The South Asia Channel

Enemies of the State

Political reform in Myanmar cannot be complete without an end to the long-standing persecution of the minority Rohingya people.

Migrants who were found at sea on a boat are repatriated across the Myanmar-Bangladesh border in the sub-township of Taung Pyo, Maungdaw, in the Myanmar state of Rakhine on June 8, 2015. Some 150 migrants found adrift in a boat off Myanmar's coast were transferred under armed guard to neighbouring Bangladesh June 8, returning them to homes and a life of grinding poverty many tried to flee months ago. In recent years tens of thousands of persecuted Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar and Bangladeshi economic migrants have fled on boats across the Bay of Bengal in search of better prospects, usually in Malaysia. AFP PHOTO / YE AUNG THU        (Photo credit should read Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images)
Migrants who were found at sea on a boat are repatriated across the Myanmar-Bangladesh border in the sub-township of Taung Pyo, Maungdaw, in the Myanmar state of Rakhine on June 8, 2015. Some 150 migrants found adrift in a boat off Myanmar's coast were transferred under armed guard to neighbouring Bangladesh June 8, returning them to homes and a life of grinding poverty many tried to flee months ago. In recent years tens of thousands of persecuted Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar and Bangladeshi economic migrants have fled on boats across the Bay of Bengal in search of better prospects, usually in Malaysia. AFP PHOTO / YE AUNG THU (Photo credit should read Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images)

The persecution of Myanmar’s minority Rohingya Muslims, their desperate flight from Myanmar and horrific plight at sea has attracted global attention. The predicament of the hapless, stateless Rohingya has reopened the thorny questions of marginalization of religious minorities in Asia and the refugee debate, including the growing phobia of immigrants across the world. Why exactly are the Rohingya persecuted by the Buddhist-dominated Myanmar?

The Rohingya — who make up less than 2 percent of the population — are largely concentrated in the western Rakhine state and neighboring Bangladesh. Despite their presence in the country, the Myanmar government does not acknowledge them as Burmese, thus denying them rights of citizenship.

The military-drafted 1982 Citizenship Law in Myanmar holds that only the ethnic groups that settled in the country before 1823, a year before the First Anglo-Burmese War was fought, can be eligible for citizenship. Myanmar considers the Rohingya to be illegal immigrants from India and Bangladesh who were encouraged by the British colonial government to immigrate after the war. This remains an unresolved question and a source of local resentment. Ironically, the current Rohingya are descendants of the families that lived in Myanmar before it became an independent republic in 1948, with some claiming that they were historically present in Rakhine long before the 1823 cut-off date.

The United Nations has termed the Rohingya people amongst the most persecuted groups in the world. Confined to specific areas where they can live and work, and denied citizenship and legal identity, this community has been on the margins of national life.

By declaring them as foreigners, the Buddhist-majority junta has rendered the Rohingya as ineligible to pursue public education, seek jobs in the government, own land, or even register their marriages. Even the delivery of humanitarian assistance by international aid groups to these ghettoized people was turned away or denied by the state authorities in Myanmar. In recent years, efforts to address the issue have resulted in further discrimination against the Rohingya whereby they have to declare themselves as Bengali, and then prove that they are eligible for Burmese citizenship.

Since 2012, the incidents of religious and ethnic violence have increased resulting in the dislocation of over 140,000 who had to flee their homes. A majority of them now live in dozens of displaced persons camps across Rakhine. The government institutionalized this ghettoization by issuing a policy that those who fail to establish their citizenship will be sent to a resettlement zone (where citizenship eligibility is determined) and those who refuse the process will be confined to a displacement camp (where they await deportation).

Given that there has been little or no humanitarian assistance and no prospects for their future, this community has been leaving Myanmar, attempting to go to Bangladesh and onwards to other Southeast Asian countries. The Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea — the bodies of water that border Myanmar’s entire coastline — are the preferred escape routes. In the first quarter of 2015, around 25,000 Rohingya people, in a desperate attempt to sail before the start of monsoon rains, boarded boats headed for Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand. Between January and March 2015, 300 died in various incidents and numbers are increasing by the day. Reports have also estimated that hundreds, if not thousands, may still be stranded at sea.

But the escape from a brutal reality has proved to be even more arduous. The governments in Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia have reacted in a mixed fashion. As the boats started to reach their shores, these countries started turning them away, and maintained that they cannot provide assistance to the Rohingya. This sparked an international outrage, following which, Malaysia and Indonesia agreed to let nearly 7,000 people stranded at sea come to their shores with both countries making it clear that it was a temporary measure, offering “resettlement and repatriation.” Thailand did not join Malaysia and Indonesia but maintained that it will not “push back migrants stranded in Thai waters.”

In 2010, after five decades of brutal authoritarian rule, the military regime in Rangoon opened up and initiated political and economic reforms. The opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was released after spending years under house arrest. The Burmese military also released other political prisoners, relaxed state censorship regulations, and gradually opened the economy to foreign investment. The first elections were held in 2010, followed by large-scale bi-election in 2012, wherein Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party secured the majority of seats in the parliament.

But the country is far from democratic. In its World Report 2015, Human Rights Watch said that progress in Burma is reversing. It was widely hoped that the Nobel Peace Prize winner Suu Kyi will lead the county into a democratic phase. But, a clause in the constitution drafted by the military bars candidates with a foreign-born spouse or child from running for top office. This has excluded Suu Kyi as her late husband and two children were born in Britain. As Myanmar approaches the next round of elections in November 2015, the issues of limited media freedoms and minority rights undermine the country’s democratic path.

In recent days, the international community has mobilized regional powers to address issues of humanitarian assistance and refugee repatriation. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations thus far has played an unsatisfactory role in aiding rescue and relief for the Rohingya. A regional response is essential to the humanitarian crisis that continues to unfold.

Beyond the short term crisis, the international community, particularly the European Union, Australia, India, China, and the United States, given their influence in the region, need to pressure Myanmar’s government to amend its discriminatory laws and grant rights of citizenship to the Rohingya. Myanmar’s treatment violates the international human rights standards as well as other covenants ratified by the government.

At the end of the day, political shifts within Myanmar will improve this dismal situation. Astonishingly, the globally celebrated democrat Suu Ki has maintained a disturbing silence on this issue. Social and political exclusion of a minority group and its harrowing persecution can hardly be termed as nationalism. It is just another face of fascism.

Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images

Raza Rumi is a visiting fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, Washington DC. He is also a consulting editor at The Friday Times. His writings are archived at www.razarumi.com.

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