The Rohingya refugee crisis: a conflict amongst nations

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1 The Rohingya refugee crisis: a conflict amongst nations Sally Schuster De Hart. 1 Abstract The Rohingya people are a Muslim religious minority that practices a Sufi-inflected variation of Islam in the Rakhine state of Myanmar. However, many of them have been displaced to refugee camps in Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia and Bangladesh amidst ongoing ethnic violence. According to the UN, the Rohingyas are one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. In Myanmar, they live in miserable conditions where they are not allowed by law to possess land, are physically exploited through forced labor and their movement is restricted. Most Rohingyas do not have a state of their own and are subject to racial segregation. This paper focuses on this Muslim minority, their identity, historical background, the refugee crisis and the international community s effort to help them. Keywords: Rohingya, Myanmar, ethnic groups, persecution, religious segregation. 1 Professional in International Relations with a Minor in International Economics from Universidad del Norte. [Also Political Science and Government Student with a Minor in International Relations from Universidad del Norte]. Resides in Barranquilla (Colombia). 77

2 A C T U A L I D A D J U R Í D I C A Introduction The Burmese Rohingya minority is a Muslim religious minority with about 1.3 million people. They practice a Sufi-inflected variation of Sunni Islam. Most Rohingyas live in refugee camps in the outskirts of Sittwe, the capital of the Burmese western state of Rakhine, which shares borders with Bangladesh. According to the United Nations, the Rohingyas are one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. In their country of Myanmar (former Burma) Rohingyas live in miserable conditions where they are not allowed to possess land, they are physically exploited through forced labor and their movement is restricted. Most of the Rohingyas do not have a state of their own and are subject to racial segregation. The government in Naypyidaw (the capital of Myanmar) denies them citizenship and considers them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Since early 2012, as a result of violent outbursts against the Buddhist majorities, attacks against the Rohingyas have increased and hundreds of thousands have been displaced. According to the Arakan Project 2, more than 120,000 have left Myanmar for Malaysia. This paper focuses on who the Rohingya people are, what their backgrounds are in historical terms, when and how they arrived to Myanmar. It will confer on the current refugee crisis that has spanned across Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia and Myanmar. The paper will also discuss the international community s latest effort in helping the Rohingya minority, amidst ongoing ethnic violence lead mainly by the Buddhist majority in Myanmar. Finally, it will include conclusions as to what are the best options to deal with violence and segregation for this stateless community. Who are they and where do they come from? The Rohingyas were first known as Arakanese (or Rakhine). They are an ethnic group centered in the Arakan coastal region of southern Myanmar. As early as 4 th century AD, an independent Arakanese kingdom, led both by Muslim and Buddhist rulers, was established. Arakan was invaded by Mongols first and later by the Portuguese. In 1785 Burmese forces conquered the kingdom and in 1826 the region was ceded to the British through the Treaty of Yandabo 3. The Muslim Arakaneses are known as Rohingyas, a name based on the historical name of the region, Rohang. Both the Myanmar government and the Rakhine state s ethnic Buddhist majority (known as the Rakhine) reject using the label Rohingya, a self-identifying term that surfaced in the 1950s. Experts say this label provides the group with a collective, political identity. Even though the etymological root of the word is disputed, the mostly accepted origin is that the Rohang is a derivation of the word Arakan in the Rohingya dialect and the ga or gya means from. By identifying themselves as Rohingya, the ethnic Muslim group asserts its ties to the land that was once under the control of the Arakan kingdom (Albert, 2015). When Myanmar became independent from British rule in 1948, the province s name was Arakan, but in 1990 it was changed to Rakhine. Within Rakhine many of their enemies refuse to acknowledge that the Rohingya are an ethnically distinct group. They claim instead that Rohingyas are Bengali and that their presence in Myanmar is a result of illegal immigration. Rohingyas, for their part, claim to be pre-colonial residents of Myanmar s Rakhine state, with the earliest known appearance of the term Rohingya in 1799 according to Tennery (2015). At the end of the 20 th century, Arakanese numbered around two million, of which 90 % lived in Myanmar (most of the remaining 10 % live in Bangla The Arakan Project works to improve the situation of Myanmar s Rohingya population, who are subject to severe human rights violations. 3 The Treaty of Yandabo (February 1826) formally ended the First Anglo-Burmese War. British victory was achieved mainly because of India s superior resources with enabled a sustained campaign. The British-led Indian troops suffered more than 15,000 fatalities.

