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9549News from Myanmar and Rohingya Muslims: Myanmar 'loses ten million people' in census

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  • Zafar Khan
    Sep 3 11:47 AM
      Myanmar 'loses ten million people' in census
      Figures extrapolated from last census in 1983 estimated population at 60 million, but new count finds only 51.4 million.
      Last updated: 30 Aug 2014 07:00


      Myanmar has discovered it has only 51 million people - far less than the previously estimated 60 million, according to preliminary results of the latest census.

      State-run television, which announced the initial findings of the country's first census in three decades on Friday, said complete results would be released next year.

      The census, conducted from March 30 to April 10 with help from the UN Population Fund, counted 51.42 million people.

      The previous estimate of 60 million was based on extrapolations from the last census, conducted in 1983.

      The tally went smoothly, except in some areas of the western state of Rakhine where an estimated 800,000 members of a long-persecuted Muslim minority were denied the right to identify themselves as "Rohingya".

      The government says they are illegal migrants from Bangladesh and calls them "Bengalis".

      The census contained 41 questions, the most controversial of which was number eight on ethnicity, providing a list of 135 to choose from. The Rohingya option was not on the list.

      Some isolated parts of northern Kachin state controlled by ethnic rebels were not counted, the AP news agency reported.

      Burmese refugees wary over Thailand's changes
      New ration reductions and movement restrictions have refugees from Myanmar anxious about their future in Thailand.
      Dene-Hern Chen Last updated: 21 Aug 2014 09:58


      Tha Song Yang, Thailand - Eight years ago, Saw Thi Say, 45, and his family left their home in Myanmar and relocated to a refugee camp in Thailand. They had endured the ongoing conflict between Myanmar's army and various ethnic groups in his country's northern state of Shan .

      When the Burmese army confiscated their farmland in 2006, Saw Thi Say decided it was time to flee to the Thai border.

      "We were forced to destroy our own crops and then they forced us to grow crops for [the army]," Saw Thi Say said. "So we came here. Our youngest was three at that time."

      Mae La refugee camp, the largest in Thailand, is home to more than 40,000 people and stretches across 184 hectares along the mountain ranges of western Thailand. In operation for three decades, the majority of its residents - some of whom have lived there for just as long - are ethnic Karen who fled fighting.

      "We need our children to get a good education and to have a good quality of life," the father of four daughters told Al Jazeera.

      Saw Thi Say and his family thought life would be easier in Thailand. Although he no longer hears gunshots at night, he said living in Mae La remains challenging.

      Thailand's military seized power on May 22, and since that time has cracked down on migrants from neighbouring countries such as Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar. These moves have many refugees in Thailand wondering what's next for them.

      Reduced rations

      At first glance, the Mae La camp resembles a rural town, with row after row of bamboo-stilt houses lining the mountainous terrain. Rising in the early morning, refugees head to the bustling market area, which is located by the camp's entrance and manned by Thai soldiers. Within the market's centre are the ration stations, where refugees line up waiting to receive rice and cooking oil.

      However, rations at the camp have recently been reduced because of dwindling donor funds, and, in the last two months, restrictions imposed by the Thai authorities have increased. Additionally, a population census carried out in July has left most of the camp's residents worried about what changes its results may bring.

      A lack of communication between the authorities and residents has fuelled rumours about the intention of the census, leaving the refugees in a heightened state of anxiety for their future.

      These new fears compound the already-precarious situation for refugees living in one of Thailand's nine border camps. For families such as Saw Thi Say's, the task of obtaining a good education for their children is saddled with daily difficulties.

      "In [Myanmar], we were oppressed by the military government," Mary, Saw Thi Say's wife, said. "Now here, we feel the same, oppressed by the Thai military."

      Restricting movement

      Law Ba Htoo, 39, has lived in the camp since 1992, when he also fled Karen State in Myanmar to escape fighting.

      Since the Thai military banned residents from leaving Mae La to seek work, the community has been left to fend for themselves, he said. They worry that their attempts to gain additional income would backfire, causing them to lose their refugee status.

      "People cannot leave the camp at all now. Even if we try to go out, we have to get permission from the Thai authorities," he said. "Among all the camp people, we are very worried that we will be sent back, and then we would have to be registered as refugees again."

      Law Ba Htoo's application for resettlement in the United States was also approved in October of last year; he and his family have been eagerly preparing for a new life in Dallas, Texas.

      However, Law Ba Htoo has not heard anything from the US since March. He is worried that the recent population census will affect his status in the country.

      "They don't share this information with us," he said. "The people who stay in the camp, they mostly want to resettle in the US because the restrictions by the Thai military are bad for our lives."

      The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) was not involved or consulted by the Thai government in the headcount, said UNHCR senior coordinator Iain Hall, who explained that authorities have said the census was done to ascertain the actual number of refugees living in the camps.

      "UNHCR has shared its concern that refugees are very anxious about the purpose of the headcount, and therefore that they should be better informed," said Hall, adding the new Thai government has not stated any changes in its refugee policy.

