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Why deadly race riots could rattle Myanmar's fledgling reforms

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Deeply oppressed, deeply resentful

The estimated 750,000 Rohingya, one of the most miserable and oppressed minorities in the world, are deeply resentful of their almost complete absence of civil rights in Myanmar.

In 1982, the military junta stripped the Rohingya of their Myanmar citizenship, classing them as illegal immigrants and rendering them stateless. They are not allowed to leave their villages, nor may they marry, without permission. They are forbidden to have more than two children and for many years the authorities have subjected them to slave labor.

“They have been treated in some of the worst ways possible by a government,” says Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch Asia division.

Rohingya make up around 90 percent of the population of north Arakan, but their Rakhine neighbors dismiss them as “Bengali Muslims” and refuse to acknowledge the Rohingya communal identity that local Muslim leaders have forged over the past half century.

“The Rohingya claims to be an ethnic people is a concern to Rakhines because it might lead them to claim territorial rights,” worries Wong Aung, an ethnic Rakhine exile in Thailand who runs an environmental NGO.

For decades, says Mr. Robertson, Myanmar’s military rulers fanned the flames of communal rivalries to divide and rule while tapping into a strain of Bamar racism that has infected many otherwise openminded and liberal intellectuals. “Too many right-thinking people in Burma seem to have been sucked in by the more extreme sort of propaganda,” he says.

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