Today’s post will attempt to highlight a human rights issue with a pressing need for further advocacy.
The Rohingya are an ethnic, linguistic, and religious minority group residing in the North Arakan State within Burma (Myanmar). Numbering around 725,000, they profess Sunni Islam, and although they are one of Burma’s numerous ethnic minorities, due to these differences they are effectively denied any citizenship rights under Burmese law. This brings with it dire consequences for the majority of this minority.
Since the Burmese government brought in their ‘Citizenship Law’ of 1982, the vast majority of the Rohingya have been considered neither ‘full’, ‘associate’, nor ‘naturalised’ citizens under Burmese law, and this has led to a situation where they are effectively denied any basic, fundamental human rights, often in the most confronting of circumstances. The Rohingya face violations of their human rights in the form of rape, torture, extrajudicial killings, restrictions on movement, forced labour, confiscation of land, extortion and arbitrary taxation, bans from employment in civil service and education, as well as effective denial of rights to marriage.
The denial of their citizenship thus equates in Burma to a denial of their fundamental human rights, and their consequent ‘statelessness’ means that not only do they face persecution at the hands of their own government, but also their protection cannot be guaranteed when to flee the abuse of rights within their homeland they migrate across the porous border to neighbouring Bangladesh. There, only around 28,000 Rohingyas are recognised as refugees and benefit from protection and assistance (albeit limited) in two camps overseen by the UNHCR. However, it is estimated that up to 200,000 more Rohingyas live outside these camps and are considered ‘irregular migrants’ by Bangladeshi authorities, and therefore they can gain no access to official protection.
This raises a problem inherent within the very nature of the international human rights system: sovereignty. Here, the Burmese government can hide behind the protective shield of sovereignty and impose its own citizenship requirements and restrictions, in doing so effectively denying the Rohingya any basic human rights and committing heinous violations of those rights. Due to the Rohingya’s statelessness and the concurrent sovereignty of Bangladesh and other neighbouring countries, these states can effectively deny the Rohingya fundamental protections, and in the end these peoples end up lost and without a home, having to decide their fates based on the lesser of two evils and facing persecution and/or inadequate protections of even their basic rights whichever way they turn.
Living in a world today with a global community that prides itself on being rights-respecting and helping those in need, why is nothing more being done for the dispossessed Rohingya? When the Burmese government appears to be undertaking what is arguably similar to other infamous and ghastly ‘ethnic cleansing’ programs carried on throughout horrific parts of our history, where is the international outcry and condemnation here that was so apparent in the past? While current affairs often speak of the Burmese government’s complete and utter disrespect for any semblance of democratic notions (especially in their treatment of Aung San Suu Kyi), why is there simultaneously not more advocacy for these most downtrodden of peoples?
The concept of sovereignty within the international system as raised above is something that does and will continue to do much damage to this minority, for as long as the Burmese government can continue to impose its own citizenship requirements as a ‘sovereign’ state, the vicious and tragic cycle of dispossession and violations of human rights for the Rohingya would seem to continue on. Surely in such circumstances the international community should forego its concerns with the ‘sovereign’ nature of the Burmese government’s dominion over citizenship matters and undertake real action in this area to improve respect and recognition for these peoples’ rights, for without such action the Rohingya will remain dispossessed and devoid of rights.
This is unacceptable.