has imposed other restrictions on people, including restrictions on marriage. For example, a Rohingya couple needs permission from the government to get married. And there is the two-child policy only for the Rohingya ethnic minority, which is used to contain and stop the growth of the Muslim population. That’s part of the religious persecution. There are also restrictions on the freedom of movement. Rohingya people are not allowed to travel from village to village, town to town, or city to city.

Sadly, religious schools are closed. Even today, I’m hearing and reading reports that funeral services are not allowed. People have to bury their dead in secret, at night, under the darkness.

RFP: How has this affected the everyday life of Muslims?

Uddin: Religious persecution affects everyone in every part of society—women, men, children. Rohingya Muslims have to worship, like the Buddhists worship. So infringement upon their religious freedom is affecting the basic life of everyone. If the mosques are closed, where can they pray? If they are forbidden from having a funeral service, how can they bury their dead? So the infringement on religious freedom has affected every segment of the society.

RFP: Is there a way to summarize or categorize these human rights violations? What are the main ways in which people are being negatively impacted?

Uddin: Religious persecution and ethnic cleansing in Burma have resulted in five major issues for Rohingya people. The first is forced migration from the country. Rohingya Muslims are scattered throughout the world, and over 50 percent of the native population is now outside the country.

Second, there is economic marginalization; people cannot move freely from village to village, town to town, and state to state, and as a result, they are in a very poor economic condition.

Third, as I mentioned before, this ethnic cleansing has resulted in the government’s two-child policy targeting only Rohingya people.

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, there is violence. The radical elements in the government have used the local Buddhist Rahkine mobs to attack Rohingya people. They have attacked their villages, burning their houses. This violence is designed to drive the people from their villages and from their homes.

On top of this, the government is denying the identity of Rohingyas. The Rohingya ethnic minority has lived in Burma for many centuries. But radical elements in the Burmese government and Buddhist militants are not recognizing the Rohingya as a term or a community. By refusing to use the term Rohingya, they are denying the Rohingya ethnic identity that has existed for so long.

RFP: How else has the Burmese government systematically sponsored human rights violations? 

Uddin: In addition to rights violations such as the mosque ban and the two-child policy, radical elements of the government are forcing the Rohingya population out of Burma. During the last thirty years, the government has had so-called “gaming operations,” such as Operation King Dragon. In these operations, government officials go into Rohingya areas and threaten people with force, looking for citizenship paperwork and documentation. They have not given any documentation to Rohingya Muslims for 50 years, but now they’re asking for documentation that does not exist!

In fact, government registration cards have been confiscated by the military government—the military junta—and their citizenship has been revoked. As a result, Rohingya people are stateless. They do not deserve this status, but the Burmese government and military junta have made them stateless. 

RFP: Why is this happening to the Rohingya community? What is motivating the government to act in such a violent way?

Uddin: The religious persecution in Burma is coming from growing nationalism and militancy in Burma, which is connected to the Buddhist religion. Religious persecution started as a form of ethnic cleansing. The original aim was to eliminate the minority religions, Islam and Christianity, based on the philosophy of purity in the Buddhist religion. Radicals in Burmese society, as well as the government, wanted to have a pure Buddhist society. There should not be anybody but Buddhists, no other religion but Buddhism. 

RFP: Does the persecution of the Rohingya minority have wider implications? How does it affect countries and communities outside of Burma?

Uddin: Burmese religious persecution and ethnic cleansing has already spilled over into neighboring countries. You can see the same thing in Sri Lanka, and it may come to Thailand and other places. So it began as problem within the state of Arakan, but it has spilled over into mainland Burma, and from there to Southeast Asia. So now it’s becoming a global issue with wider implications.

RFP: So will persecution eventually affect other religions, too, like Christianity?

Uddin: This religious persecution is against Muslims right now, but it will eventually affect other religions too, including Christianity and other faiths. Religious persecution in Burma started with growing nationalism in Burma, targeting non-Buddhist religions, particularly Islam and Christianity. They are focusing on Muslims in Arakan right now, but when they are finished, they will go to other parts of Burma and they will not leave Christianity alone.

Persecution will come to Christianity. In some cases, we are already seeing this unfold. Just yesterday we saw in the news media that the government is telling the Christians in Kachin state, I believe, to take down the cross. 

RFP: In recent months, we have heard of the mass exodus of Rohingya Muslims from Burma. Could you tell us more about these refugees? Where are they fleeing to?

Uddin: Because of these scare tactics, as well as violence among radical Buddhists, the Rohingya have been forced out of the country. The numbers are staggering. At its largest point, there were a total of nearly three million Rohingya Muslims in Burma [what year was this?]. Now there are only about 1.5 million left. The rest of them have fled the country, and their population has dramatically decreased.

There are nearly 400,000 people in Bangladesh in refugee camps that were forced out from Burma. There are about 300,000 in the Middle East. There are over 500,000 in Pakistan and nearly 200,000 in Southeast Asia (Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand).

RFP: What happens to the Rohingya Muslims who choose not to leave Burma? 

Uddin: There are 140,000 refugees or internally displaced persons (IDPs) inside the state in Burma seeking shelter in other townships. People who have lost their homes are taken to IDP camps, and the international community is supporting them with food, water, medicine, and other supplies. But there are often shortages.

In addition to the camps, some take shelter in other Rohingya villages, which often don’t get any supplies from the United Nations or any other international NGOs. So people in these villages are in dire conditions.

I’ve heard several horrible stories that give evidence to these conditions. I have even seen video tapes and heard accounts over the phone of violent acts happening in Sittwe and elsewhere.

One family from Sittwe especially stands out. The father was arrested by Burmese forces, tortured, and killed. And then the mobs attacked and killed their two sons. So only the mother and her two daughters are left. But their house was burned, and they had no place to go. So they ended up in an IDP camp in Arakan state.

RFP: Could you tell us more about the human trafficking rings that target these people?

Uddin: Human trafficking rings, assisted by the Burmese forces and the radical Rahkines, including monks, target these vulnerable families for human trafficking. Men, women, and children are trafficked and are usually sent into Thailand, where they’re sold in underground markets.

These two daughters that I was telling you about – they were taken by mobs and sold to human traffickers. So the mother lost all her children and her husband. Her husband and sons were killed, and her two daughters were kidnapped by radical Buddhist mobs, assisted by the Burmese forces, and sold to traffickers. And she lost her entire family.

That’s one story. Sadly, there are many, many stories like that I can tell you.

RFP: One last question: What lessons do you think we can learn from religious persecution in Burma that would help to prevent future conflicts from happening elsewhere in the world?

Uddin: This is not going to end unless these radical religious fanatics, as well as the militant parts of the government, are stopped by the international community. The government is helping cause this radical growth of militancy in Burmese society by inciting radical monks and radical preachers.

What the international community and mankind can learn is that all people of all religions should respect each other’s faith. Everyone should be aware that these radicals in Buddhism and Burma have hijacked their religion and are preaching hate against minorities. They’re exploiting the population, mobilizing them to cause violence with hate speech.

These are teaching all of us the need for tolerance, peaceful coexistence, and respect for each other. There needs to be tolerance. There needs to be religious freedom.

Wakar Uddin serves as the director general of the Arakan Rohingya Union, an international coalition of 61 Rohingya organizations around the world.

This piece was originally posted in two parts on July 9 and 13, 2015 on the Religious Freedom Project website at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.

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