The plight of Rohingya Muslims,who are fleeing Myanmar, was thrust into the spotlight last month after thousands of migrants were left stranded at sea with little food and water. Long denied citizenship by the government of Myanmar, shocking images have emerged in recent weeks of hundreds of Rohingya migrants drifting at sea in fishing boats after failed attempts to leave for Malaysia. Thailand, which was used as a smuggling route by human traffickers, has cracked down on the trade and a senior Thai officer has been charged for abetting trafficking.
The Rohingyas are a Muslim ethnic group, living in the north-west of Arakan (Rakhine) state in Myanmar for decades. They are not recognised as citizens of Myanmar and the Ne Win government officially denied their citizenship in 1974. They face persecution in the Buddhist-majority country and many live in crowded camps. Though the political and economic relationships among the countries have strengthened since the 1990s, relations between Myanmar and Bangladesh have often been soured by the Rohingya issue. Rohingyas have suffered from oppression at the hands of the Myanmar government and the Myanmar army. They have fled en masse to Bangladesh twice, via the Naf River. There were 1.5 to 2 million Rohingya refugees in 1991. These exoduses were largely resolved by agreements on repatriation between the two governments and relief operations by the UN. However, Myanmar’s military government has no intention of accepting returnees as a national minority, and instead, classifies them as illegal immigrants. The Bangladesh government fears having to accept more refugees and has been strengthening the border patrol system but has not been able to stop the daily movement of the Rohingyas from Arakan to Bangladesh.
Upon achieving independence from Britain in 1948, Myanmar struggled with armed ethnic conflict and political instability for a long time. In 1962, a military coup resulted in a single-party, socialist military state that would last for more than 60 years. During that time, the Myanmar army committed numerous human rights violations by killing, raping and torturing the state’s Rohingya Muslim population. This resulted in mass expulsions in 1977 and 1992, creating a chronic refugee crisis in Bangladesh. Many of the Rohingya were forced to return to Myanmar; instances of excessive force by the Bangladeshi security forces and the Myanmar troops resulted in some deaths. Those who returned were granted limited rights regarding movement and employment. Thousands remain displaced even today, surviving on international humanitarian aid while continuing to endure brutal oppression by state border guards, including forced labour, arbitrary detention and beating.
The Rohingya people’s plight is further exacerbated by their statelessness. The Citizenship Act of 1982 codified the legal exclusion of the group, by denying them citizenship rights on account of their alleged non-indigenous ancestry. Widespread social prejudice against the group informs the lack of political will to repeal this law, which has resulted in additional injustices and inequalities. As non-citizens, the Rohingya can only possess Foreign Registration Cards, which are rejected by a number of schools and employers. The government has also restricted their rights to marry, own property and move freely, which are guaranteed to non-citizens under international law. Human rights violations continue till today despite the election of a civilian government in March 2011.
International human rights advocates and political leaders have called for accountability, prompting several visits by UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights, Tomas Ojea Quintana. Quintana visited Myanmar in March 2010 and called for the establishment of a UN Commission of Inquiry to investigate the issue. Quintana reiterated this appeal in 2011, but to no avail. In June 2012, sectarian violence erupted. Initially, the state security forces refused to protect the Rohingya at critical moments, resulting in scores of deaths and displacement of hundreds of people. The security forces also participated in the persecution. During the conflict, the state’s media published inaccurate, anti-Rohingya accounts of the violence. Following the violent outbreak, Myanmar’s President Thein Sein recommended the mass expulsion of the Rohingya to other countries or UNHCR camps, demonstrating the lack of official accountability and refusal to acknowledge the persecution. Moreover, Myanmar officials and security forces responsible for the human rights violations were never prosecuted. In August 2012, Quintana called for the formation of a ‘truth commission’ to examine Myanmar’s human rights violations, describing it as crucial for democratic transition and national reconciliation. Whereas tribunals and international courts focus on criminal justice, truth commissions are aimed at reaching a compromise between former abusers and their victims.
Truth commissions are preferable in politically unstable countries, where the prosecution of criminals could undermine peace. In addition to the truth commission, Quintana also urged the Myanmar government to ease restrictions on the movement of Rohingyas. Although President Thein Sein did not establish a truth commission, he appointed a National Human Rights Commission in September 2011. The Commission, which did not include a single Rohingya representative, was responsible for receiving and investigating human rights complaints. While investigating the violence in June, the commission found no government abuses, showing a lack of impartiality. It also concluded that all humanitarian needs were being met, while ignoring the issues of Rohingya citizenship and persecution.
In October 2012, violence erupted again in towns that had not been previously affected. Security forces and local officials participated in the mayhem again, resulting in the destruction of Rohingya villages and thousands were killed, injured and displaced. Myanmar officials also obstructed Rohingyan access to markets, food and employment. UN and humanitarian aid workers, perceived as sympathetic to the Rohingya, were arrested and threatened. Violence also erupted this March, rendering approximately 13,000 people homeless, according to the UN. Over 120,000 internally displaced persons are currently living in temporary shelters, with limited access to food, medical care, sanitation and other necessities. According to reports, medical personnel in the camps have encountered alarming numbers of severely malnourished children and cases of diarrhoea. Access to clean drinking water remains a concern due to the continued threat of violence.
More than 75 percent of the world’s population dwells in countries where state restrictions on religious freedom prevail. Despite laudable strides towards democratic reform, Myanmar is among those nations. The religious intolerance is directed toward the Rohingya Muslim population. The UN has long characterised the Rohingya Muslims as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities. Anti-Rohingya and anti-Muslim sentiment has long tainted the state’s political and social spheres. The escalating violence recently has not only exacerbated the humanitarian crisis of the Rohingyas, but has also threatened to undermine Myanmar’s transition from military rule to democratic governance.
This issue adversely impacts global security as well. The Pakistani parliament has unanimously passed a resolution condemning the genocide of the Rohingya Muslims and called upon the UN to intervene and stop human rights violations in Myanmar. The international community as a whole needs to ensure the protection and religious freedom of the Rohingyas. With millions expended in humanitarian aid, the UN must address the conflict’s underlying causes by averting further human rights violations in Myanmar. The UN must enhance regional stability and global security by conferring citizenship to Rohingyan Muslims, along with protection and freedom of religion.