      Census concerns

      Duncan McArthur, partnership director of The Border Consortium - a non-governmental organisation that distributes rations to the refugees - said while he doesn't expect the census to affect ration allocation, the reasons for it ambiguous.

      "The actual purpose remains unclear but there haven't been any punitive outcomes to date," McArthur said in an email.

      According to The Border Consortium's population records, there are more than 58,000 unregistered refugees in nine camps - almost 50 percent of the total camp population.

      "The vast majority of unregistered refugees appear to have fled from the effects of conflict just like registered refugees before them," McArthur said. "It is not clear how unregistered refugees will be treated on this occasion, but they remain more vulnerable to discrimination than registered refugees."

      Thai army spokesman Colonel Werachon Sukondhadpatipak told Al Jazeera the population census would also determine which refugees are moving in and out to work in Thailand illegally.

      "They need to be able to control the movement of the refugees living in the camp, for those moving out and moving in," Werachon said, adding the military would not forcibly deport anyone.

      "We have to work with many organisations, including the UNHCR," he said. "We also need to work closely with the Myanmar authorities to find the right time to send them back."

      Decaying hope

      But camp residents remain in the dark, and view both the Thai and Myanmar governments' plans for them with mistrust. Saw Wah, 34, has been living in Mae La for 15 years and is accustomed to, yet frustrated by, the constant dearth of information.

      "When things change, I have to follow the situation to look out for my life," he said. "Things are never stable for us."

      With his rations recently reduced, Saw Wah said he had hoped his small grocery store in the camp might bring in extra money. But now, his business has been affected by the restrictions.

      "There is no transparency between [the Thai authorities] and the camp people. This issue confuses everyone - the entire camp feels this way," Saw Wah said, his two-year-old daughter on his knee. "It decays my hope and my purpose."

      Enumeration of Rohingya population a ‘complete failure’, census observers say
      By Tim Mclaughlin | Friday, 22 August 2014


      International observers of the nationwide census conducted earlier this year have called the enumeration of Rohingya Muslims a “complete failure”, saying the process fell short of international standards in Rakhine State where the minority group was barred by the government from self-identifying.

      The independent Myanmar Census Observation Team has warned that the omission of the Rohingya from the count could leave significant holes in data on the marginalised group.

      “The exclusion of the Rohingya/Bengali population from the census enumeration poses serious methodological problems,” the Census Observation Mission report issued by the 47-member group on August 14 said.

      “The resulting undercount will not only have a negative impact on the census results at the state and region levels but also at the national level if the missing population is not included, based on a proper count.”

      Daw Khaing Khaing Soe, the director of the Ministry of Immigration and Population’s census technical team, declined to comment on the report’s findings. Minister for Information and spokesperson for the President’s Office U Ye Htut did not respond to request for comment.

      A spokesperson for the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), which supported the census, said that the census technical advisory board had discussed a number of options to rectify the undercounting in Rakhine State during a meeting in July. One option would be to estimate populations based on mapping done prior to the census. Other possible solutions are still being considered.

      The census, which ran from March to April, was the first nationwide count to be conducted since 1983.

      Originally the government had said that it would allow for Rohingya to choose “Other” on the question of ethnicity, then self-identify. But on the eve of the census the government back-tracked, saying that it would not count those who attempted to identify as Rohingya.

      The government does not recognise the term Rohingya. The group is not one of Myanmar’s 135 official ethnic groups, and Rohingya are barred from becoming citizens under the 1982 Citizenship Law. The government uses the name Bengali to refer to the group.

      This refusal to accept self-identification, the Census Observation Team said, led to enumerators not collecting any data, or collecting only partial data, from some households that identified as Rohingya.

      The UNFPA accused the government of reneging on its commitment to the census process when it announced in March that it would not accept Rohingya as an ethnicity.

      “In its agreement with the United Nations ... the government made a commitment to conduct the exercise in accordance with international census standards and human rights principles,” the UNFPA said in a statement at the time.

      “It explicitly agreed with the condition that each person would be able to declare what ethnicity they belong to.”

      Data on ethnicity collected during the census will not be released until after the 2015 elections, according to Daw Khaing Khaing Soe.

      The government has insisted that the delay is due to data-input difficulties after a higher-than-expected number of people chose not to identify as one of the 135 listed ethnic groups during the census.

      But critics of the census have said that there are political motives behind withholding the data – particularly a fear that it could inflame tensions in Rakhine and other ethnic states.

      Members of the independent observer team visited all 14 states and regions of the country, where they observed a total 2193 census interviews being conducted.

      Rohingya children in Myanmar camps going hungry
      Published: 8 Aug 2014 at 17.59 | Viewed: 9,803 | Comments: 2Online news: AsiaWriter: Esther Htusan / AP


      OHN TAW GYI CAMP, Myanmar — Born just over a year ago, Dosmeda Bibi has spent her entire short life confined to a camp for one of the world's most-persecuted religious minorities. And like a growing number of other Rohingya children who are going hungry, she's showing the first signs of severe malnutrition.

