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Rohingya: denied the right to be human

By Nancy Hudson-Rodd
June 15, 2014

I struggle to comprehend the lack of international response to the sheer hell for Rohingya people whether in squalid Bangladesh camps or in Burma. President Thein Sein and other Burmese Government members, welcomed around the world, continue a well-orchestrated, well-documented plan to destroy every aspect of Rohingya men, women and children’s lives. Individuals are treated as not entitled to be recognised as fellow human beings. The old Nazi phrase “life unworthy of life” comes to mind. 

On 21 May, 2014 the Burma Border Guard Police threw the bodies of two Rohingya men they had murdered across the border. The Bangladesh Guard promptly threw the bodies back into Burma.

On the same day, the Burma Border Guard Police entered Bangladesh, fired on four Rohingya refugees working in a makeshift camp, killing 16 year old Mamed Shaffique. Mamed’s father has not found his son’s body which was taken by the police.

Police need not fear reprisals for their actions. Rohingya are seen not as really human, not deserving to live. No police will be charged with the murder of a defenceless young boy. Mamed’s family, denied any human dignity, cannot perform a proper burial of their son. Mamed was one of 400,000 Rohingya undocumented refugees living in unofficial camps unsupported by the Bangladesh Government, the UN, or international organisations. Another 30,000 documented Rohingya live in official UNHCR camps. For the past 36 years, Rohingya have fled severe persecution in Burma, the largest mass movements in 1978, 1991-92, and 2012.

In 2008, the UNHCR (High Commissioner for Refugees) launched a special initiative on ‘protracted refugee situations’ seeking durable solutions and improvements to lives of long-term refugees. Refugee groups identified as needing special attention included: Afghan refugees in Iran and Pakistan; refugees in Croatia and Serbia; Eritrean refugees in eastern Sudan; Burundian refugees in Tanzania; and Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. All these situations were complex, but UNHCR focused on the most challenging to address, the protracted situation of Rohingya refugees.

The States of Denial: A Review of UNHCR’s Response to the Protracted Situation of Stateless Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh concluded that Rohingya were unwanted in Bangladesh and other countries. They suffer discrimination, exploitation, and severe persecution, including but not limited to, forced labour, extortion, restriction on freedom of movement, absence of residence rights, denial of citizenship, inequitable marriage regulations, land confiscation, limited access to education and other public services in Burma. Rohingya have no place to go. UNHCR lives with the daily paradox of its mandate and earnest desire to help refugees, together with the reality of its inability to alleviate the root causes of their suffering, Burma’s continued pervasive persecution of Rohingya and denial of citizenship.

The UN Special Rapporteur mandate on the situation of human rights in Myanmar was established in 1992, for three reasons, one of which was the continued human rights abuses and such severe restrictions of Rohingya, that tens of thousands were forced to flee the country. UN bodies since have acknowledged what amounts to a state policy of deportation and forcible transfer of Rohingya and the abuses that contributed to it. The UN Global Centre for Responsibility to Protect (14 February 2014) warned that “stateless Rohingya and other Muslims continue to face a serious risk of mass atrocity crimes”.

On May 24, 2014 Nurul Amin, an eight year old boy, returned home with firewood he collected in a nearby Maungdaw Township forest. An out-post army officer stopped him, as he passed by and seized the boy’s wood. When Nurul began to cry asking that his firewood be returned, the officer severely tortured him and then sent him to the Village Administration Office. The boy’s relatives collected the injured boy, who being Rohingya, was denied any medical care or treatment. “The police or other government officials do not think the Rohingya as a human being, otherwise they will not do such things against Rohingya people”, said Anis a local businessman.

The basis of human rights is an existential value, the equal dignity of every person, simply because they exist. Rohingya have been stripped of any fundamental rights, because they are Rohingya. Forced to lose all their uniquely human and personal characteristics, their identity as human beings, as particular individuals, has been taken from them.

Hannah Arendt argues in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) that the discourse on the ‘rights of man’ is relevant only as far as one is included in the category of being ‘human’. To be human, Arendt suggests, it is presumed that one must belong to a recognised nation-state, for only the nation-state is able to protect one as a human in the name of these rights. Arendt makes the distinction between ‘the right to human rights’ and ‘the right to be recognised as having the right to….’. She suggests that the right to be recognised as human be included. She presupposes a distinction between life and existence. The antithesis of existence is an empty void, an indefinable space.

While Arendt applied this insight to the plight of refugees, it clearly applies to the study of crimes against humanity and genocide. Crimes against humanity according to George Kateb in Human Dignity (2011) are the most serious crimes against individual human dignity and the most serious crimes against the morality embedded in human rights, a total abrogation of human rights. The extreme will to deny humanity of a targeted group, genocide, grows out of ideologies and elaborate fantasies that congeal into revulsion and bottomless contempt for the persecuted group that result in their degradation.
“As a nation, Myanmar is committing numerous crimes including systematic persecution and discrimination, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and genocide” according to leading international experts, Rohingya refugees, and the UN Special Rapporteur for Myanmar at The London Conference onDecades of Persecution and Destruction Myanmar’s Rohingya (28 April 2014). Conference participants and global citizens, including me, endorsed a global call to end Rohingya genocide.

Meanwhile in Burma, Rohingya continue to be crushed. The Census under Minister Khin Yi’s direction had no category Rohingya denying their very existence. Burma also forbade any mention of “the Rohingya issue” at the May ASEAN summit hosted in NayPyiTaw, as they demanded at the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ January meeting.

Despite government denial of Rohingya citizenship, or humanitarian aid, or freedom of movement, or of holding Rohingya prisoners of conscience, the UN Sec-Gen at the first Partnership Group on Myanmar meeting in New York (25 April 2014), welcomed a Myanmar delegation headed by Khin Yi, Minister of Immigration and Population, “to better reflect the positive developments on the ground”. The Sec-Gen reiterated continued full support to the Government of Myanmar, by the whole UN system.

Decades of prolific documentation and government denial responses to UN and other credible reports mean that the former Burmese military regime, the current government, and the UN members are well aware of allegations of egregious human rights abuses against Rohingya.

Nations continue to express their optimism about government reforms despite abundant evidence of state atrocities and continued systematic repression. Leo Kuper explains in the preface to Genocide: A Critical Bibliographical Review (1991), a technology of denial developed by member states of the United Nations, has frequently been used to shield various favoured rights-abusing governments.

Witnesses to the long standing serious injustice, systematic policies and acts of oppression, including UN member states, are complicit in the unfolding genocide of Rohingya. It is time to act. There should be an end to impunity.

Nancy Hudson-Rodd PhD, a human geographer, has conducted over a decade of research on arbitrary land confiscation and other human rights abuses in Burma. She is an honorary research fellow at Edith Cowan University and a university associate at University of Tasmania.

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