By Jordan Eng
Myanmar’s continued systemic discrimination and persecution of the Muslim Rohingya people, an ethnic and religious minority living along the northwestern coast of Myanmar, stands as one of the most egregious offenses against human rights today. Although the ethnically Muslim Rohingya people have lived in the Myanmar state of Rakhine for centuries, the Myanmar government and its largely-Buddhist population have consistently treated the Rohingya as mere “foreigners” (Radford 2012). Thus, Burmese nationalism, centered prominently around the country’s non-Muslim majority, has fueled anti-Muslim, and by extension, anti-Rohingya sentiment.
Systemic and cultural discrimination of the Rohingya people rests largely on the fact that they are not recognized as “citizens” of the very state they reside in. Barred from acquiring or retaining citizenship status, the Rohingya people have continually been stripped of some of the most basic and fundamental rights and freedoms afforded to Myanmar’s Buddhist majority, such as the freedom to move, the freedom to equal education and employment opportunities, and the freedom to marry (Fink 2012).
Myanmar’s dismissive stance toward its Muslim Rohingya minority explicitly violates its agreement to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the country signed upon the document’s drafting in 1948. In particular, the state’s selective treatment of the Muslim Rohingya people as disparate from its Buddhist majority represents a blatant disregard for Article 6 under the UDHR, namely, “Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law” (UDHR 1948). When a large subset of a country’s population cannot assume citizenship status, the freedoms and protections associated with such recognition can hardly be realized, assumed, or expected by this subset. In Myanmar, refusal to grant the Rohingya citizenship status bears concrete implications on the Rohingya people’s physical and emotional security; unwarranted murder, arbitrary arrest, and forced labor are just several of many occurrences afflicting this minority.
This singular freedom, the right to be recognized as a person before the law, is crucial to the Rohingya people precisely because existing as and being treated as the polar opposite – a malignant minority to be exposed to the discriminatory whims of government and security forces alike – threatens their well-being. For example, marriages among the Rohingya must be “authorized” by state officials, encouraging many Rohingya couples to bribe authorities to speed up a process that can take several years (Radford 2012). Under the UDHR, Article 16 explicitly posits equal rights, “…as to marriage, during marriage, and at its dissolution” (UDHR 1948). The establishment of selective, unequal treatment differentials between “citizens” and “non-citizens,” the latter characterizing the Rohingya, is embedded in a Burmese nationality that views the Muslim Rohingya as undeserving outsiders.
It is important that Myanmar’s denial of citizenship to its Rohingya minority be regarded and considered with calculated concern precisely because continuing this current policy will both perpetuate the widespread, sectarian violence that endangers a large group of Myanmar’s inhabitants and threaten the overall credibility of international human rights and its proper extension of human rights to all groups and individuals equally, as opposed to selectively. This call to action challenges the Myanmar government to systemically amend its citizenship status of the Rohingya and any discriminatory practices, such as marriage authorizations, and promote integrative equality as opposed to policies and practices rooted in backwards, historical discrimination.
Origins and Current Policy Context
For decades, the Rohingya residing in the Rakhine State in the western region of Myanmar have faced both systemic discrimination and large-scale displacement due to a Burmese, largely anti-Muslim identity that views the Rohingya people as foreigners. One of the most significant pieces of legislation passed into law was the Burmese Parliament’s passage of The Burma Citizenship Law of 1982. Still in effect today, this law designated race as the main determinant of citizenship status and provided a list of races that “qualified” for Burmese citizenship. Despite living in the Rakhine State (formerly known as the Arakan region) for hundreds of years, the Rohingya were not listed, and as such, have not qualified for citizenship since passage of this law (Saha 2000, 38). As a result, the protections (although “limited” relative to those existing in other countries) and freedoms afforded to Myanmar’s Buddhist majority and non-Muslim populations are neither equally nor legally inclusive of the Muslim Rohingya population.
