Myanmar: the Rohingya crisis

Sun, 2017/10/29

The exodus of more than 600,000 terrified Rohingya refugees necessitated an emergency response from the International Rescue Committee. The United Nations (UN) has declared the issue as ‘the most urgent refugee emergency in the world’ [Showkat Shafi/AI Jazeera]. Many of us have hence heard or come across the word ‘Rohingya’ frequently over the last week. But what is Rohingya? More precisely, who are they?

The Rohingya- “the world’s most persecuted minority”- are an ethnic group with majority of Muslim faith, they have lived for centuries in the majority Buddhist Myanmar. Since 1982, they have been denied from citizenship in Myanmar. Not considered as one of the country’s 135 ethnic groups, they are rendered stateless. Almost all of the Rohingya reside in Myanmar’s western coastal state of Rakhine whereby they are not allowed to leave prior to government approval. Living in ghetto-like camps, they lack basic needs and opportunities. According to the Rohingya National Organization, the “Rohingyas have been living in Arakan from time immemorial,” and now this area is referred as the Rakhine.

From 1824 to 1948, during the British rule - more than 100 years, Myanmar was administered as a province of India, and there was a migration of labourers which was considered internal as per the Human Rights Watch (HRW). Natives were displeased by the arrival of these labourers. After independence, Myanmar government viewed the migration as “illegal, and it is on this basis that they refuse the citizenship to the majority of Rohingya,” reported HRW in 2000. Eventually, Buddhists rejected the term Rohingya with the opinion that it was created for political reasons. The International Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School also published that the Rohingya were not included. However, they could live in Myanmar for at least generations before applying for identity cards.

Under the generational provision, they were initially given such identification. Several Rohingya also served in the parliament. The 1962 military coup in Myanmar changed things dramatically, urging all citizens to obtain national registration cards. The Rohingya were only given foreign identity cards which hence restricted their career path. In 1982, Rohingya were rendered stateless with the new citizenship law passed. To obtain citizenship, a person must give proof of a family member who lived in Myanmar before 1948, and a person must be fluent in one of the three national languages. But many Rohingya lack the required paperwork as it was either refused to them or simply unavailable. Consequently, they have been in a state of continual existence denial to them, and provided them with mere rights to work, study, travel, marry, practice religion, and access to health services.

Since the 1970s, Rohingya in Rakhine State were forced to flee to the neighboring countries: Bangladesh, Malaysia, Thailand, and other Southeast Asian countries. Myanmar’s Rohingya have suffered from misery with reported incidents: reported rape, torture, arson, and murder. In November 2016, an official from the UN accused Myanmar of allowing leadway to “ethnic cleansing” against the Rohingya; while the government denied such accusations, it was not the first time this accusation has been made. The activists mentioned that unarmed Rohingyas were being killed, but the government responded with how 100 people were killed by the armed men from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). Violence erupted. Mass killings in at least 10 areas of Myanmar’s Rakhine State left thousands trapped in a land that refused to accept them. Hundreds of civilians who fled to Bangladesh were pushed back by patrols, according to the UN. Hence, they are forcibly returned to Myanmar. More than 87,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh from October 2016 to July 2017, according to the International Organization for Migration. Others also tried to enter Malaysia by sea through the dangerous journey of crossing the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman sea. Sadly, the de facto leader of Myanmar- State Chancellor Aung San Suu Kyi- is unsympathetic to the plight of the Rohingya. Her government instead calls them “terrorists.”

More than half a million Rohingya refugees are living in mostly makeshift camps in Bangladesh. Majority is still unregistered. Bangladesh also considers most of them as “illegally infiltrated,” and thus preventing them from crossing its borders. Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has called on the UN and the international community pressurizing the Myanmar’s government to accept the return of the Rohingya refugees. Following which, they were placed into an inhabitable island nearby. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has called on Aung San Suu Kyi and the country’s security forces to end this violence.