Rohingya: A Stateless People

Human Rights Watch informed us of the destruction of 430 buildings across three villages in the Rakhine state of Myanmar between 22 October and 10 November 2016. Such violations, along with starvation are causing the Rohingya people to flee Myanmar in search of safety and acceptance. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates more than 86,000 people have left Myanmar since June 2012 to seek a new life in Bangladesh, Thailand or Malaysia. Unfortunately, no South East Asian country has the desire, space or resources to cope with these refugees. Myanmar is not welcoming of these refugees, although it has accepted some of them back. The plight of these people has become known to the global world.

Marginalized and discriminated against, the Rohingya people struggle to survive in Myanmar. Social, political, and economic systems in Myanmar isolate and cause suffering for the Rohingya people. According to Khalijah, Haji, and Rahman of the National University of Malaysia one-quarter of the 3.3 million people living in Myanmar are Rohingya. Denied the right to work, vote, gain an education, and practice the ways of Islam, these people are relegated to the periphery of society, in the Rakhine state of Myanmar where they live. Rohingya people speak a different language and have a different culture and religion from the majority population of Buddhists. Their physical appearance is also different, thereby influencing those who practice Buddhism to perceive them as illegal migrants from Bangladesh rather than people from Myanmar. The group referred to as Rohingya display a diversity of ethnic origins, which makes it challenging to give them a single identity and makes their claims to legitimacy more complicated than is understood in the media. Jacques Leider, a Rakhine history expert, believes the approach used by the international community has contributed to Buddhists in Rakhine feeling misunderstood and fearing a Muslim takeover. International attention has attempted to hold the Myanmar government accountable for the current situation and this may have inadvertently exacerbated tension between the Muslims and Buddhists.

When General Ne Win seized power in 1962, he launched military operations to counter the fear of the Islamization of Myanmar as a false perception prevailed that Muslims had expansionist goals in this country. Kyaw Yin Hlaing’s survey analysis of Buddhist’s mischaracterization of Myanmar Muslims involved 500 respondents. 85% noted their dislike of Muslims was based on their fear of Myanmar becoming an Islamic state. In Rakhine state, this discourse is repeated and exaggerated each time communal violence occurs. Such action compounds hostility between the two groups. The Myanmar Citizenship Law enacted in 1982, failed to recognize the Rohingya Muslims as official Myanmar citizens. They became stateless and are oppressed and live in constant fear of being tortured, arrested, and assaulted.

To find a long term solution to end this human suffering, Myanmar needs to change its citizenship laws for the Rohingya people. This seems unlikely in the short term as it has previously refused when asked by the United Nations to do so. Whether or not the Rohingya people are citizens of Myanmar, this country has a responsibility to protect all members of its population from crimes against humanity. If the government of a state is unable to do so, the international community then has a responsibility to act on behalf of the suffering victims. Myanmar’s transition to democracy gives hope for more positive action towards these stateless people and towards practices, which are more just. To date, the new government has remained silent on the Rohingya, although in the past Aung San Suu Kyi, the new leader of Myanmar, has stated, “If you want to bring an end to [the] long-standing conflict, you have to be prepared to compromise.”

Within Myanmar, trust will need to be built between the two opposing groups, the Rakhine Buddhists, and the Rohingya people. This can be achieved by the two parties joining together in discussion and finding points of commonality, thus reducing hostility and allowing co-operation. The issue of the Rohingya people has become a global problem as their plight within Myanmar is so severe that they are fleeing by boat to neighbouring countries. These states do not want them, as they are not signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention. The United States of America has offered both financial and resettlement assistance to Indonesia and Malaysia as they both have predominately Muslim populations and the Rohingya people would like to settle there. Such actions would seem appropriate as returning the boat people to Myanmar achieves little if nothing changes. Building trust between conflicting groups within Myanmar and the support of, at least some, neighbouring countries to accept refugees will help alleviate the plight of the Rohingya in the short and long term. A new political construction within Myanmar is possible if all groups involved want this.

Louisa Slack