THE plight of Rohingya Muslims fleeing Myanmar, also known as Burma, was thrust into the spotlight last month after thousands of migrants were left stranded at sea with low supplies of food and water.
Long denied citizenship and freedom of movement by the government of Myanmar, shocking images have emerged in recent weeks showing hundreds of Rohingya migrants drifting at sea in fishing boats, as part of a failed attempt to leave for Malaysia. Thailand, which was being used as a smuggling route by people traffickers, has cracked down on the trade and a senior Thai officer has been charged in connection with trafficking.
The Rohingyas are a distinct Muslim ethnic group mainly living in the northwestern part of the Arakan (Rakhine) state in Myanmar bordering Bangladesh since 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 majority Buddhist country, where many live in crowded camps.
Though the political and economic relationships among the two countries have been strengthened since 1990s, the ties between Myanmar and Bangladesh have often been disrupted by the Rohingya issue. Rohingyas have suffered from oppression under the Myanmar government and the Myanmar Army (Tatmadaw). They fled en masse to Bangladesh twice by crossing the Naf River on the border.
The Rohingya refugees numbered between 1.5 to 2 million in 1991. These exoduses largely were resolved through agreements on the repatriation between the two governments and relief operations by the United Nations as well as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). However, Myanmar military government has no intention to accept those returnees as a national minority and instead classifies them as foreigners or illegal immigrants.
The Government of Bangladesh which fears of accepting another mass exodus of refugees has been strengthening the border patrol system, but has actually not been able to stop the daily continuous trespassing of the Rohingyas from Arakan to Bangladesh.
The human rights and humanitarian condition of the Rohingya is further exasperated by their official statelessness. The Citizenship Act, enacted in 1982, codified the legal exclusion of the Rohingya, presently numbering approximately one million, by denying the group citizenship rights.
The Act officially recognizes 135 national races that qualify for citizenship. The Rohingya Muslims are not included on that list and as such are denied the full benefits of citizenship on account of what the Myanmar government has described as their non-indigenous ancestry. Widespread societal prejudice against the group informs the historical (and contemporary) lack of political will to repeal the law.
Both private and state actors continue to persecute the Rohingya Muslims even with the country’s current democratic transition. International human rights advocates and political leaders have called for accountability, prompting several related visits by United Nations 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 Myanmar’s violations of international humanitarian and human rights law and to recommend appropriate redress.
Truth commissions are preferred where political stability is fragile and prosecution of criminal perpetrators may undermine peace. While Myanmar 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 on the panel, was responsible for receiving and investigating human rights complaints. It was tasked with investigating the June outbreak of violence, and found no government abuses, thus evidencing an absence of impartiality.
As such, perhaps it should strike no one as surprising that communal violence against the Rohingya continues to escalate. The United Nations has long characterized the Rohingya Muslims as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.
By way of background, antiRohingya and anti-Muslim sentiment has long tainted the state’s political and social spheres. More recently, escalating violence has not only exasperated the humanitarian crises confronting the Rohingya Muslims, but it also threatens to undermine the Myanmar transition from one-party military rule to democratic governance. It adversely impacts global security too.
Though the Pakistani parliament has unanimously passed a resolution condemning the genocide of and atrocities being committed against Rohingya Muslims and called upon the United Nations to intervene to stop human rights violations in Myanmar but it is the world body that needs to ensure the protection and promotion of freedom of religion and press for the elimination of all discriminatory provisions to the 1982 Citizenship Act.
With millions expended in humanitarian aid, the UN must address the conflict’s underlying causes by averting further human rights violations in Myanmar, enhancing regional stability and global security with conferring citizenship upon Rohingyan Muslims with protection and promotion of freedom of religion.