      Her stomach is bloated and her skin clings tightly to the bones of her tiny arms and legs. While others her age are sitting or standing, the baby girl cannot flip from her back to her stomach without a gentle nudge from her mom.

      "I'm scared she won't live much longer," whispers Hameda Begum as she gazes into her daughter's dark, sunken eyes. "We barely have any food. On some days I can only scrape together a few bites of rice for her to eat."

      Myanmar's child-malnutrition rate was already among the region's highest, but it's an increasingly familiar sight in the country's westernmost state of Rakhine, which is home to almost all of the country's 1.3 million Rohingya Muslims.

      More than 140,000 have been trapped in crowded, dirty camps since extremist Buddhist mobs began chasing them from their homes two years ago, killing up to 280 people. The others are stuck in villages isolated by systematic discrimination, with restrictions on their movement and limited access to food, clean water, education and health care.

      Even before the violence, the European Community Humanitarian Office reported parts of the country's second-poorest state had acute malnutrition rates hitting 23% - far beyond the 15% emergency level set by the World Health Organization.

      With seasonal rains now beating down on the plastic tents and bamboo shacks inside Rohingya camps, the situation has become even more miserable and dangerous for kids like Dosmeda.

      Naked boys and girls run barefoot on the muddy, narrow pathways, or play in pools of raw sewage, exposing them to potential waterborne diseases that kill. Some have black hair tinged with patches of red or blond, a tell-tale sign of nutrient deficiency commonly seen in places experiencing famine.

      After a 10-day visit to the area last month, Yanghee Lee, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, summed up what she saw.

      "The situation is deplorable," she said.

      Improving relations, deteriorating conditions

      Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist nation, only recently emerged from a half-century of repressive military rule and self-imposed isolation. Despite occasional expressions of concern, the US, Britain and others in the international community have largely stood by as conditions for the Rohingya deteriorated.

      Some ambassadors and donor countries say privately that coming down too hard on the new, nominally civilian government will undermine efforts to implement sweeping reforms and note there has already been a dramatic backslide. Others don't want to jeopardize much-needed multi-billion dollar development projects in the country.

      But their hesitancy to act has emboldened Buddhist extremists, now dictating the terms of aid distribution in Rakhine.

      Last month, even Bertrand Bainvel, country representative for the UN's children's agency - which says the number of severe malnutrition cases has more than doubled between March and June to reach nearly 1,000 cases - apologized for the use of the word "Rohingya." It was uttered during a presentation about projects for kids in Rakhine, rather than the government-insisted term "Bengali."

      He promised that UNICEF would not use the word again, those present at the meeting said, though he sidestepped repeated queries from The Associated Press about the incident.

      The government claims ethnic Rohingya are illegal migrants from neighboring Bangladesh and denies them citizenship, even though many of their families arrived generations ago. With their dark South Asian features, they are looked upon with disdain by the vast majority of the nation's 60 million people. Even Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, whether for reasons personal or political, has remained largely silent as members of the religious minority have been chased down by knife-wielding mobs.

      Conditions in the camps - and elsewhere in Rakhine - went from bad to worse in February after the government expelled their main health lifeline, the Nobel-prize winning Doctors Without Borders. A month later, other humanitarian groups were temporarily evacuated after extremist Buddhists stormed their residences and offices, saying they were giving Muslims preferential treatment. Many have since returned, but their operations have been severely restricted.

      Doctors Without Borders has remained barred. In a move apparently timed to US Secretary of State John Kerry's arrival in Myanmar on Friday, the government said the aid group could get back to work, though it remains unclear when that will happen and what conditions will apply.

      Reshma Adatia, Holland-based Doctors Without Borders operational adviser, said Kerry and other foreign ministers attending a regional meeting in Myanmar this weekend should pressure the government to allow all aid groups to return immediately without restrictions.

      "It's important for foreign governments and international actors to really push that access to essential humanitarian assistance is required, and it's required today," she said. "We're talking about hundreds of thousands that are at risk right now."

      Withering away

      The father of Dosmeda, the malnourished baby, died at sea while working as a fisherman just before she was born. After Buddhist mobs attacked the family's home, her pregnant mother, Ms Hameda, moved into the Ohn Taw Gyi camp outside Sittwe.

      Unable to work, and without a husband to help, she had a hard time finding enough to eat in the months leading up to her due date. When the baby was born, the 18-year-old mother was unable to produce milk.

      "I could only give her what adults ate - rice or ground-up fish,'' Ms Hameda said of her first child. "But the food rations we got were small. Sometimes we didn't get any at all."

      She knew her baby was sick, but she didn't understand malnutrition was to blame. "She just kept getting skinnier and skinnier," she said.

      The first two years of a child's life - when the brain and body are developing - are critical for physical and mental development. Without adequate nutrition, little girls like Dosmeda are prone to stunting, a condition that will shape the rest of their lives. As adults, they are weaker, prone to illnesses and have limited cognitive capacity. They are also likely to be less productive on the job, studies show, earning lower wages that keep them stuck in poverty.

