Despite this, the government has consistently denied any wrongdoing and no members of security forces have been prosecuted for their alleged roles in the attacks.
Since then, the Rohingya have been living an excruciatingly limited existence under apartheid-like policies. They are prevented from leaving the internally displaced persons (IDP) camps and cordoned off areas where they are allowed to live in Rakhine State, without a special permit, which is reportedly difficult and expensive to obtain. This means access to basic rights – livelihood, food, water, health care and education – is severely restricted. Once flourishing mixed market places are now devoid of Muslim businesses and hundreds of Rohingya university students have been prevented from getting higher education because “authorities cannot guarantee their safety.”
Notably, the Fortify Rights report states that, ‘‘Senior government officials have gone so far as to blame violence in Rakhine State on rapid population growth of Rohingya.’’Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Reflecting this concern with population growth, Rakhine State spokesperson Win Myaing told media last year that “overpopulation is one of the causes of tension.” He added, “The population growth of Rohingya Muslims is 10 times higher than that of the Rakhine [Buddhists].’’
Reliable population statistics are lacking and this year Myanmar will conduct its first census in more than 30 years. However, challenging the construction of a Rohingya “breeding problem,” a study of official data by Harvard University researchers, found that the population growth rate in Rakhine State was slightly lower than the rest of Myanmar (for the period 1955-2010).
Whether this claim, that Rohingya have bigger families than Rakhine, has any factual basis is hardly the point, but it does explain the abusive population control measures the Rohingya are forced to endure. Since 2005, Rohingya in two majority Muslim townships in northern Rakhine State have been subjected to a strict two-child policy. A regional order obtained by Fortify Rights apparently underpins this policy, stating that Rohingya “who have permission to marry” must “limit the number of children, in order to control the birth rate so that there is enough food and shelter.”
Authorities are instructed to take family photos to ensure that children cannot be substituted into other households. ’’If the child is an infant, the mother will be made to breastfeed the child. Young children will be questioned separately.’’
Flouting the two-child policy can lead to imprisonment, prompting Rohingya women to have unsafe abortions, typically, the report states, by using the crude “stick method.”
The report notes that as a direct result of birth restrictions, in 2011, more than 14 percent of Rohingya women in northern Rakhine State had undergone at least one abortion and 26 percent of those had had multiple abortions. These figures represent only those women who admitted resorting to abortion and do not include deaths resulting from unsafe terminations, for which statistics are not available.
Additionally, spot checks are carried out to ensure that restrictions are followed. Along with having “illegal children,” banned activities include living together when you are not married (permission and unofficial payment required for Rohingya to get married are reportedly a barrier for many couples) and repairing a building without a permit, among others. According to Fortify Rights, ‘‘Spot-checks typically occur in the evening, ostensibly to ‘check’ for ‘illegal Bengalis [Rohingya],’ though the practice has been reported as violent, insidious, and a pretext for law enforcement officials to commit violent abuses against Rohingya and extort money from Rohingya families. Reports have emerged of ‘spot checks’ resulting in the rape of Rohingya women by security forces.’’
A Volatile Landscape
Muslims make up about 5 percent of Myanmar’s majority Buddhist population of 60 million people. Hostility towards Muslims is not limited to Rohingya living in Rakhine State; this is merely the most tangible part of a larger wound inflicted by religious intolerance. The 969 movement — characterized by extremist Buddhist monks who preach about the need to protect Myanmar and Buddhism from the existential threat that Islam poses — has fuelled anti-Muslim violence. The most vocal and virulent among this fringe group of militant monks is Ashin Wirathu, whose photo featured on a TIME Magazine cover along with the words “The Face of Buddhist Terror.” The edition was banned in Myanmar.
Wirathu told the Global Post last year, “Muslims are like the African carp. They breed quickly and they are very violent and they eat their own kind. Even though they are minorities here, we are suffering under the burden they bring us.’’
Anti-Muslim sentiment materializes in a variety of forms.
A recent public discussion organized by the National League for Democracy was cancelled after dozens of monks, protesting the inclusion of two Muslim speakers, threatened to disrupt the event.
In late February hundreds rallied in support of a draft law banning inter-faith marriage between Buddhist women and non-Buddhist men. If passed this would mean, for instance, that a Muslim man must convert to Buddhism if he wants to marry a Buddhist woman. The notorious Wirathu reportedly told those attending the rally that “without such a law there would be no security for the Myanmar race and Buddhism.” President Thein Sein has expressed support for the proposed law.
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been criticized for not standing up for the long-persecuted Rohingya, has touched on Myanmar Buddhists’ fear of Islamic encroachment. She told the BBC late last year that tensions in the country were stoked by “a perception that Muslim power, global Muslim power, is very great.”
Although fanatical, these fears are certainly real for those that harbor them, and for those who bear the force of actions these fears incite.
Myanmar national and senior analyst at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, Kyaw San Wai recently wrote that the nuances underpinning extremist Buddhist mentality are often overlooked in reports about the country’s ethno-religious tensions. He expresses that these disregarded elements give rise to a certain narrative: “that Islam might be Buddhism’s nemesis and that the 21st century will be a decisive juncture in Buddhism’s prophesised destruction.’’
‘‘While international coverage points to Myanmar’s religious demographics to discredit fears of Islamic encroachment, Burmese Buddhists have a starkly different world view where their faith is besieged by larger, well-endowed and better-organised faiths. This millenarianism can be traced to a scripturally unsupported but widely believed ‘prophecy’ that Buddhism will disappear 5000 years after the Buddha’s passing. As 1956 is considered the halfway point, the belief is that Buddhism is now declining irreversibly.’’
In Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State, where the majority of IDP camps are clustered, the suspicion and fear simmering inside many Rakhine Buddhists has manifested in animosity toward anyone appearing sympathetic to the Rohingya. Last month, three activists from the Malaysia Consultative Council of Islamic Organizations (MAPIM), after visiting Rohingya IDP camps in Sittwe, were reportedly surrounded by a mob of extremist Buddhists outside their hotel. Fortunately, police intervened and took them into protective custody. Previously, an aid worker with Malaysian Relief Agency was not so lucky.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, “community resistance and increased intimidation of UN and NGO staff” has hampered aid and development efforts in Rakhine State. An aid worker in Sittwe described one type of threat humanitarian personnel faced to The Irrawaddy, saying that local Buddhists put letters at houses where NGO workers stay, warning that if the aid worker does not leave within 48 hours the house will be burnt down.
A foreign national, who requested anonymity, said that the situation in Sittwe is extremely tense. While on a recent trip visiting IDP camps, he reported being regularly followed, including by a man who was at one stage seen in police uniform.
’’People follow you, shout things, stand by you and listen to your conversations, motorcycles will tail you, many of them with 969 stickers on them. At one point someone jumped on to our tuk tuk and our driver and his brother had to chase them off.’’
When even aid workers are threatened, harassed and attacked for providing basic support to the Rohingya, the world is given insight into how big the wound of bigotry has become.
The Rohingya have been backed into a corner, their lives made so intolerable that tens of thousands have fled by sea, seeking safety and a sense of dignity elsewhere. Surviving the perilous journey to Bangladesh, Thailand or Malaysia is, too often, seen as the only way to finally be free from persecution.
Gemima Harvey (@Gemima_Harvey) is a freelance journalist and photographer.