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Centuries in one country,yet not its citizens

Moving to end 50 years of military rule and isolation,Myanmar is being roiled by sectarian violence on its western coast,the latest upsurge in one of the many ethnic divides

Written by Rakesh Sinha | New Delhi | Published: June 14, 2012 2:27:29 am

Moving to end 50 years of military rule and isolation,Myanmar is being roiled by sectarian violence on its western coast,the latest upsurge in one of the many ethnic divides that run deep in the country. At least 20 people have been killed and homes of several hundreds torched in ethnic clashes between Buddhists and the stateless Rohingya Muslims in the Rakhine State or the former Arakan,washed by the Bay of Bengal in the west and stretching up to Chittagong division in the northwest. As Rohingyas flee the fighting in Rakhine and the UNHCR urges Bangladesh not to close its borders,here is a look at the problem.

Who are the Rohingyas?

The Rohingyas are Sunni Muslims,one of the many ethnic minorities who live in Rakhine State where the majority population follows Theravada Buddhism. The Rohingya population is estimated at over 700,000. Of South Asian descent,Rohingyas stand out among people of East Asian stock.

Where did they come from?

Some accounts say the Rohingya forefathers were sea traders. But the Burmese military points to history,maintaining that the Rohingyas crossed over from present-day Bangladesh. Chittagong was under the Arakanese till it was lost to the Mughals in 1666. And in 1826,Arakan and Tenasserim were ceded to British India under the Treaty of Yandabo that ended the First Anglo-Burmese War.

How have the Rohingyas been treated?

The Pinlon Agreement of 1947,signed a year before Burma’s independence,included Rakhine in the new union but the Rohingyas were kept out of nation-building. After a military crackdown in 1978,Rohingyas fled in thousands to Bangladesh. Under world pressure,the military agreed to their repatriation. Another crackdown in 1991 again sent Rohingyas across the border. Some 30,000 still live in two refugee camps in Bangladesh and many others have found their way overseas. A few hundred showed up in New Delhi last month to seek refugee status.

How did the Rohingyas become stateless?

The Burma Citizenship Law of 1982,which repealed the 1948 Union Citizenship Act,sought to deny citizenship to people of Indian and Chinese descent and also targeted the Rohingyas. Under the law,full citizenship could be granted to people of 135 national races who lived in Burma before 1823 — i.e. before British colonisation. The Rohingyas did not figure in this list. One clause in the new law was very clear: “The Council of State may decide whether any ethnic group is national or not.” Clauses in two other categories — associate and naturalised citizenship — were of no help to the Rohingyas either.

What is the stand of Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD on the Rohingyas?

In the 1990 general elections — nullified by the military after the NLD won by a landslide — Rohingyas had backed Suu Kyi’s candidates. Four months after her release from house arrest in November 2010,Suu Kyi met Rakhine state representatives. An NLD statement quoted her as saying that the “spirit of the Union is rooted in the heart of people from Rakhine and Chin State although they love their own ethnicity”. A month earlier,the NLD had released a statement,underlining that the Pinlon Agreement had made it clear that “Citizens of the Frontier Areas shall enjoy rights and privileges which are regarded as fundamental in democratic countries”.

What is India’s interest in the Rakhine State?

India and Myanmar are working on the Kaladan multimodal transport project. It involves construction of a deep-water port at Sittwe,capital of Rakhine State,dredging of the Kaladan river to let cargo vessels move from Sittwe to Mizoram,construction of a river port and upgradation of roads. Once complete,it will connect India’s Northeast to the Sittwe port. The road component is delaying the project,targeted for completion in 2013.

Why is Rakhine State important to China?

China has started work on twin oil and natural gas pipelines,stretching 1,060km from the Rakhine port of Kyaukpyu to Kunming,capital of Yunnan. Once complete,these pipelines will allow China to bring home fuel supplies from the Middle East and Africa without taking the long route via the Strait of Malacca.

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