      Dosmeda is now getting help from France-based Action Against Hunger, one of the only foreign aid organizations that has been allowed to continue operating in the camps. But she continues to wither, looking worse by the day. The baby is the only family the young mother has in the camp, and she's desperate to save her.

      "All I can think about all day is my daughter. How can I help her? How can I make her healthy, give her a longer life?" Ms Hameda said. "If something happens, I don't know what I'll do. I don't think I can live without her."

      Burma Muslims Abandon Mosques in Ramadan
      OnIslam & Newspapers
      Wednesday, 09 July 2014 00:00


      CAIRO – As millions of Muslims across the world rejoiced the spirituality of Ramadan, persecuted Burma Muslims are terrified to visit mosques amidst the spate of attacks they have been facing since the start of the holy month.

      “I don’t know what the situation is for security of the mosques; I haven’t been to the mosque since July 2,” one Muslim man, who asked not to be named, told The Myanmar Times on Wednesday, July 9.

      Violence erupted last week in Mandalay when about 300 Buddhists including 30 monks attacked a Muslim-owned teashop in the area over an alleged rape of a Buddhist woman by Muslim men.

      The Buddhists, who threw stones at Muslim properties, have ransacked several Muslim-owned shops, homes, and a mosque, damaging at least three cars and injuring several residents in knife attacks.

      Mandalay attacks have left two killed and 20 injured, the police revealed.

      Mosques were the latest victim of the sectarian violence in Mandalay, after being abandoned by worshippers over security fears.

      Several police raids of mosques have doubled the fears of Muslims, especially after seizing their makeshift weapons that Muslim use to defend their community.

      “We cannot defend ourselves despite the threats to our lives. Now we are afraid of even holding a piece of brick,” said one of the Muslims prays at Ko Yan Taw mosque.

      Muslim leaders insist that their community should have the right to defend itself “if necessary”.

      “We are really scared and we dare not go outside,” the secretary of the board of trustees of Ko Yan Taw mosque U Khin Mg Aye said.

      “We have the right to protect our children but the police took sticks from our mosques. As a result, we’ve posted three men to guard the mosque.”

      After police raids of several mosques Chan Aye Thar San township, it has arrested at least five persons.

      Moreover, hundreds of Muslims, who used to live in the Taw mosque compound, have fled after Buddhists attacks.

      “All 58 households [between 400-500 people] left the mosque and went to Pyin Oo Lwin and Kyaukme. Some people who can afford it have now gone to Jiegao on the China-Myanmar border,” U Khin Mg Aye said.

      Safer Areas

      Mosques in the northern parts of Mandalay are still frequently visited by worshippers during the holy fasting month.

      “There are many Buddhist people in our ward, we all lived together for many years,” said U Khin Mg Than, an official from northern Mandalay’s Miba Zey mosque.

      “Near our mosque, there is Naga monastery and Hmankin monastery. They told me to come and stay in their monasteries if anything happens,” he said.

      Yet, the signs of religious coexistence in the north were tainted by anti-Muslims’ online campaigns that are led by extremist Buddhists.

      In other cases, sedition is being fostered by extremists who distract Muslims while praying.

      In Chan Mya Tharsi township’s Myothit ward, a person screamed that there was fire near Tho-chan mosque, forcing all Muslims to get out of the mosque.

      “When our Muslims came out from the mosque [after hearing] that shouting, the person then shouted, ‘The Muslims are coming out of the mosque with weapons,” a Ko Zaw Min Tun, a Muslim man from the education centre Tip Top.

      Burma’s Muslims -- largely of Indian, Chinese and Bangladeshi descent -- account for an estimated four percent of the roughly 60 million population.

      Muslims from around the world are fasting from dawn to dusk during the holy month of Ramadan which started earlier this week.

      Muslims entered Burma en masse for the first time as indentured laborers from the Indian subcontinent during British colonial rule, which ended in 1948.

      But despite their long history, they have never fully been integrated into the country, widely considered as foreigners.

      Last week’s violence is not the first to target the religious minority in Burma.

      In April 2013, more than 40 people were killed and several mosques were burnt in central Burma after a dispute between Muslims and Buddhists in Meikhtila.

      Rohingyas fear Myanmar citizenship checks
      The government says it needs to make sure refugees are not migrants from Bangladesh but Rohingyas fear more persecution.
      Last updated: 01 Jul 2014 05:20


      Myanmar's government has started a citizenship verification for Rohingya Muslims in the state of Rakhine, which they say is aimed at weeding out what it calls "illegal immigrants".

      Many Rohingya Muslims worry the checks are a tactic to futher persecute them and strip them of citizenship.

      Al Jazeera's Florence Looi reports from the Baw Du Pha refugee camp in Sittwe.

