Inspired by the last post on statelessness, I thought it fitting that the next one should be a whole post dedicated to one of the largest stateless populations in the world, the Rohingya Muslims. What follows is not a post focused on a specific human rights issues, but a more general overview, almost a story, of a population plunged into complete crisis and forced to battle numerous human rights issues everyday. It is not the briefest of posts but decades of unwarranted suffering endured by the Rohingya has earned them more respect than a ‘summary’.
The Rohingya Muslims. A population who are victims of relentless persecution. The majority of Rohingya Muslims alive today have never experienced a life free from persecution. The Rohingya population reside in the Rakhine state of Myanmar, one of the poorest and most basic in the country, and claim to be descendants of Muslim traders who settled in the region centuries ago. However, a long history which has seen Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist country home to over one hundred different ethnicities, unwilling to accept Rohingya Muslims, has made survival for the Rohingya a constant battle.
“The more than one million Rohingya Muslims are described as the ‘world’s most persecuted minority‘” – Al Jazeera
The persistent determination of Myanmar to eradicate the Rohingya and expel them from their state has resulted in wide-spread statelessness for the Rohingya people. Relentless violence over the past 4 decades has given hundreds of thousands of Rohingya no choice but to flee the country by whatever means possible.
A sudden escalation of fatal violence in Rakhine state in August 2017 resulted in roughly 700,000 Rohingya fleeing the region into neighbouring Bangladesh. Ongoing violence directed at the Rohingya and forcing them to flee for their lives, has resulted in the fastest growing refugee crisis in the world.
But why are the Rohingya so persecuted as a race? Before delving into the atrocities which are currently occurring as a result of this refugee crisis, it will be helpful to briefly unpack the history of the Rohingya and the origin of the discrimination. If history doesn’t interest you, skip to the next section to read about the Rohingya crisis as of today.
The History of the Rohingya Muslims
NB: The country name Myanmar is used to avoid confusion, however until recently the nation was known as Burma.
The persecution of the Rohingya originates from the rule of the British over India. During the British administration, many people migrated from the Bengali region of India (now known as Bangladesh) to Myanmar (known at the time as Burma) to seek out labour. The British viewed Myanmar and India as one, thus, in their eyes the flow of labour migration was internal. In terms of citizenship this did not pose any barriers as in the rulers eyes, no borders had been crossed. However, in 1948 Myanmar gained independence from the British, and from India. Herein began the problem for the Rohingya. Those who migrated to Myanmar over the preceding centuries when it was viewed as part of India, were suddenly viewed as illegal immigrants by the newly independent Myanmar. Since then, they have never been accepted into the Myanmarese society.
After independence in 1948, Myanmar passed the Union Citizenship Act stating who would qualify as citizens of Myanmar. The Rohingya ethnicity were not included in what can be noted as the first obvious attempt to exclude them from the country, and the rights that citizenship would bestow on them. However, at this stage the discrimination had not reached todays extremities and the law did enable Rohingya to qualify for an ID card if they could prove their family had lived there for two generations or more. Realistically however, this helped few people as it was rare for people to possess documentation which could prove these circumstances.
Already deprived of many rights and their deserved quality of life, the discrimination against the Rohingya worsened further when civil war broke out in 1962. From hereon in, Myanmar was ruled by a series of military dictatorships who appeared increasingly determined to drive out the Rohingya. A military coup which took place at this time declared that citizens of Myanmar must have national registration cards (NRCs). This required all of those who qualified for citizenship, including those Rohingya who could prove they had lived there for over two generations, to register under the 1949 ‘Residents of Burma Registration Act’. Subsequently, they would be issued with an NRC which ‘allowed one to carry on all his national activities without let or hindrance’.
Being that only citizens were able to qualify for NRCs, the Rohingya who had registered as foreigners under the 1940 Foreigner Registration Rules, were instead issued with foreign ID cards. So, people in Myanmar either held NRCs, or a foreigners registration card. There was no third option, meaning that many of the Rohingya who could not qualify for either, remained without documentation. However, those with foreigners registration cards were only marginally better off. Their status as a foreigner limited several of their rights, including their ability to work and entitlement to education. The laws once again placed a severe obstacle between the Rohingya Muslims and their ability to function in their society.
