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Muslim refugees risk life to flee Burma's persecution
Rohingya Muslim refugees from Burma which now denies them citizenship are risking their lives on the sea or in earthquake-ravaged Nepal to seek safety. The Rohingyas say they are victims of religious persecution. - photo by Mark A. Kellner
Rohingya Muslim refugees from Burma which now denies them citizenship are risking their lives on the sea or in earthquake-ravaged Nepal to seek safety. The Rohingyas say they are victims of religious persecution.

"The Rohingya are a stateless Muslim group of 1.3 million that mainly live in Burmas westernmost Arakan state, and are dubbed 'one of the worlds most persecuted peoples' by the (United Nations)," Time magazine reports.

While the Rohingya say they came to Burma a nation also known as Myanmar in the 19th century when it was a British colony, and thus qualify for citizenship, the leader of Burma's government won't recognize their claim.

"President Thein Sein denies that the Rohingya exist as an ethnic group, and he refers to them as Bengalis, suggesting that they are from Bangladesh and therefore subject to deportation," The New York Times reported.

Anti-Muslim sentiment in Burma, reportedly stirred up by militant Buddhist preachers, is believed responsible for the Rohingya crisis, Religion News Service reported. After a recent fact-finding trip, staffers from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum amplified the concern.

"Rohingya suffer from a combination of state sponsored discrimination and popular hatred, which together create a climate of racism, xenophobia and hate that has primed the country for future violence, including potential genocide," a report from the museum said. One Rohingya advocate described the governments strategy as one of "soft elimination" of the Rohingya.

Some Rohingya have ended up in Nepal, where, despite two massive earthquakes that have rocked the Himalayan nation in recent weeks, they say they feel safer than in Burma.

"For Rohingya, Nepal is still better than Burma," 30-year-old Zafir Miya told Time. Miya went from Burma through Bangladesh and India to Nepal seeking refuge, the magazine said.

Those seeking to flee the entire region often take to small, cramped boats. While some find shelter in majority-Muslim countries such as Indonesia, others are still adrift.

Britain's Guardian newspaper reports, "Between 6,000 and 8,000 more are believed to still be stuck off the coasts of Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia, with limited water and food, in a situation the UN has warned could fast become a 'massive humanitarian crisis' because no government in the region is willing to take them in."

Facing stiff international pressure, the governments of Indonesia and Malaysia told Reuters that they are willing to take in 7,000 refugees believed to be at sea right now. However, one official said, that would be the limit of their charity.

"What we have clearly stated is that we will take in only those people in the high sea," Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman told the news agency. "But under no circumstances would we be expected to take each one of them if there is an influx of others."

Ironically, the situation in Burma focuses attention on the silence, so far, of leading dissident Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace laureate, whose struggle for political rights in her homeland has captivated millions.

"I am not silent because of political calculation," Suu Kyi is said to have told an associate, according to Religion News Service's Brian Pellot. "I am silent because, whoevers side I stand on, there will be more blood. If I speak up for human rights, they (the Rohingya) will only suffer. There will be more blood."

Only recently has a spokesman for her political party, the National League for Democracy, admitted the Rohingya issue needs to be solved at a governmental level.

"If they (the Rohingya) are not accepted (as citizens), they cannot just be sent onto rivers," party spokesman Nyan Win told reporters, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. He said the Rohingya "can't be pushed out to sea. They are humans. I just see them as humans who are entitled to human rights."

Meanwhile, subsisting on meager allowances and without work permits, some Rohingya are doing as best they can in and around Kathmandu, Nepal's capital. One refugee, Hassan Hassan, told Time that even with its difficulties, being in Nepal is better than being just about anywhere else.

"This is the situation of the Rohingya," says Hassan. "The person who is not a citizen anywhere has no limit to the punishment he can suffer."
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