3 desh and a small number in India). Most Arakanese follow Buddhism, but 15 % of the population adheres to Islam. This is where the conflict has had its roots: the Buddhist majority has segregated, exploited and violated the Rohingya minority s human rights. However, the root of the conflict isn t simply a religious one. As tends to be the case in modern conflicts, the current unrest can also be traced to the country s colonial past: in 1826 Britain annexed the northwest part of what is now Myanmar, as well as the region that is home to most of Myanmar s remaining Rohingya Muslims. The colonial government had lax immigration laws and Bengali Muslims flooded to the region. The British also installed South Indian chettyars (money lenders) as administrators of the colonial territory, displacing Burmese Buddhist peasants. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims were expelled in the 1960s by the military-socialist regime of General Ne Win during the Burmese Way to Socialism (a nationalization program). Subsequent expulsions included an ethnic cleansing campaign in 1978 (known as Operation Dragon King Naga Min), which drove more than 200,000 Rohingyas into Bangladesh where it is estimated 10,000 died from disease and starvation (Blitz, 2010). Even though Myanmar s 1948-citizenship law was exclusionary, the military junta introduced a citizenship law in 1982 stripping the Rohingya of access to full citizenship. Until recently they ve been able to register as temporary residents with temporary identification cards (known as white cards ) issued initially to Muslims (both Rohingya and non-rohingya) in the 1990s. The white cards conferred limited rights but were not recognized as proof of citizenship. Why is there a refugee crisis? The source for the latest tragedy lies in the disenfranchisement of the Rohingya in Burma (now Myanmar) by the 1982 Citizenship Law, which legalized their exclusion. Further discriminatory policies and an increasingly brutal regime have precipitated a series of refugee crises. In 1991 the National Army expelled more than 250,000 Rohingyas, destroyed their homes and villages and forced them to flee elsewhere, mainly to Bangladesh. However, the Bangladeshi government has been accused of withholding food aid, frustrating nongovernmental organization s access to camps, and generally refusing to recognize their rights as refugees (Blitz, 2010). Unfortunately, other countries that have experienced a similar influx of Rohingya refugees have been mirroring this treatment. In Myanmar the Rohingya face violence and lack of basic rights such as access to education, employment and healthcare. They live in apartheid-like conditions due to the country s refusal to recognize them as citizens. This however, is not new: Over the decades [the Rohingya], without legal or any other sort of protection, have been the victims of wanton discrimination and violence by both the virulently anti-muslim Rakhines, a Buddhist ethnic group, and agents of the central government. One of the few things Rakhines and members of the ethnic Burmese majority have in common is a shared hatred of the Bengalis, a label they both apply to Rohingya with contempt. (Tennery, 2015) Since the 1990s (specifically between May 1991 and March 1992) more than 260,000 Rohingya fled the country over human rights abuses committed by the Burmese military. These abuses included confiscation of land, forced labor, rape, torture, and summary executions (Tennery, 2015). The situation has deteriorated further in recent years: when Myanmar transitioned in 2010 from a military-led government to a more democratic system, violence against Muslims turned worse. The national government has permitted [albeit tacitly] the rise of the 969 Movement, a group of Buddhist monks who employ moral justification for a wave of anti-muslim bloodshed. Since 2012, over 79