Although the Burma Citizenship Law of 1982 formally barred the Rohingya from achieving citizenship status, discriminatory and displacement practices have been an ongoing trend in Myanmar’s historical treatment of the Rohingya minority. During 1978, the Burmese military buckled down on supposed “illegal” Bangladeshi migrants, an undertaking that proactively displaced native Rohingya in large numbers. Nearly 200,000 Rohingya were displaced, many of them to Bangladesh (Saha 2000, 38). By the early 1990s, nearly 250,0000 Rohingya refugees found themselves in neighboring countries, a large portion of them in Bangladesh. As a direct result of this forced displacement, many refugees reported incidents of torture, executions, confiscated land, and forced labor at the hands of Myanmar authorities (Radford 2012). Anti-Muslim sentiment and a general disregard for the Rohingya has been institutionalized both in policy and practice. The condition has worsened, as Bangladesh has called repeatedly for the repatriation of the tens of thousands of Rohingya that occupy refugee camps within its borders – requests that have been heeded only reluctantly by the Myanmar government.
Myanmar’s current situation certainly seems to posit favorable treatment and more calibrated equality for minority groups such as the Rohingya. Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy made political gains earlier this year (2012) by taking parliamentary seats formerly held by the military regime in place that did not effectively address Rohingya concerns. However, violence against the Muslim minority is still rampant, as demonstrated by the recent conflict that erupted in June 2012. Almost 200 people have died and more than 100,000 Rohingya have been displaced due to violence between Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist Rakhine, the latter of which reside in the same state as the former (Naeem 2012). This continuation of violence reflects Myanmar’s deeply-embedded discrimination and animosity toward the Muslim Rohingya by the country’s Buddhist and non-Muslim majorities and minorities.
Most readily equipped to respond to the Rohingya’s plight is Myanmar president Thein Sein. However, both President Sein and increasingly influential National League of Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi seem to be hindered by the country’s predominantly anti-Rohingya sentiment. President Sein advocated for the deportation of the Rohingya completely from Myanmar, a view that is supported by the majority of the political and civilian elements in the country (Rose 2012). Aung San Suu Kyi, previously positing the equality of human rights and democracy, has not taken a definitive stance concerning the Rohingya, refraining from mentioning the minority group in recent statements despite the flaring of violence and the continued displacement of tens of thousands of Rohingya that started in June 2012 as aforementioned.
Critique of Policy Options
The most egregious policy that stands as a blatant disregard of, and utter disrespect for, universally-accorded, fundamental human rights is Myanmar’s continued citizenship exclusion of the Rohingya minority. The Burma Citizenship Act of 1982 remains as a legal bastion of discriminatory attitude that may seem archaic to outsiders, but continues to reflect the prevailing disposition and cultural sentiment in Myanmar (Larkin 2007). The citizenship law’s lack of recognition of the Rohingya as an indigenous people to be granted protection as subjects recognized under the same laws as the rest of the Buddhist and non-Muslim subsets of Myanmar can only be characterized as a proactively selective, targeted discrimination policy. Despite parliamentary gains made by the National League of Democracy Party in promoting democratic ideals and respect for human rights in rhetoric, these well-to-do intentions are ultimately curbed by a historically-entrenched, anti-Rohingya sentiment that reflects an all too familiar dichotomy between rhetoric and substantive political action promoting equal human rights.
Equally as threatening to human rights as Myanmar’s Citizenship Act (1982) is the Myanmar government’s current declaration of a state of emergency in the Rakhine State on June 10, 2012 (Gayathri 2012), after retaliatory mob violence between the Muslim Rohingya and non-Muslim Rohingya broke out following the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman. According to recent Amnesty International reports (2012), the large deployment of Burmese security and military officials to the Rakhine State has led to the extrajudicial detention, murder, and overall displacement of tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims in the region. By conducting such grave human rights violations, Myanmar’s military officials are merely acting in a targeted manner reflective of the country’s overall anti-Rohingya sentiment.
The recent declaration of emergency has only stoked preexisting flames of discrimination instead of making any progress to calm ethnic and religious tension. Current conflict also reflects the country’s continued reluctance to put in forth a concrete policy with bordering countries such as Bangladesh to account for the tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees that have been displaced by violence and conflict over the years. As mentioned, President Thein’s suggestions during his presidency that the Rohingya population be deported entirely is outrageous, not only when considering the moral and physically-detrimental implications of such a policy on those displaced, but upon realizing that such action blatantly disregards any neighboring countries’ legal structures that have been impacted deeply by such displacement. This is evident in past and current repatriation policies that have been made between the two countries and open statements made by Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina that the refugees are Myanmar’s responsibility. Thus, the Rohingya are caught in the middle, finding themselves displaced by the country that refuses to label them as citizens and a neighboring country that they would much rather stay in due to the former’s discriminatory policies, but simply cannot.