“[T]he system of issuing the NRCs was directed to fit into a well-planned policy of de-nationalizing the Rohingyas” – The Stateless
Over the next ten years, the government began to retract the few rights that Rohingyas’ may have been afforded through the somewhat limited laws that applied to them. In 1970, the government ceased to issue Rohingyas’ with NRCs even where eligible. A landmark and arbitrary decision which portrays the pure unfounded discrimination towards the Rohingya.
Furthermore, in 1974, a military operation saw officials seizing existing NRCs from Rohingya who had proven eligibility in prior years. Reports say the seizure of NRCs from the Rohingya was largely a lawless act with no just cause, and NRCs were not returned. Here marks the clear mission of Myanmar to brutally de-nationalise the Rohingya, strip them of their rights and create a life so unsustainable for them that they have to relocate to survive.
Years later in 1982, a new law was passed. The 1982 Citizenship Law. The new law altered existing rules and officially decreed the criteria and eligibility for citizenship in Myanmar. There were three levels of citizenship to be bestowed upon residents; Full Citizenship, Associate Citizenship, and the most basic of them all, Naturalised Citizenship. According to the law, the Rohingya were excluded from the 135 ethnicities and 8 national races that were recognised by the government. For a country who are willing to recognise and accept 135 different ethnicities, it seems unorthodox that they are unable to recognise the Rohingya who constitute more than 1 million persons currently within their borders. From where I stand, it seems the Myanmarese government had developed an undoubted vendetta against the Rohingya population and almost resented their presence in the country.
Being that they were excluded, the Rohingya were only entitled to the most basic level of citizenship, naturalisation. To do so, the Rohingya individual had to prove they had lived in Myanmar since before 1948, and spoke one of the national languages. For most, this was impossible to prove. Many poor Rohingya lacked documentation because it was unavailable or they were denied it. We already discussed the military seizing Rohingya’s NRCs in 1974, with which they also removed their ability to prove their qualification to citizenship. For the select ‘lucky’ few able to prove eligibility, even then they were only seen as naturalised and not recognised as Rohingya. With every new law or decision that passed, the Rohingya faced an impossible uphill battle to assert their rights. At this juncture, the government had suppressed the Rohingya enough to render them officially stateless, the dire consequences of which were discussed in the last post.
These continued crackdowns on the Rohingya population since the string of dictatorships ensued, have caused many to flee over the years into neighbouring Bangladesh, Thailand and Malaysia to name but a few. Fleeing in search of a more stable life, reports portray how the Rohingya have had to face arson, rape, torture and death. It seems a sad existence prompted by extreme discrimination, a sad and unjust reality.
In more recent years, the plight of the Rohingya Muslims somehow worsened some more. The unfortunate deaths of nine border police prompted outrageous violence directed at the Rohingya. The government blamed the Rohingya for the deaths (Rohingya deny responsibility) and consequently military troops began pouring into Rohingya towns and villages in an unprecedented ‘crackdown’. Unwarranted violence against the Rohingya which has involved killing, rape and torture, has continued to escalate since then.
In August 2017, the government claimed that the Rohingya were responsible for yet more deaths of border patrols. The abhorrent action taken by the government in response to this unfounded claim has seen over 360 Rohingya villages entirely destroyed since August 2017. Myanmarese officials are framing the Rohingya population as a ‘grave security threat’ to the rest of the nation and have used the latest incidents as ammunition to physically eliminate the Rohingya from Myanmar.
Given the preceding historical account of the persistent discrimination towards the Rohingya, it is clear to anyone else on the international plane that the actions of the Myanmarese military are unwarranted, have developed over decades of racial and religious hate, and somehow seem carefully cultivated to lead up to todays atrocities (expelling them from the country). UN officials have gone as far as describing the actions as symptomatic of ethnic cleansing, whilst others label the recent outbursts as genocide.
The Rohingya Muslims in 2018
So after decades of persecution, what position do the Rohingya find themselves in today? Sadly, the answer is worse than ever. The recent violence from officials in Myanmar has rendered the Rohingya’s previous homes inhabitable. Moreover, even for those whose villages still remain, everyday spent within the Myanmarese borders is a risk to their lives.