      Facebook in Myanmar: Amplifying hate speech?
      Since violence erupted in 2012, Facebook users in Myanmar have fanned anti-Muslim sentiment.
      Hereward Holland Last updated: 14 Jun 2014 12:10


      Yangon, Myanmar - A nest of laptops in a shabby downtown apartment here acts as the modest, but passionate, command centre of Myanmar's battle against hate speech.

      White flowers stand in a glass bottle on a table surrounded by volunteers sitting cross-legged, lit up by their computer screens.

      The group of young people work for Panzagar, a new civil society organisation dedicated to countering the tide of online vitriol with flower power or, more accurately, flower speech.

      "Now, compared to the military regime, we have some freedom, there is no censorship, and we can use the internet and write whatever we want on the Facebook," said Panzagar's Nay Phone Latt. "But at that time there are so many people who misuse the freedom of expression."

      In 2013 he founded Panzagar, which means "flower speech", in response to the wildfire of anti-Muslim sentiment that has spread across the southeast Asian nation in the past two years, sparking deadly clashes.

      Some 250 people were killed in the ensuing violence and more than 140,000 are living in displacement camps. The overwhelming majority of victims hail from the minority Muslim Rohingya population, although some Buddhist monasteries, homes and businesses have also been burned down in revenge attacks.

      "Since the violence in Rakhine state began, we can see that online hate speech is spreading and becoming more and more critical and dangerous," said Wai Wai Nu, a civil society activist. "I think Facebook is the most effective way of spreading hate speech. It's already very widespread, infecting the hearts of people."

      Panzagar organises online and distributes posters, pamphlets and stickers in the street, discouraging people from spreading hatred in society by literally putting flowers in their mouths.

      "Freedom should have limitations if your freedom harms others," Latt said, scrolling through some xenophobic Buddhist Facebook accounts, many of which are created under pseudonyms.

      'Muslim dogs'

      One comment by Khine Thu Rain Myo read, "We should kill every Muslim. No Muslims should be in Myanmar."

      A response from Zawzaw Min asked: "Why can't we kick out the Muslim dogs?" - a term often used by extremists to denigrate the Muslim community in Myanmar.

      According to Voices that Poison, a US-based human rights group, speech that describes victims as vermin, pests, insects or animals is a rhetorical hallmark of incitement to violence, even genocide, because it dehumanises the victim.

      Free speech is very much a novelty in a country emerging from half a century of draconian censorship and international isolation.

      In the past three years, as the former military regime has loosened its grip, a sense of Buddhist besiegement and corollary intolerance has been allowed to blossom. Internet hate speech has a limited reach in rural areas where most of the violence has erupted, but that is expected to change dramatically in the next few years as more of the country gains internet access.

      Although it's on the cusp of an information revolution, Myanmar still straddles the analogue and digital worlds. Bank clerks still use the telegraph office in Yangon to send coded messages around the country. The government, meanwhile, has announced multi-billion-dollar telecommunications and oil block licenses via Facebook - but asked for responses to a draft bill on religious conversion by fax.

      The Irrawaddy magazine has called the Myanmar government's spokesperson, Ye Htut, the "Facebook Minister" for his frequent use of the social media site.

      Just a few years ago, SIM cards cost thousands of dollars - but Qatar-based Ooredoo and Norway's Telenor hope to put a cellphone in the hands of 90 percent of the country's 60 million people within five years, up from the current share of less than 10 percent.

      "There are ethics to using Facebook," Ye Htut wrote on his page this month. "The posts we write on our own should not be those that spread hate speech or personal attacks."

      Buddhist 'besiegement'

      Nearly 90 percent of Myanmar's population follows Theravada Buddhism. The monkhood is deeply revered here, and beyond reproach. Many monks believe Myanmar's Buddhist identity is under threat and their teachings are widely accepted, creating a mentality of victimhood and besiegement.

      Ashin Kumara, a senior monk, claims his country is at risk from Islamisation, echoing the attitudes of many other Buddhist nationalist leaders across the country. Despite the absence of evidence, he believes the minority Muslim Rohingya population in the west of the country is attempting to carve out a separate state for themselves, and that Muslim population growth is outstripping that of Buddhists.

      "[Rohingya] come out from the mosque chanting slogans of 'kill the [Buddhist] Rakhine, this land is our land, we must seize Rakhine lands and become part of Bangladesh'," Ashin Kumara told Al Jazeera at his monastery in Yangon.

      Kyaw Min, president of the Democracy and Human Rights Party, a Rohingya political party, firmly rejects these allegations. He blames political elites for underwriting both online and offline religious rancour, and using the ensuing violence to discredit the democratic reform process.

      "Rohingya are not demanding that," Kyaw Min told Al Jazeera by telephone. "This is just an illusion, an excuse to suppress the Rohingya. Islam is not advancing. [This idea] is a creation of a group of vested interests for a political objective."

      Echo chamber of hate

      A post on a Facebook page allegedly curated by Ashin Wirathu, a leader of the chauvinist anti-Muslim "969" movement, claims "all terrorists are Muslim … they kill innocent men and women so peace and Islam are not related". The post was shared 136 times.

