This is an excerpt from The Rohingyas by Azeem Ibrahim

A target of choice

There is a clear racial aspect to the overall pattern of legal discrimination against the Rohingyas. However, it must be stressed that the persecution and discrimination against the Rohingyas was not a particular feature of Burma at independence. Instead, they were subject to the official distrust of all non-Burman groups and the situation has been quite deliberately worsened since then. There is ample evidence from the 1950s and 1960s that the Rohingyas were just one of many ethnic groups in the country who faced discrimination, but were also an accepted part of the ethnic patchwork.

One important reason for the change to more direct persecution in the 1970s was that the Burmese Road to Socialism was proving to be an economic disaster. The regime needed an easily identifiable group it could victimise and against which it could construct wider discrimination. The Rohingyas fitted this role. They were unarmed, ethnically easily identifiable, spoke a non-Burmese language and were Muslims in a country where 90 per cent of the population was Buddhist.

Ultimately, the military regime used the concept of a Buddhist identity as the basis of citizenship to deny rights to minorities in Burma. This was done gradually and partially, since there were some groups such as the largely Christian Chin who were unlikely to convert to Buddhism. In the early 1960s this was applied in a limited way as the regime used Buddhism as one pillar of its legitimacy but, as the economy worsened, finding internal ‘enemies’ became ever more important. Further acts in the 1990s imposed restrictions on the Rohingyas, since they were deemed to be foreigners, including limiting them to having no more than two children, introducing forced birth control, and restricting marriage. These restrictions resulted in officials invading people’s homes to check who was living there.In addition, the Rohingyas have no automatic rights to travel, even between townships in Rakhine, without authorisation. Permission to leave the region and travel elsewhere in Burma is very rarely granted.

If this legislation and discrimination was simply a historical legacy of the period of military rule and dictatorship, it might be possible to hope the situation will correct itself as the democratic process develops. However, as we shall see in the next chapter, the shift to democracy has worsened the legal position of the Rohingyas and has seen a dramatic escalation in the violence they face.

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