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Unclenching the despotic fist in Burma

  • 27 November 2012

For the Burmese, the most unpopular part of Barack Obama's recent speech to the University of Yangon was his reference to the Rohingya who, as he so eloquently stated, 'hold within them the same dignity as you and I do'. Bengali-speaking and Muslim, they are descended from seventh century Arab traders who settled in what is now Arakan (or Rakhine) State but are regarded as 'interlopers' from Bangladesh by the majority of Burmese.

Under the U Nu government in the 1950s, they had Burmese citizenship until General Ne Win, the man credited with plunging Burma into poverty, introduced the 1983 Citizenship Act of Burma which recognised 135 'national races' but not the Rohingya who remain stateless to this day.

Statelessness means they are robbed of all the rights we have as citizens. They even have to ask permission of the local authorities to get married (after payment of the usual bribe) and are allowed only two children per marriage. Unauthorised marriages can result in ten years' imprisonment, and having more than two children means they are unregistered and denied healthcare and education and are often subject to forced labour.

The current conflict between the Rohingya and their Buddhist Arakanese neighbours was sparked by the alleged rape of a Buddhist girl by a Muslim. Since then, at least 200 people have been killed and 115,000 driven from their homes, the vast majority of them Rohingyas. The deep-seated cause of the furore is access to scarce land.

Even a politician of the moral stature of Aung San Suu Kyi could only timidly say that both communities had suffered and both had breached human rights laws. One commentator compared this to saying that whites as well as blacks violated human rights in apartheid South Africa.

The deeply ingrained hatred of the Rohingyas in Burma generally has resulted in NGOs such as Médecins sans Frontières being denied access to the injured and to their not being treated in hospitals.

Prior to the Obama speech, President Thein Sein of Burma had indicated to the UN he would address the Rohingya situation and look at everything from 'resettlement of displaced populations to granting of citizenship'. It is likely that offers of citizenship will only be made, if at all,