      There are both social and technical reasons why Facebook has gained immense traction in Myanmar. The website requires low bandwidth to load, is easy to use for non-English speakers and handles Myanmar fonts well compared to other social media like Twitter.

      For a nation emerging from decades of paranoid authoritarianism, Facebook is a particularly popular medium for sharing news, information and ideas, said Matthew Schissler from Paung Ku, a civil society organisation.

      The way people use Facebook aligns closely with practises long established for surviving during the authoritarian era, Schissler explained. "Rumour and word-of-mouth information are more credible than the news and government announcements in a place where censorship and propaganda have long been the norm. Social media adds a megaphone to this," Schissler told Al Jazeera in an emailed response to questions.

      He worries, however, that Facebook could become an echo chamber where people self-select information sources to rationalise and reinforce the kind of ideology that helps spark mass violence.

      "It is very difficult to pinpoint exact evidence that Facebook is fuelling hate speech, but the web has certainly made it easier for misinformation and harmful narratives to spread across boundaries at a faster rate," said Aela Callan, a journalism fellow at Stanford University who has worked for Al Jazeera.

      Furthermore, Facebook - which boasts 1.2 billion users worldwide - does not proactively moderate content, leaving that job to its users.

      Instead, Facebook focuses on two things: giving people tools to reach out to the person who posted the content and responding to reports of content that violate their standards, said Facebook spokesman Matt Steinfeld.

      People can now report abuse in Myanmar language, he said. "We're always looking for ways to help people address content on Facebook that concerns them," Steinfeld wrote in an email to Al Jazeera.

      All sides agree that allowing the government to regulate social media would be a step backwards, capitulating to the idea that Myanmar isn't ready to embrace the freedom and responsibility of democracy.

      Few people understand the dangers of government regulation more than Nay Phone Latt. Under the junta he spent four years in jail for his online activism, under laws that still exist.

      "If we don't regulate ourselves … they will take the power back," he said.

      When will the world act on Myanmar's abuses?
      Myanmar's treatment of Rohingya Muslims amounts to 'ethnic cleansing' and 'crimes against humanity'.
      Last updated: 28 Apr 2014 06:38
      Emanuel Stoakes
      Emanuel Stoakes is a freelance journalist and researcher whose principal area of interest is human rights and conflict.


      Commentaries by respected journalists, analysts and rights advocates appear to have consensus that the reform process in Myanmar appears to be slowing, if not completely stalled.

      It seems like a reasonable observation - evidence in the form of unresolved land confiscation issues, continuing sexual crimes perpetrated with impunity by the military, poor treatment of the press and the drafting of discriminatory laws give credence to this state of affairs.

      Most of all, highly credible allegations of crimes against humanity committed against the Rohingya minority underline the country's enduring backwardness on urgent moral issues. The offences continue to this day, perpetrated as a matter of long-standing state policy.

      By any yardstick, abuses that reach this threshold ought to elicit serious international pressure and shouldn't be allowed to drag on open-endedly, especially if the country responsible looks set to receive a growing flood of foreign investment.

      Yet, this is exactly what is happening in Myanmar and there are no indications that accountability will be realised in the near future.

      The government has shown blatant disregard for the issue by placating extremist groups who have long been calling for the ethnic cleansing of the minority; continuing to limit their basic human rights; denying that a horrendous massacre took place in the face of compelling evidence to the contrary; systematically restricting aid; publicly defending a well-known anti-Muslim and anti-Rohingya hate preacher; and allowing total impunity to reign in the aftermath of violence committed by state forces.

      A humanitarian crisis

      Their response to a humanitarian crisis taking place in Rakhine amounts to more of the same.

      Aid organisations had to flee en masse in the wake of mob attacks last month and are only just returning as the rainy season approaches, bringing with it the added risk of cyclones and the spread of water-borne diseases.

      Evidence in the form of leaked minutes from meetings between Myanmar authorities and NGO representatives indicate that efforts to alleviate the shortage have been hampered by government agencies. The material also records how the same authorities have provided totally inadequate replacement cover and even turned down offers of increased funding to boost their capacity.

      The effect of the absence of NGOs, including Medecins Sans Frontieres who were expelled in February by the government, has been dramatic. Carlos Saldina Galache, a journalist colleague who recently visited the internally displaced persons (IDP) camps in which over 140,000 Rohingya are confined, told me that the lack of aid has created a humanitarian situation that has "gone from bad to worse…The IDPs are basically deprived of everything, they have no healthcare at all, and suffer shortages of food and water".

      "People are dying because of this," he added, echoing the terse summaries of NGO sources I also consulted on the impact of the aid shortage.

      Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch, whom I spoke to recently on the crisis in the camps, referred to the situation as a "humanitarian disaster with its roots in ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity and systematic discrimination".

      "It's time for the international community to act decisively and apply maximum pressure on the Burmese government to reverse this rapidly deteriorating situation before it's too late," he continued.