Dispelling anti-Muslim, and more specifically, anti-Rohingya sentiment in Myanmar is certainly not going to happen overnight. Systemic change in the form of granting citizenship status to the Rohingya, coupled with persistent dialogue promoting a policy of equality and integrative cooperation with both its civilian population and neighboring countries retaining large Rohingya refugee populations would best serve the political parties involved, the international community, and the Rohingya as a recognized people.
First, and perhaps most important for the long-term cultural longevity and well-being of the Rohingya minority, provisions must be made to address the citizenship status of both Rohingya residing in Myanmar, and the nearly quarter of a million Rohingya living in refugee camps in bordering countries. This involves the gradual inclusion of the Rohingya as an accepted “indigenous people” under the Burma Citizenship Act of 1982. Steps should be made to curtail existing discriminatory policies in place, such as the marriage authorization requirement that make it mandatory for Rohingya couples to seek official “approval.” Myanmar’s recent declaration of emergency in the Rakhine State must also be oriented toward allowing and providing humanitarian assistance as opposed to uprooting the Rohingya from their homes.
Since passage of its citizenship act, Myanmar’s political and legal disregard for this minority has done nothing but increase both perceived and concrete disparities and inequalities in the country’s treatment and attitude toward the Rohingya people. Barred from accessing the same educational, economic, or social opportunities as their non-Muslim counterparts (Palmer 2011), the Rohingya people have continued to be discriminated against aggressively and violently for far too long for any concerns of increased, retaliatory violence to bear any substantive weight. Certainly, decades-long reluctance regarding the Rohingya cannot be overturned by one piece of legislation, but it will at least allow a large, deserving portion of its population to make appeals and be afforded the same freedoms and opportunities as the rest of the population. Thus far, a population completely stripped of recognition under law – and allotted selectively discriminatory treatment has not decreased any instances of violence.
This gradual amendment to the Burma Citizenship Act of 1982 to endorse the long-awaited inclusion of the Rohingya must be coupled with efforts, made by leaders of the increasingly influential National League of Democracy, to promote an overall sentiment of equality and inclusion. Certainly, full inclusion of the Rohingya, although immediately desirable to human rights proponents within our own organization, is not advisable, given the potential for ethnic backlash from a country that is overtly inclined toward discriminatory practices against its minority populations, such as the Rohingya. Although easier said than done, the mere fact that NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her pro-democratic followers are expected to become a political majority by 2015, their freedom-endorsing rhetoric must be put into practice and implemented in both dialogue with the civilian population and in discussions with neighboring countries (Rose 2012).
While appropriate amendments to the Burma Citizenship Act of 1982 are taking place, equal access to employment and education opportunities, and the allowance of the Rohingya to move freely within Myanmar are key goals that the National League of Democracy political party can begin addressing. The latter is particularly important in order to ensure that humanitarian concerns are addressed, especially given the recent flaring of mob violence, and that refugee “receiving” countries understand this newly-invigorated effort to gradually include the Rohingya through peaceful, equitable measures . Again, this is not expected to happen within a short time frame, but efforts must be made nonetheless. Myanmar’s political and ethical integrity as a state will doubtlessly come into question as the importance of universal, equally-applicable human rights becomes an international standard.
Under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR 1948), Article 6 recognizes the individual’s right “…to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.” This is not the case in Myanmar, where nearly one million Rohingya, barred from citizenship, are treated by a different set of laws than their non-Muslim counterparts. This is largely due to the state’s refusal to recognize the Rohingya as rightful “citizens” of the state, accorded the necessary freedoms and rights as the rest of the country’s inhabitants. Instead of being based on legitimate concerns, its policies – consisting of its citizenship laws and reluctant repatriation policies – have thus far only reflected baseless discrimination rooted in historical, largely-militaristic and anti-Muslim intentions. Such policies and a general sentiment favoring discrimination against the Rohingya population will take a long time to surmount, but with the growing NLD elements as an influential force in Parliament, certain gains can and should nonetheless be pursued. Among many aspirations exists the need for Myanmar to accord the Rohingya citizenship status, while proactively acting on its supposed democratic, liberal policies touted by rhetoric to slowly dispel unfounded bigotry and needless religious strife in a country that has been plagued far too long by violence and repression.
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