Larry Jagan, Foreign Correspondent
BANGKOK // A United Nations envoy has expressed deep concern about the persecution of Myanmar’s Muslims by the authorities. “There is no doubt that there is severe discrimination of Muslims,” the UN special rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar, Tomas Ojea Quintana, said after visiting the west of the country where Muslims are concentrated.
During his five-day mission, Mr Quintana, an Argentine former labour rights lawyer, visited Sittwe, capital of northern Rakhine state, and Buthidaung, one of the state’s main towns and site of the most serious allegations of persecution and repression of the Muslims, often known as Rohingya.
This is the first time a senior UN envoy has been allowed to visit this region although the UN and international aid organisations do have projects and people in the area.
“There have been many allegations levelled at the authorities, so it was important for me to be able to see the situation firsthand,” he said.
While he was there he also visited a prison, which was a real revelation, he said during an interview on the weekend.
“The prison was full of women, some still nursing their young children,” he said. Most had been charged with immigration offences and received sentences of up to five years. But human-rights groups believe they are victims of the government’s ban on Muslims marrying.
“Men are often jailed for illegal marriages, but many, especially women, are arrested after travelling illegally [across the border] to Bangladesh to get married,” said Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, which monitors the situation of Rohingyas in the region.
The UN envoy raised the issue of the alledged ban on marriage with the authorities, both locally and in the Myanmar capital, Naypidaw, and received the same answer. Muslims, like everyone, have the right to marry, but they have to have the correct birth certificates and citizenship papers.
This is the crux of the matter, according to human-rights groups and aid workers who know the area and monitor the situation there.
“Myanmar’s Muslim minority are subject to systematic persecution: they are effectively denied citizenship, they have their land confiscated, and many are regularly forced to work on government projects,” said Benjamin Zawacki, Amnesty International’s Myanmar researcher based in Bangkok.
“The regime creates conditions and circumstances that make it clear to the Rohingyas that they are not wanted or welcome in the country,” he said.
More than 300,000 Rohingyas are in camps or hiding in neighbouring Bangladesh to escape the persecution across the river in Rakhine, according to the UN. More than 700,000 Rohingyas still live in Myanmar.
Mr Quintana singled out Rakhine for his visit after persistent stories of persecution that included forced labour, extortion, land confiscation, travel restrictions, banned marriages and unregistered children. On his last visit to Myanmar, in 2009, his request to visit the area was denied.
Because the authorities refuse most Rohingyas permission to marry, many live together after a traditional Muslim ceremony. The children born from these couples are denied registration and citizenship – making them non-persons.
Mr Quintana took up the issue of citizenless children in his last report to the UN in November and pressed representatives of the regime on it again during this visit, but with little result.
“The issue of unregistered children is serious as their numbers keep growing,” Ms Lewa said. “What is the future of these children? Without being registered, they won’t be able to apply for a travel permit, marriage, and so on. They are all potential refugees.”
Mr Quintana’s visit to Rakhine was a significant concession by the regime. “I received a lot of independent information from various sources before I went there, and I find them very credible.”
The envoy said he did not have time to verify all the claims in the reports, but from what he saw he believed they were relatively accurate. “And I hope by visiting there I can help highlight the plight of Myanmar’s Muslims,” he said.
Overall, the UN envoy was downbeat about his trip. “Political prisoners, of which there are more than 2,100, will not be released anytime soon,” he said. “The government continues to deny that there are any prisoners of conscience in their jails.”
Mr Quintana wanted to impress upon the authorities that the release of all political prisoners before this years planned elections was essential if the electoral process was to be convincing.
“These are well-educated and capable people who could participate in the election and help make the whole process credible, I told the authorities,” he said.
Mr Quintana did not hold out much hope of change in Myanmar in the near future.
Myanmarese officials would not discuss the elections in detail even though it was evident that preparations for the polls were already in full swing. All that the men in charge of the elections would say was that the legal framework was being prepared and the electoral law would be finished in time.