In the month after extreme violence broke out in August 2017, at least 6,700 Rohingya were recorded dead. Deaths were mainly caused by the burning down of Rohingya villages. Satellite images have shown the clear targeting of Rohingya villages which are pictured burnt to the ground next to Rakhine ethnic villages which remain in tact. The military, supported by Buddhist mobs, have also raped and killed Rohingya women and children. The attacks have forced the Rohingya to undertake the perilous journey fraught with dangers to somewhere ‘safer’. Most have settled into refugees camps in Bangladesh, but the struggle does not end there. It is these extreme recent events which have coined the phrase ‘The Rohingya Refugee Crisis”.
This short video released by Associated Press in February 2018 demonstrates some of the atrocities faced by the Rohingya at the hands of the Myanmarese military.
“My youngest boy was swallowing water. We got separated. After a while, his dead body floated up in front of me.” – Rohingya Refugee
The Refugee Camps
The Rohingya Muslims continue to arrive and settle ‘temporarily’ into Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, now the worlds largest refugee camp as the number of refugees has surpassed 700,000. The UN reports of refugees arriving traumatised beyond repair, separated from their family, with bullets, shrapnel and land mines embedded in their skin.
Whilst safe from life threatening attacks at the camps, the situation the Rohingya now find themselves in is a humanitarian crisis. The huge influx of Rohingya means camps are severely overcrowded with each individual being allocated only 24% of the square footage that is recommended. With overcrowding comes the risk of disease, violence, poor sanitation and a severe strain on resources.
“Many of the displaced Muslims have been living in overcrowded camps that lack adequate food, shelter, water and sanitation, and medical care.” – Human Rights Watch
Reports discussing the situation in Cox’s Bazar say that the conditions in the camps are not allowing the Rohingya to lead dignified lives. There is a severe lack of healthcare for all, which is exacerbated by the aforementioned issue of disease epidemics in the overcrowded conditions. In addition to disease, food resources are increasingly scarce and over 100,000 have been treated for malnutrition. Disease and malnutrition alone cause a vicious cycle of suffering. Yet, in addition, the Rohingya are faced with challenges to their already poorly constructed shelters.
The refugee camp is situated on a plot of rural farm land, part of which the Bangladeshi government had to de-forest in order to expand. Many shelters are built on the hill side on unstable muddy terrain. Officials are deeply concerned about the camps ability to withstand the monsoon season which is fast approaching and the cyclones that the area is prone to. Both occurrences will have disastrous consequences for residents of the camp.
Land and mud slides are likely and both have the potential to destroy the basic shelters as well as cause serious injury or death. But perhaps the most disconcerting threat is the monsoons ability to flood the camps. The destruction of homes, belongings and integral supplies would spark havoc in the already under resourced camp. However, officials are most concerned about the outbreak of disease, the spread of which will be hastened by the water. Cholera, influenza and diphtheria to name but a few currently pose a threat to Rohingya lives and agencies working in the area are desperately calling out for aid which will allow them to administer vaccines ahead of the monsoon season.
It seems a never ending chain of challenges and suffering for the Rohingya. There have been talks of relocating residents of Cox’s Bazar to other camp sites in Bangladesh which may reduce several of the issues, yet officials have dubbed the alternatives unsuitable and dangerous. Nevertheless, the Bangladeshi government appear determined to make use of the sites because of the money invested into them. This causes a red alert where the priority seems to be a return on investment instead of recognition of the Rohingya’s rights to a certain quality of life.
It seems an all too common theme that the Rohingya’s rights are discarded and abused. The poor and marginalised population have endured a life unfathomable to the majority of us, and yet the crisis they are currently facing is still worsening each day. For now they remain trapped in these camps, unable to return home and unable to integrate into the Bangladeshi society. They remain at the mercy of the violence, the disease and the elements that threaten them, and reliant on aid agencies trying to help them survive.
Their journey has been long and arduous but it is far from over. There remains much to be discussed regarding the Rohingya refugee crisis including ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity and genocide, as well as the steps that are being taken to end their suffering. However, I hope that this account describing the history of the Rohingya and the current problems they face, has provided you with enough knowledge for you to spread the word yourselves, and to raise awareness of the atrocities that some undeserving individuals are facing in our world!
There are many wonderful charities on the ground in Bangladesh and Myanmar where you can donate money to help the Rohingya. For ease I have included two links to the UNHCR and UNICEF pages that you can follow if you wish to donate to the Rohingya refugee funds.