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Rohingya Muslims: Not A Worthwhile Cause For A Nobel Peace Laureate?

June 7, 2015

NEW DELHI: Think Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, and you will automatically think of Aung San Suu Kyi. Suu Kyi emerged from a decades-long term in prison as a symbol of courage, bravery, honesty and democratic principles -- Bono even wrote a song about her. 

Suu Kyi is an active voice critical of the government in Myanmar, sitting in the opposition where she highlights issues such as the slow pace of reform, the need for constitutional change and the importance of human and democratic rights. 

However, google Myanmar and a glaring human rights issue will become obvious. At the time of writing, the country was escorting a boatload of immigrants at sea to a so-called “safe area.” The irony of the matter is that this boatload of people, and thousands others like them, have fled Myanmar because of lack of safety. To make matters worse, they have been denied entry into any other country -- Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Australia -- leaving them stranded at sea for months. 

Meet the Rohingya Muslim -- a minority community that the UN calls one of the “most persecuted minorities in the world.” The extent of the persecution is evinced by the fact that Suu Kyi -- the symbol of justice and human rights in Myanmar -- has never spoken out on the issue of granting the Rohingya their rights. 

Suu Kyi’s position is reflective of the fact that when it comes to politics, human rights are nothing more than a trump card -- used only when it serves political interests. In Myanmar, defending the Rohingya -- 800,000 of whom remain discriminated against based on their birth/identity -- would mean butting heads with the powerful Buddhist nationalist groups. This is a gamble that no politician is willing to take, not even a symbol of human rights, justice and democracy. 

In fact, his continuation of denying the Rohingya the right to a nationality makes direct violence against the Rohingyas far more possible and likely than it would be otherwise. The system’s context lies in the 1982 Citizenship Act, which supersedes all citizenship regimes in Myanmar. The Act created three classes of citizens - full, associate, and naturalised. Full citizenship is reserved for those whose ancestors settled in Myanmar before the year 1823 or who are members of one of Myanmar’s 135 recognized national ethnic groups - which, according to the recent census, continues to exclude the Rohingya. Associate citizenship applies to those who have been conferred citizenship under a previous 1948 law, which requires an awareness of the law and a level of proof that few Rohingyas possess. Naturalised citizenship is applicable to those who have resided in Myanmar on or before 1948, and here too, the Rohingya are denied citizenship as the government of Myanmar retains the discretion to deny citizenship even when criteria are adequately met. 

It is under the legal system and the denial of recognition that the Rohingya continue to remain a stateless people. Myanmar, which as a member nation of the UN is obligated to promote “universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction,” fails to do so for the Rohingyas who are subjected to policies and practises that constitute violations of their fundamental rights and freedoms. They face restrictions on movement, forced labour, land confiscation, forced evictions, extortions and arbitrary taxations, restrictions on marriage, employment, healthcare and education. 

There is an element of political opportunism in reference to the Rohingya in Myanmar. In 1990, Rohingya were permitted to form political parties and vote in multiparty elections. Myanmar even accepted about 250,000 repatriated Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh in 1992 and 1994 issuing Temporary Resident Cards to some. Rohingyas were permitted to vote in the 2008 constitutional referendum and 2010 elections. In fact, in the 2010 elections the voting rights were tied to the promise of citizenship if the Rohingya voted for the military regime’s representatives. However, Rohingyas are yet to be included as a part of any reconciliation programme involving ethnic groups, with Myanmar’s President Thein Sein, in the wake of the 2012 violence, stating that the Rohingya could not and would not be accepted as citizens or residents of Myanmar, going as far as to asking the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to consider placing the Rohingya in camps outside of the country and resettling them to others. While it is true that Thein Sein and other Myanmar officials have had to moderate their position since due to external international pressure, Myanmar continues to violate UN convention by rendering the Rohingya stateless. A relevant convention is the Convention of the Reduction of Statelessness which obligates states to prevent, reduce, and avoid statelessness by granting “its nationality to a person born in its territory who would otherwise be stateless.” The Myanmar government is in clear violation of this convention, with hundreds of thousands of Rohingya having been displaced in the last 25 years. 

It is this system that has perpetuated violence against the Rohingyas in Myanmar, with violent clashes between the country’s majority Buddhist population and the Rohingyas leading to deaths and displacement of the minority muslim community in 2012, 2009, 2001, 1978 and 1992, amongst other instances. In the most recent case of widespread violence in 2012, hundred of Rohingya villages and settlements were destroyed, tens of thousands of homes razed, and at least 115,000 Rohingyas displaced in camps in Myanmar, across the Bangladesh border, or further afield on boats. 

The UN has termed the Rohingyas one of the most persecuted minorities in the world, a condition aggravated by the role of countries such as Bangladesh and Thailand that have turned back genuine refugees, with Thailand’s military being accused in 2009-10 of towing hundreds of Rohingya out to sea in poorly equipped boats and scant food and water after they tried to flee Myanmar. Although Thailand “categorically denies” the charge, the accusations have some merit as about 650 Rohingya were rescued off India and Indonesia, some saying that they had been beaten by Thai soldiers. 

It is under these circumstance that rights groups have alleged that the Myanmar government is supporting a policy of “ethnic cleansing” of the Rohingya, with William Schabas, a member of the International Association of Genocide Scholars saying that “the Rohingya are the prima facie victims of the crime against humanity of persecution,” consisting of “the severe deprivation of fundamental rights on discriminatory grounds.” 

It is a combination of the actions of the Rakhine Buddhist majority and the inaction of the Myanmar government, within the context of a legal system that ratifies, condones, and perpetuates the systematic discrimination of the Rohingya in Myanmar. And there is no one speaking up for them.

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