Despite recent tentative steps towards democratic reform in Burma, the government has continued with a discriminatory policy against the Rohingya ethnic group in the country’s western Arakan state that includes banning Rohingya children born out of wedlock from obtaining travel permits, attending school and, in the future, marrying.
The racial profiling of children immediately after birth contradicts the praise heaped on the pseudo-civilian government by world leaders in recent months, says The Arakan Project, which is this week submitting a report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC).
The UN body is currently reviewing the situation of children’s rights in Burma, and The Arakan Project claims the blacklisting of Rohingya babies stands in stark contrast to pledges of reform by the Thein Sein administration.
Chris Lewa, director of The Arakan Project, says the new government continues to ignore the existence of the Rohingya in its state party reports to the CRC, and has refused to implement the body’s recommendations first made in 2004.
“Rohingya children bear the full brunt of the state’s policies of exclusion, restrictions and arbitrary treatment,” she said. “These systematic policies gravely impair their physical and mental development as children and will affect the long-term future of their community.”
Successive Burmese governments claim the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group, are of Bengali origin, and thus have consistently denied them citizenship – The Arakan Project says their status in Burma “relies entirely on the political will of the government”, which is predominantly Buddhist and whose current representative at the UN, Ye Myint Aung, said during his prior tenure as Consul-General to Hong Kong that Rohingya were “ugly as ogres”.
Rohingya support groups say however that there is evidence that Islam existed in Burma prior to the now-dominant Theravada Buddhism, and that the Rohingya’s roots in Arakan state go back centuries.
For decades the government has meted out hefty treatment against the group, forcing hundreds of thousands to flee the country. Up to 400,000 Rohingya are living as refugees in neighbouring Bangladesh, with hundreds attempting perilous journeys by boat each year to Thailand and Malaysia. Various NGOs have described them as one of the world’s most persecuted minority groups.
Those that remain in Burma suffer persecution at the hands of government officials as well as from local Arakan communities, where anti-Muslim sentiment, reinforced by the government, is strong and where many inhabitants consider them illegal immigrants.
“If children are not in their family list they cannot stay in the village,” a nine-year-old boy told researchers working on the CRC submission. “Like my brother – my parents could not include my younger brother’s name in their family list. That is why they had to leave the village.
“Some parents still live in the village without registering their children but they have to hide them. Or they have to register them with other parents. Like me. I am registered as the son of my grandmother.”
Another boy, 12, told the group that he was a “prisoner in [his] own village” and could not leave the confines of his village without travel documents. An 11-year-old said he was often made to skip school when local authorities forced him to help repair nearby roads, with no pay.
The Burmese government justifies this treatment of the Rohingya on national security grounds, claiming that the policy is aimed at managing “illegal migration”. A ban on Rohingya parents producing more than two children stems from alleged “control on population growth”, The Arakan Project says, and unauthorised marriages can result in a 10-year prison term.
The group estimates that more than 40,000 Rohingya children have been left unregistered, with parents fearing punishment if they come forward with children born out of wedlock. Those not registered face severe difficulties accessing education and healthcare.
The government has mooted a programme of registering blacklisted children and adding them to population censuses, but progress has been slow. In addition, “Despite [UN refugee agency’s] advocacy efforts to address their lack of status with the government, little progress has been achieved to date,” says the report.
Lewa urged the government to “build on its reform credentials and mark a break from past regimes by taking immediate steps to end all discriminatory policies and practices against the Rohingya”. The group warns that racial profiling by the government “has demoralised the Rohingya community, resulting in increased refugee outflows since September 2011”.