      A ticking time bomb

      In my view, Robertson's call for global action is more than appropriate given the current situation - moreover, such efforts should be directed towards ending government-backed policies of persecution more generally. Myanmar simply cannot be expected to change its abusive posture on the minority of its own accord, not least because of the populist utility of anti-Rohingya policies to a ruling party terrified of losing next year’s election.

      As a consequence, the only "solution" to the Rohingya problem that the political elite in the capital, Naypyidaw, appear to be willing to envisage at the present time is a counterfeit one. Hmuu Zaw, a spokesman for President Thein Sein, has indicated that the government is willing to review the citizenship claims of the Rohingya, but only according to a junta-era law that was designed to disenfranchise the minority, and for which only a small number will be able to prove they are eligible.

      This may be the only answer Myanmar will offer to its foreign critics, but such a response will ensure that the present conditions for the overwhelming majority of the group will remain as miserable and persecutory as before. If such a gambit is attempted, it should not be readily accepted by influential foreign powers.

      In the analysis of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), international criticism of Myanmar's treatment of the Rohingya has "helped to prevent further deterioration" in their treatment and remains an "essential" part of efforts to aid them. External political forces that have leverage over the government, such as the EU and the United States, should continue to push for measures that protect the vital rights of the Rohingya as a whole if they sincerely wish to ease their plight.

      Indications are that the need for this will only increase in the near future. Before long, tensions are likely to skyrocket; this is because the recently-extended census contains a hidden time-bomb of sorts, constituted by the data it will eventually release on religious demographics.

      As some journalists have indicated and other sources speak of in ominous terms, the population survey will probably reveal that a far higher number of Muslims than has been previously estimated live in Myanmar. The current level is often cited as 4 percent of the population; credible projections indicate that up to 12 percent may be a more accurate figure.

      Such a revised percentage would undoubtedly play directly into the hands of political actors like Wirathu, the notoriously racist monk who is regarded as the spiritual leader of the influential Buddhist-chauvinist 969 movement. The narrative presented by him and his colleagues has been that adherents of Islam are attempting to take over Myanmar through a variety of sinister means, including attempts to outbreed their Buddhist counterparts. The largely Muslim Rohingya, who are heavily concentrated in areas near the border with Bangladesh, are often paradoxically associated with this sort of practise.

      The inevitable fall-out from the census revelations will almost certainly mean increased internal pressure on the government to restrict Muslim freedoms within the country and result in heightened sectarian tensions.

      Such prospects, perhaps counter-intutively, should prompt less careful diplomacy on the issue of Rohingya rights and more direct, unrelenting foreign pressure; the impulse to wait until the national mood changes will mean unjustifiable delays - widespread prejudice towards the group is not going to disappear anytime soon.

      After decades of abuse, encompassing at least three ethnic cleansing campaigns, the time is more than ripe for an increase in diplomatic efforts to ensure the survival of this long-persecuted people.

      Myanmar's Rohingya face a humanitarian crisis
      Displaced Muslim Rohingya do not have adequate access to healthcare or clean water.
      Carlos Sardina Galache Last updated: 19 Apr 2014 16:50


      Sittwe, Myanmar - Ruk and Kun Suma were born five minutes apart on March 27 in a camp for displaced Rohingya in Rakhine State, a northwestern province of Myanmar. Their mother, an emaciated 40-year-old woman named Noor Begun, suffers from tuberculosis and is unable to breastfeed them. The family cannot afford milk either. For the first two weeks of their lives, Ruk and Kuma received only cheap coffee creamer from the tip of Noor's fingers.

      The twins need urgent medical care to survive, but there are no medical doctors stationed in the nine overcrowded camps near Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State, where more than 75,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) live.

      Since the explosion of violence in June 2012 between the Rohingya Muslim minority and the Rakhine Buddhist majority that left 140 dead, entire villages razed to the ground and at least 140,000 IDPs - the overwhelming majority of them Muslims - the Rohingya living in the camps have relied on aid provided by international agencies.

      In early March, Myanmar's government decided to expel Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF-Doctors Without Borders) from Rakhine State after the NGO declared it had treated 22 people in the remote Maungdaw region who were injured in beatings and knife attacks. At least 40 Rohingya had been killed there by Rakhine mobs and Burmese security forces in January, according to the UN and human rights groups. The Myanmar government, which has not allowed independent observers to access the area, forcefully denies the attacks took place.

      Presidential spokesman Ye Htut said the government would not extend the NGO's permit to operate in Rakhine State, and accused it of not being transparent and giving preferential treatment towards "Bengalis" - the term the government and many Myanmar citizens use for the Rohingya, implying they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, despite the fact they have been living in Rakhine for generations.

      The Rohingya were rendered stateless by a citizenship law passed in 1982 and, according to a report recently released by Fortify Rights, have been the victims of crimes against humanity at the hand of Myanmar's government and local authorities.

