RUILI, China â€” Muslim in the South East Asian nation of Myanmar, presently under the international microscope, has for decades been silently suffering from discrimination and a catalogue of abuses.
“They have not been given the same rights as other minority citizens in Burma,” Nick Cheesman, a south Asia expert at the Asia Human Rights Commission, told Agence France Presse (AFP), using Myanmar’s old name.
“Their situation is very bad.”
Myanmar’s Muslims number upwards of five percent of the nation’s more than 50 million people.
The largest group of Myanmar Muslims if the ethnic-Bengali minority, generally known as the Rohingyas.
Less numbered are the Indian-descended Muslims who live in Yangon and ethnic-Chinese Muslims, known as the Panthay.
Rohingyas mainly live in northern Rakhine State, western Myanmar, which is one of seven ethnic minority states formed under the Myanmar constitution of 1974.
But an amendment to the citizenship laws in 1982 deprived the Rohingyas of citizenship, suddenly making them illegal immigrants in their own home.
They have a long history of struggle under the rule of the military that imposed several forms of restrictions and denied their very fundamental rights.
London-based Amnesty International says the Rohingyas are usually used as forced laborers on roads and at military camps.
“They are also subjected to various forms of extortion and arbitrary taxation; land confiscation; forced eviction and house destruction; and financial restrictions on marriage.”
Nearly 20,000 Rohingyas live in two United Nations refugee camps near the Bangladesh border with Myanmar.
Watching startling scenes of the latest crackdown on protesters in his homeland, Sirajul Islam bitterly remembers his own struggle with the ruling military junta.
“Nobody has been able to help me,” he told AFP from his new home in the southwest Chinese town of Ruili.
Islam, now 51, recalls how he was forced to flee his country after helping organize anti-government democracy protests in 1988.
After five months of living as a fugitive at the mountains, the young zoologist fled to neighboring Bangladesh, joining an exodus of hundreds of thousands of fellow countrymen.
“I had to leave; the military was going from home to home looking for me.”
His movement was brutally crushed, with up to 3,000 protestors killed by the military.
“I don’t even know where my friends are buried,” Islam said with tears in his eyes.
For 16 years, Islam lived as one of the 100,000 refugees from Myanmar in Bangladesh, joining a patriotic front that aimed to fight the oppressors back home.
But the group folded, and the unwelcoming Bangladeshi authorities closed in on undocumented Myanmar citizens.
Islam moved two years ago, this time to Ruili, where he owns a small jewellery store.
He is not alone. Ruili is now a safe haven to a growing community of about 10,000 Myanmar traders, mostly Muslims.
Muslims in the small Chinese town sadly follow the current military clampdown on the massive protests led by Buddhist monks against the junta’s rule.
“Things are really bad in Myanmar,” said one Myanmar Muslim at the mosque in Ruili that was built to accommodate the refugees in 1993.
Sitting in his shaded shop, Islam dream of joining fellow compatriots.
“I’m not a businessman. I want to fight for my people, but there’s nothing I can do from here.”