By C.R. Abrar
March 23, 2014
FOR investors, corporations and governments of the West, the last couple of years were perhaps the beginning of the best of times in Burma. The opening up of the economy and the concomitant liberalisation of the country's political process has been welcome by all. Such moves of the Burmese government have been reciprocated by rather quick return of the one-time pariah state back into the comity of nations as evidenced in the high level visits by the who's who of the world.
While the west celebrates its success in bringing the one time reclusive yet brutal regime to engage in democratic civility, facts emerging from just leaked confidential state documents provide the uncomfortable fact that the Burmese leadership has been engaged in a sustained insidious campaign against the Rohingya population of the Arakan state.
The world had heard and wished to believe that the events that unfolded in the Arakan state and beyond in 2012 and 2013 were aberrations rather than outcomes of deliberate policy of the Burmese and Arakan state governments. Arguments were also made that such occurrences were orchestrated by those who are opposed to the democratisation process. The regime was at pains to make the world believe that it was doing its best to bring order and harmony to the region. The recently published document by the Bangkok based Fortify Rights has debunked all the above claims and rationalisations of the regime and its apologists. In effect, the Report establishes the fact that expulsion of the Rohingyas has been a carefully planned agenda of the Burmese leadership both at the State and the national levels and there is no evidence that they have abandoned the pursuit of that agenda.
The publication validates the contention that the “state and the central government authorities are responsible for denying Rohingyas fundamental human rights by limiting their freedom of movement, marriage and childbirth, among other aspects of the daily life.” Fortify Rights report provides evidence that protracted human rights violations result from state policies and “could amount to crime against humanity...”
In total, the Report identifies twelve internal government documents, eight of which outline official policies targeting Rohingyas in the Arakan state. Three among them are 'regional orders' issued between 1993 and 2008, five are addenda to those orders. The other four documents relate specifically to Muslims who live outside the Arakan state.
It may be noted that reports published from to time in the past by various offices such as the UN Special Rapporteurs and agencies, international human rights organisations and news agencies had referred to these Orders, but so far they had remained unpublished. The policies incorporated in the report all point to the Burmese authorities' determination of cutting the lifeline of the Rohingyas so that their existence in that country become unsustainable.
The Report reveals that an important aspect of the government concerns has been 'population control' of the Rohingyas. The security forces were empowered and provided with guidelines to resort to abusive practices in order to check the birth rate of the Rohingyas. The Regional Order 1/ 2005 outlines a strict two-child policy for those Rohingyas “who have permission to marry” as well as “to limit the number of children, in order to control the birth rate so that there is enough food and shelter.” Under the Order, Rohingyas were also barred from having children out of wedlock. Needless to say, such a draconian policy has resulted in serious hardship for women and children as they had to resort to illegal and unsafe clinics resulting in serious consequences and even death.
Another “population control” related edict authorised officials to force Rohingya women to breastfeed infants in the presence of soldiers. This was to be implemented “if there is suspicion of someone being substituted (in the family registry)” in order to confirm the women are the birth mothers and to accurately record the mother of the children in each family.
The released documents bring out in the open the official policies pertaining to marriage of the Rohingyas. Between 1993 and 2008 the Rakhine State authority fine tuned a number of measures and developed a consistent policy document named “Requirements for Bengalis (Rohingyas) who apply for Permission to Marry.” It detailed ten requirements that Rohingyas needed to meet in order for the authorities to approve a marriage request. The Rohingya community found the conditions humiliating and prohibitively expensive. Fortify Rights and other activists have argued such stiff policy violates the right to marriage as articulated by Article 23 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is pertinent to note that no other ethnic community is required to seek permission for marriage. That makes the Order discriminatory against the Rohingyas.
Restrictions on freedom of movement of the Rohingyas were the concern of a few other Orders. These measures brought major hardships to the Rohingyas as they severely curtailed the scope to eke out a living under a very difficult condition. They also constrained them to seek medical attention outside their places of habitat. The Orders essentially barred movement of Rohingyas within and between townships without prior authorisation. They also made travel outside the Arakan state even more difficult as further stipulations were imposed for securing permission for that kind of travel. Again, a close scrutiny would reveal that these restrictions on freedom of movement are in conflict with international human rights standards.
A number of leaked documents inform that breaches of the Orders would amount to criminal offense. The penalties range from several years of imprisonment or fine or both.
There is a strong case to argue that the Orders and the restrictions scripted in those documents are still in force. Senior functionaries of the central government and those of the State government of Arakan have made approving references to those Orders in their private and public pronouncements, particularly during and in the aftermath of recent spates of violence of 2012 and 2013. Fortify Rights provides evidence that in 2011 the then minister of defence cited these Orders and so did the minister of home affairs on July 31, 2012 on the floor of the Parliament. The latter said that the Burmese authorities were “tightening the regulations [against Rohingyas] in order to handle travelling, birth, death, immigration, migration, marriage, construction of new religious buildings, repairing and land ownership and right to construct building [sic[ of Bengalis [Rohingyas] under the law.”
It is widely acknowledged that the new leaders of Burma are continuing the policies of their predecessors to attain the goal of ridding Arakan of the undesirable Rohinygas. In the pursuit of this policy, instead of rescinding the harsh and illegal Orders framed by the junta, they continue to uphold and nurture them. These policies have brought untold sufferings to the Rohingyas, making them the most vulnerable minority community of the world.
Prima facie evidence has been established that in dealing with the Rohingyas the Burmese leadership has engaged in acts of 'crime against humanity.' It is time the international community, particularly the West, exerts meaningful pressure on the Burmese leaders to reverse their Rohingya policy. The world must come to terms with the counter factual that the best of times for the western corporations in Burma is paralleled by the worst of times for the Rohingya population. Inaction in the face of expulsion of the Rohingyas will indeed be a blot on humanity's conscience as was the extermination of the Jews in Nazi Germany.
The writer teaches International Relations and coordinates the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit, University of Dhaka.