      The expulsion of MSF deprived 750,000 people, including Buddhist Rakhines but mostly Rohingyas, of virtually any healthcare - and has led to dozens, if not hundreds, of deaths. The situation got worse a month later when mobs of infuriated Rakhines attacked the offices of several aid agencies in Sittwe, after a worker from Malteser International took down a Buddhist flag from the organisation's office. About 150 international workers from Malteser and other organisations were evacuated from Rakhine, and have not yet returned.

      Controversial census

      Tensions in Rakhine state mounted in the weeks before the national census held from late March to early April, the first such count since 1983. Partly funded by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the census has been marred by controversy from the beginning.

      The Washington-based Transnational Institute stated in a detailed report that "the census promises to compound old grievances with a new generation of complexities".

      In late January, the government assured that everybody would have the opportunity to choose the ethnicity they wished, including the Rohingya, according to international standards - against the opposition of the Rakhine community.

      There were even negotiations between the Ministry of Immigration and Population and a Rohingya Census Supporting Committee about employing Rohingya census workers in Muslim areas of Rakhine State.

      "The Committee offered the Ministry of Immigration a list of Muslim enumerators on December 20, but they refused, claiming that some in the list didn't hold National Registration Cards. A second list was submitted on January 31, this time composed of people with cards and higher education for consideration, and the ministry said it would consider it, but they refused to accept Rohingya enumerators on March 13, alleging pressures from the Rakhine," a person close to the negotiations told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity.

      "I think that the government deceived the Rohingya Committee for months and led it to believe that the Rohingya enumerators would be accepted to prevent Rohingya leaders from organising any movement to oppose the census," concluded the same person.

      Eventually, the government sent Rakhine enumerators surrounded by security forces to conduct the census in Rohingya areas of Arakan state. And, on March 30, three days after the attacks against the aid agencies in Sittwe, it announced it would not accept the Rohingya ethnicity in the census. UNFPA issued a statement expressing its concern about the decision, but did not withdraw funding.

      According to several Rohingya interviewed by Al Jazeera in the IDP camps, when the enumerators visited them, they first asked for their ethnic group. When they answered "Rohingya", they simply said "thank you very much" and left, excluding at least 800,000 people from the census.

      Aid withdrawn

      Today, the IDPs have more urgent things to worry about than being counted in the census. The government has not yet issued travel authorisations to Rakhine state for international workers. The Myanmar government has not been able to fill the gap left by the international organisations and there are even allegations from a witness of the negotiations between the government and the WHO Health Cluster for Myanmar - the body that coordinates policies among different humanitarian groups and UN agencies in the country - that the Myanmar authorities are actively undermining the resumption of aid in Rakhine state.

      Aid might yet return to Rakhine, but for many it is already too late. Noor Alam was a one-year-old boy who died on April 6 in the Ohn Taw Gyi camp near Sittwe.

      "He woke up with diarrhoea one day, and was dead the next night," he mother, Hadija Begun, tol Al Jazeera. "There was nothing we could do, as we haven't seen a doctor here for many days."

      Now she worries that the same fate could await her three-year-old son, Sayed Noor, who, like many others in the camp, suffers the same condition as Noor Alam. Hadija said the cause of her children's illness is the shortage of drinkable water. This is an opinion shared by many others in the camp, and one of the concerns expressed by the UN, as the disruption of aid has coincided with the peak of the dry season.

      Better conditions for others

      Meanwhile, conditions look much better for Rakhine Buddhists in IDP camps such as Satyokyak, in the outskirts of Sittwe. The camp shelters 3,000 people living in houses built by the government. The houses, one for each family, have electricity and are elevated to avoid being flooded during the rainy season, in contrast to the dwellings for Rohingya IDPs.

      Moreover, the Rakhine IDPs enjoy full freedom of movement and are allowed to go downtown to work, unlike the Rohingyas, who are confined to specific areas. And the Rakhines can go to Sittwe General Hospital, where Rohingya have been refused treatment by the Buddhist staff. There is also a clinic set up by the government in the camp.

      According to U Tun Sein, a Rakhine Buddhist who heads the camp committee, the World Food Programme used to provide a sack of rice for every family each month, but "the situation is the same since the NGOs left the state, we don't have any problem, because the NGOs didn't help us before anyway".
      There is a widespread and long-standing perception among the local Buddhist population that humanitarian groups are biased in favour of the Rohingya. And declarations from government officials echoing this idea have done little to dispel such a belief.

      Many of these organisations have denied accusations, saying that they provide aid according to the necessities of people regardless of ethnicity or religion, but since the outbreak of violence in June 2012, Rakhine organisations have held several demonstrations against foreign agencies operating in the state.

      "We don't want aid from NGOs. They give very little to the Rakhine community and much to the Kalars [a derogatory term used to refer to Muslims and people of Indian origin in Myanmar]. We don't want any help from them," said U Tun Sein.

      In any case, as U Tun Sein recognises in the Rakhine camp, "There are no cases of malnutrition in the camp or any important health issues here."