JEDDAH // Myanmar's Rohingya ethnic group, a Muslim minority in the predominantly Buddhist country, are described by the United Nations as one of the most persecuted groups of people in the world. Each year thousands flee the country for Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Middle East. Many of the Rohingya have sought refuge in Saudi Arabia. Today there is a community of about 300,000 there. "I can't go back to Myanmar; I've never seen Arakan, where my family grew, with my own eyes. I have no relatives there and my children know nothing about their country anymore," said Sheikh Noor Al Zubair Shams al Haq, at the Al Rusaifah District community centre in Mecca where the Rohingyans conducts meetings and gatherings.
Mr al Haq, who has lived in Saudi Arabia for nearly 50 years, is one of the kingdom's Burmese Muslim refugees. The community is caught in a decades-long limbo, unable to return to what was once their homeland and condemned to languish on the peripheries of their adopted society. Next year will be a significant one for Saudi's Rohingya as one of their most prominent leaders and advocates, Sheikh Abu al Shamaa Abdul Majid, is set to retire from the Muslim World League in Mecca, where he has worked since 1980. His residency permit will be revoked upon his retirement and he may be forced to leave the kingdom.
Mr Abdul Majid, 57, and many other Saudi Burmese who cannot renew their residency permits, are now waiting for the Saudi government to grant them special permits by royal decree or a direct order from the minister of interior that will allow them to stay in the country legally. The Rohingya must meet strict requirements to be considered legal residents. While the earliest Rohingya refugees were granted citizenship, those born in the kingdom after 1972 were not. Most of them were given passports by the sympathetic governments of Pakistan and Bangladesh but were required to find work sponsors to live legally in Saudi, which many Rohingya have not been able to maintain.
Mr Abdul Majid believes many of the Burmese in the kingdom would like to return to their country if the government recognised stateless Muslims as a minority and gave them citizenship. Yet he knows that many others who were born and raised in Saudi Arabia will not leave what has become their home. "Rohingya can't go back to Myanmar simply because the majority were born in Saudi and have no roots there," said Sheikh Abdullah Marouf, a young leader of the community who was born in Saudi and cannot speak the Rohingyan language fluently.
A study conducted in 2007 by the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Institute of Hajj Research in Mecca showed that 74 per cent of Saudi's Rohingya would refuse to return to Myanmar under any circumstances, 12 per cent declined to answer and 14 per cent said they would go back only under very specific conditions. Mr Marouf said those conditions include the right to full citizenship, the right to practise Islam publicly and the return of their properties that were confiscated by the military regimes that have ruled the country almost exclusively since the 1960s.
Last year the governor of the Mecca region, Prince Khalid Al Faisal, announced that King Abdullah had approved a plan to grant legal-resident status to immigrants in Mecca region, where 98 per cent of Burmese in the kingdom live. Prince Faisal did not name a particular ethnic group in his announcement, but he said the government would grant resident status to "those who fled to protect their religion and the Kingdom accepted them because of religious oppression in their homeland".
No further news has been issued on the plan and Maj Gen Mansour Al Turki, the interior ministry spokesman, declined to comment on its latest developments. According to the official website of the Burmese community in Saudi, the first Rohingyan immigrants arrived in the kingdom in 1948, entering on foot from neighbouring Yemen and Jordan. The state gave them legal stay permits and some were granted Saudi nationality.
Mr Abdul Majid's family moved to Saudi in 1954, two years after he was born, and was granted legal resident status as it was among the first Burmese groups to arrive. But a decree issued two decades later forced Rohingya older than 18 who were not born in the kingdom to obtain a non-Saudi passport. Only about 2,000 of Saudi's Rohingya have citizenship. Without residency permits, their children cannot enrol in public schools. Mr Abdul Majid said Burmese children attend charity schools created for the community by Saudi donors and wealthy Burmese.
The Rohingya, thought to be descendants of 7th century Arab settlers, unsuccessfully agitated for Arakan to become part of East Pakistan as the British left India. They were declared "non-natives" by the Buddhist regime and mass killings followed. Thousands fled the country and hundreds of thousands more fled in the 1970s and 1990s after the junta launched military operations against the group. Since it came to power in a violent coup in 1962, Myanmar's military dictatorship has imprisoned and mistreated many of its people, regardless of their ethnicity or faith. The Rohingya, however, have been singled out for especially cruel treatment.
Reports released by the human rights group Amnesty International showed that Rohingya still living in Myanmar suffer serious human rights violations including forced labour, forced eviction, land confiscation and severe restrictions on freedom of movement. "Arakan became a huge jail for Muslims," Salim Ullah Hussein Abdul Rahman, the president of the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation, who represents the Rohingya at the Organization of the Islamic Conference, said during a recent visit to Saudi Arabia.
"The international community didn't pay much attention to us and the Muslim world is too busy with the Palestinian cause, although the Burmese Muslims in Arakan live in much worse conditions than Palestinians in Israel," he said. Next year, Myanmar is set to hold its first national elections in nearly 20 years and the democratic opposition has promised Mr Abdul Rahman that if elected, they will grant the Rohingya official minority status and allow them to return as citizens. But there is little optimism among the Rohingya of Saudi Arabia that the junta will concede their power.