A New Legal Challenge For Rohingya Muslims Survivors

Survivors of atrocities committed against the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar have filed a lawsuit to the United States (U.S) Federal Court earlier this month. The lawsuit targets Myanmar’s top government officials, including President Thein Sein for genocide and crimes against humanity. A court summons was issued that calls for these officials to appear in the U.S Federal Court.

The survivors have sought compensation for the policies conducted and implemented by the current government, which has instigated ‘hate crimes and discrimination amounting to genocide.’ According to the Burma Task Force (BFT) who are bringing about this action, the Rohingya community in the U.S are seeking to “hold the leaders of Burma accountable for genocidal human rights restrictions and policies that have resulted in the loss of lives and trauma in the survivors’ families, and caused them irreparable emotional and financial harm”. The BFT is a Muslim-American, non-government organization that is seeking compensation for the survivor’s who have been able to flee the dire situation. Their aim is to use the U.S Alien Tort Statute which has been “used in the past by foreign citizens seeking damages for human rights offences committed outside the US” (Al-Jazeera, 2015).

Rohingya Muslims have been one of the world’s most troubled ethnic group in recent times largely because they have no substantial legal status in any state and have been subjected to xenophobic laws by Myanmar for decades – an example of this is their exemption from citizenship in Myanmar in 1982. The UN Special Rapporteur in Myanmar documented many of these abuses, including extra-judicial killings, torture, mental and physical trauma, discrimination, and displacement. In 2014, The International Crisis Group (ICG) reported that approximately 137,000 Rohingya Muslims were living in displacement camps in Rakhine State. These camps were described by the UN’s deputy relief coordinator as ‘appalling,’ and access to basic services, such as sanitation and health were “wholly inadequate”. The situation has become so extreme that the UN Commissioner for Human Rights estimates that 25,000 Rohingya people had taken to escaping by boat in January to March 2015.

Amidst Myanmar’s landmark election season, many Buddhist nationalist groups – the source of suffering for Rohingya Muslims – have been boasting about incumbent President Thein Sein’s anti-Muslim policies, specifically his role in the implementation of four new race protection laws in 2015 alone. The Buddhist nationalists hold a very strong influence in the state, which is even more alarming given that a new law was passed prohibiting Rohingya people from voting in November.

It remains to be seen whether this lawsuit will be successful as, under international law, heads of states enjoy absolute personal immunity from the criminal jurisdiction of the foreign state for any acts committed. Moreover, governing leaders in Myanmar have dismissed any chance of officials facing charges in the US. For example, they have stated that “Myanmar is not a vassal to America. There’s no reason why Myanmar would go and face the lawsuit of a federal court in America”. However, this civil action may change as a result of the hopeful election of Aung Sang Suu Kyi to the top job in November, who has promised to look at the issue of minorities if elected. On the other hand, the BBC has noted that she has remained silent on the issue of the Rohingya Muslims.

The issue of the Rohingya Muslims is one that needs urgent attention. The UN estimates that 310,000 people in Rahine State require urgent humanitarian assistance and this is becoming more critical as Buddhist nationalists ramp up the campaign as the election draws closer. Whether this lawsuit succeeds or not, it will nonetheless be integral in promoting the dismal position of this depleted ethnic group and it will hopefully highlight the maintenance of this issue.