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Ethnic minorities

The world’s most persecuted people

The Rohingya are the most persecuted minority of the world. Their home country Myanmar does not recognise them as citizens. Rohingya are discriminated in many ways. They are attacked by their neighbours and displaced from their homes. As a result, hundreds of thousands live in refugee camps or in exile. Johannes Kaltenbach, country coordinator of the aid organisation Malteser International in Myanmar, assessed the current situation in an interview with Katja Dombrowski.
Health education for waiting patients at Malteser International’s health centre in Tha Man Tar in northern Rakhine. Malteser International Health education for waiting patients at Malteser International’s health centre in Tha Man Tar in northern Rakhine.

In 2012, clashes between the Muslim minority of the Rohingya and the Buddhist majority erupted in the state of Rakhine in western Myanmar. Since then, hundreds have died and tens of thousands were displaced. How is the situation now?
The situation is still tense. About 146,000 internally displaced persons live in refugee camps in Rakhine. There is no indication that they will be able to return to their homes any time soon. Everything is lacking in the camps. In the Rohingya villages further north, along the border with Bangladesh, the situation is not much better. People can only dream of electricity and running water, and there is hardly any social infrastructure. Many people have to walk for hours to reach a market or health centre. Education is very basic – most people finish primary school at best. The Rohingya live in deep poverty in very simple bamboo huts with little space. They work their fields with simple hoes. Only the richest can afford oxen. Because of their severe poverty people are unable to save any money for emergencies. If one family member falls ill and needs medical treatment, the extra costs immediately affect the family’s food situation.

Malteser International is one of the few international aid organisations that are working in Rakhine. What exactly are you doing there?
We have been in Rakhine for more than ten years, providing aid and development to all people whatever their ethnicity or creed. It is important for us to support all communities so as not to favour one group over the other. Our main objective is to improve local people’s access to health services. We support the national health infrastructure and are running some health centres of our own. We especially focus on maternal and child health, as well as on the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of tuberculosis and malaria. We have an ambulance car and several boats that enable us to take emergency patients to hospitals fast. We also pay for inpatient treatment. Furthermore, we renovate and upgrade water points to ensure access to clean and sufficient drinking water. And we build latrines near the houses. This measure serves women in particular because they mostly stay at home.

Few foreigners have been to the camps where the 146,000 refugees you mentioned are forced to live. You are one of them. What conditions do the Rohingyas live in?
The refugees live under the poorest conditions, most of them in longhouses made of bamboo. Each family has less than five square meters of space. Moreover, many of the houses built in 2012 are in bad shape by now and have to be renovated. Even though there has been some progress in regard to health services, access to medical treatment is still a huge problem. The refugees are not allowed to leave the camps. They have no chance to earn money and can hardly buy anything by themselves. Thus they completely depend on international humanitarian aid. The people also lack unrestricted access to food and education.

Myanmar is a multi-cultural state with 135 recognised ethnic groups. The Rohingya are not recognised though and therefore do not get Myanmar citizenship. Why is that so?
This question is very hard to answer. The roots of the conflict are multi-layered and very complex. There has been only little independent research on this issue and no open debate in Myanmar itself. Many Myanmar people regard the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh – which is an unproven theory. At the same time, resentment against Muslims and fear of Islamist terror are prevalent in the country’s predominantly Buddhist society. However there is no substantial evidence that the Rohingya are currently being radicalised by Islamist groups.

About one million Rohingya are said to live in Myanmar. How does discrimination affect their daily life?
Even the name “Rohingya” is not recognised in Myanmar, and the government objects to its use in official language. Being stateless, Rohingya have no rights whatsoever in Myanmar. They are deprived of the right to vote, the right to free movement and of higher education. They can’t get any official documents that would allow them to leave the country legally, either. Because of the complete lack of rights, the Rohingya are subject to arbitrary behaviour of authorities. The lack of  freedom of movement combined with low education leads to a cycle of absolute poverty. Without a change of conditions this cycle can hardly be broken.

Thousands of Rohingya have left Myanmar since the start of the clashes. At least one million Rohingya are estimated to live as refugees, mainly in Asian countries where they don’t get citizenship either. These circumstances make the Rohingya the most persecuted minority of the world, according to the UN. There is no place that welcomes them. As refugees, they are prone to trafficking and exploitation. Who is responsible for changing matters?
The situation of the Rohingya is not Myanmar’s problem alone. It is a problem that concerns the whole of Southeast Asia. Neighbouring Bangladesh, for instance, does not recognise the Rohingya as citizens either, although their situation is somewhat better there. In Thailand, Rohingya live as refugees or illegal day labourers. The summits of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) could provide the necessary multilateral framework to tackle that transnational problem. Unfortunately, it has never really been addressed by any ASEAN meeting so far.

The Rohingya conflict is not the only ethnic issue in Myanmar. Many ethnic groups in Myanmar want more autonomy. Insurgents have been fighting in bloody uprisings against the state for decades. Currently, the government is pursuing peace negotiations with all rebel groups. Do you think Myanmar will succeed in integrating its many peoples in a fair and lasting manner?
The current government honestly strives for a nationwide truce. The task is huge, no doubt. The list of issues is extensive, and interests are diverse. Many of the ethnic minorities want a greater say. At the same time, the country is undergoing economic and social reforms. Administrative agencies are overwhelmed and cannot manage all relevant tasks at once. It is no surprise that the reform process has slowed down. The future success of the peace process in Myanmar will depend largely on the course of the presidential elections at the end of this year. Ethnic minorities in particular will watch the process closely. They will not make any concessions beforehand. However the situation of the Rohingya will not be affected much by the elections. Stateless people in Myanmar have no lobby at all.


Johannes Kaltenbach is country coordinator of Malteser International in Myanmar.

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