4 A C T U A L I D A D J U R Í D I C A 140,000 Rohingyas have left northwestern Myanmar amidst deadly flights with Buddhist majorities (Tennery, 2015). Where could they go? In the past 3 years ( ), more than 120,000 have tried to leave by boat. However, neighboring countries deny them entry: thousands have tried to reach Buddhist-majority Thailand, but the Thai navy has turned them away. Many more have tried to reach Muslim-majority Malaysia and Indonesia. Malaysia is relatively rich and short of unskilled labor but still turns away Rohingyas in boats, citing social unrest if they are let in. Indonesia has also warned of an uncontrolled influx. As a result, 8,000 migrants have been stranded at sea. Human Rights Watch calls it a deadly game of human ping-pong (United Nations and the International Organization for Migration). Countries that are able to house displaced Rohingyas have appeared unwilling or unable to provide permanent homes for them. Malaysia and Indonesia have turned Rohingya away by the hundreds claiming they are financially unable to accept them. Bangladesh, a majority Muslim nation had informally harbored the Rohingya for years, only to order them out of border camps in early As one of the most densely populated countries in the world with a fragile government and economy, Bangladesh does not have the resources to take in mass numbers of Rohingya refugees. The Responsibility to Protect: international community s efforts of relevance to the general international community: efforts toward solutions should be directed and prioritized (Zawacki, 2013). This part focuses on the third aspect: the Responsibility to Protect. The UN General Assembly in the World Summit Outcome Document agreed the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect in 2005 (Zawacki, 2013). It has three main pillars: 1) the state carries the primary responsibility for protecting populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing; 2) the international community has a responsibility to encourage and assist states in fulfilling this responsibility; and 3) the international community has a responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other means to protect populations from these crimes (Zawacki, 2013). (If a state is manifestly failing to protect its populations, the international community must be prepared to take collective action to protect populations. According to Zawacki (2013), the doctrine applies to the situation of the Rohingyas in Myanmar if one or more of the four crimes (genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and/or ethnic cleansing) is being or has been committed against them. Journalists, commentators and Rohingya activists, as well as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation have claimed genocide on more than a dozen occasions during 2012 (Zawacki, 2013). As explained by professor William Schabas (2012) in al Al-Jazeera documentary entitled The Hidden Genocide: 80 In proffering a definition of Myanmar s Rohingya problem three related areas of law and fact warrant particular examination: 1) nationality and discrimination, which focuses on Myanmar; 2) statelessness and displacement, which implicates Myanmar s neighbors and 3) the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect, which concerns the role of the international community. Although the root causes of the Rohingya problem are within Myanmar, their effects are felt regionally and are In the case of the Rohingya we re moving into a zone where the word can be used. When you see measures preventing births, trying to deny the identity of a people, hoping to see that they really are eventually that they no longer exist denying their history, denying the legitimacy of their right to live where they live, these are all warning signs that mean that it s

5 not frivolous to envisage the use of the term genocide. Conclusions The General Assembly did not invoke the Responsibility to Protect, possibly because it did not consider the situation in the Rakhine State to constitute crimes against humanity or ethnic cleansing by Myanmar. Primary responsibility rests with the Myanmar government to protect those denied of a right to a nationality. Regional neighbors have legal and humanitarian obligations to their own vis-à-vis the Rohingya. The same goes for the international community. As Zawacki (2013) puts it: The Rohingya problem begins at home - and could well end there with enough political will. Failing that, as has been the case since June 2012 if not decades, regional countries and the wider world should act to address the displacement and statelessness, and to stop the violence and violations (p. 23). Bibliography Albert, E. (2015). The Rohingya Migrant Crisis. Retrieved from Council of Foreign Relations (CFR): rohingya-migrant-crisis/p36651 Blitz, B. K. (2010). Refugees in Burma, Malaysia and Thailand: Rescue for the Rohingya. Royal Instituye of Foreign Affairs, 66 (5), Schabbas, W. (2012). The Hidden Genocide. Retrieved from Al Jazeera: programmes/aljazeerainvestigates/% /12/ html Tenner, A. (2015). Why is no one helping Myanmar s Rohingya? Retrieved from Reuters: great-debate/2015/06/17/why-is-no-onehelping-myanmars-rohingya/ Zawachi, B. (2013). Defining Myanmar s Rohingya Problem. Human Rights Brief, 20,

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