The Rohingya people are an ethnic Muslim group that inhabit a small section of the Western corner of Myanmar, and have done so for many years. Yet despite claim to the land, and deep roots of settlement, the Rohingya are not even considered Burmese in name. They exist in a precarious state with no guarantees of security, stability or even survival. This longstanding issue has worsened considerably over recent years, and indeed months, with diminishing political representation, increasing violent attacks against them and their enforced isolation from the outside. They remain the most persecuted minority in the world.
Officially deemed ‘stateless people,’ the Rohingya are denied nationality under Myanmar’s controversial 1982 Citizenship Law. To obtain recognition, they are required to show documentation that they have lived in Myanmar for over 60 years. However, coming from one of the poorest and most under-developed states in the country, Rakhine, this has proven near impossible for the Rohingya. Without citizenship they remain in suspended animation, routinely denied basic rights to work, study, practise religion or access vital health services. Their political persecution and severe state-imposed restrictions mean that the cyclical issues of poverty, disease and destitution have permeated deep into the fabric of life in the Rakhine state. It is estimated that around 140,000 Rohingya are forced to live in ghetto-like temporary camps prohibited from moving by the government. They are also frequently exposed to numerous human rights abuses, including a renewed crackdown in recent months with mass arrests, torture, forced removals and widespread reports of looting and rape. This is on top of the on-going discrimination and violence from militant Buddhist nationalists which has flared up many times, most prominently in April 2013 when 43 people were killed in four days of violence following a Buddhist led riot. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that the Rohingya are effectively cut off from the world, as access to international observers and humanitarian agencies is severely restricted.
In February 2015, before the country’s national elections, the Rohyinga had their Temporary Registration Cards revoked, amounting to effectively having their entire identities revoked. Up to one million people were barred from voting in the November 2015 elections, and the matter was further worsened when nearly every Muslim candidate was removed from standing. An entire community was disenfranchised from political life, closing any hopes that democracy and the rule of law would offer a path to equality. With no end in sight, many in desperation have attempted to flee to neighbouring countries such as Malaysia and Thailand. It is estimated that up to 100,000 people had fled on dangerous rickety boats, often perishing on the perilous journey. This amounts to ten per cent of the entire Rohingya population. Those that do survive are at risk of starvation, torture or enforced slavery at the hands of human traffickers and transnational criminal syndicates operating in Southeast Asia.
This is where the issue of the Rohingya’s plight evolves beyond national boundaries and the crisis begins to spill over and reverberate across the entire region. The flow of refugees in recent years has been met by impunity and inaction from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) community. The secretary-general of ASEAN had recognised the concern in 2012, stating, “the issue could potentially destabilize the whole region.” The international community and organisations such as the United Nations has remained painstakingly apathetic on the issue with even neighbouring countries proving reluctant to provide long-term help. What remains clear is that the solution must ultimately focus on the cause, not the symptoms of the problem.
The chance for a national solution to end to the years of suffering and subjugation, after fleetingly brief hopes with the 2015 victory of the liberal democratic National League for Democracy, is now looking increasingly less likely. The advent to leadership of Nobel Laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, who for decades has fought to bring reform and democracy to Myanmar, appears to be offering no change for the Rohingya. Nicholas Kristof of the NY Times recently wrote, “soon the world will witness a remarkable sight: a beloved Nobel Peace Prize winner presiding over 21st-century concentration camps.”
The long ruling military junta before Suu Kyi had offered very little hope for the Rohingya, with President Thein Sein simply trying to avoid responsibility for the problem by requesting help from the international community to resettle the Rohingya elsewhere. They have consistently been viewed as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants with no claim to either being called Burmese or to basic human rights or rule of law.
Suu Kyi herself has remained painfully silent on this issue in the past, possibly not wanting to make politically risky moves in the eyes of the majority Buddhist voters in her country. However, in recent months she has been under increasing pressure in her new position of power to take a stance on the divisive problem. The issue of repressing, marginalising and disregarding Myanmar’s entire ethnic Muslim population hangs a darkening cloud over Suu Kyi’s global image of democracy and liberalism. The concept that they have no claim to citizenship and should not be Myanmar’s responsibility is dangerous rhetoric. It is the same cleansing and airbrushing that has taken place in history time and time again, from the tribal First Nations of North America to the land-tilling fellah of Palestine. It is a subtle and slow eradication, it is claimed they do not exist as a people, it is claimed that they never existed as a people.
Under recent scrutiny from the media and international community, Suu Kyi, the supposed champion of an all-inclusive democracy in Myanmar, has rebuffed claims of the abuses against the Rohingya and has urged the media not to exaggerate the problem. However the one million strong human rights catastrophe painfully unfolding in the corner of her country is not an exaggeration. In a recent BBC interview it was reported that she became angry over questions about the Rohingya and after the interview was heard fuming, “no one told me I was going to be interviewed by a Muslim!” This potentially darker side to the deeply respected and revered Suu Kyi paints a potentially bleak picture for the future of the country. It is imperative that she dramatically changes her stance on the embattled people if she is to be the champion of democracy she has sought so long and hard to become.
This includes an immediate lifting of the ban on access to the Rohingya populated states, guaranteed protections for those that seek to return to their homes, a pacifying mission in the violence prone areas of country with a complete crackdown on nationalist groups inciting hate and meaningful efforts to reconcile and integrate communities. These need to be considered imperative priorities for the new Myanmar under Suu Kyi, all of which should be backed up by pressure from neighboring states and the wider international community. Immediate action should not only be taken to aid the stability of the region but also borne out of moral responsibility, to end the on-going appalling suffering and subjugation of an entire people.
Alex Firth is currently undertaking an MSc in Conflict, Rights and Justice at SOAS, University of London, as well as a research internship with Human Rights Watch. His areas of interest include both the Middle East and Africa as well as minority and indigenous rights, human rights violations in times of conflict and transitional justice.
Cover Image ‘Burma/Myanmar: Displacement and discrimination continue to affect Rohingya‘ via European Commission DG ECHO under Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic