Citizens of nowhere: The Rohingya

On the 10th February 2020, a dangerously overcrowded vessel set sail on a hazardous journey across the Bay of Bengal bound for Malaysia. The 130 passengers on board were Rohingya refugees, who had fled their homes in Myanmar’s Rakhine state to escape persecution at the hands of the country’s armed forces. In an all too common story, the vessel never reached its destination, capsizing mid-voyage and resulting in the deaths of at least 18 people with many more still missing. The Rohingya refugee crisis gained some media coverage in the wake of a particularly brutal 2017 government crackdown, which displaced thousands and prompted significant questions to be asked of the country's one-time Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. Yet the persecution and plight of the Rohingya has roots through the centuries and, despite the outcry from the international community, continues to this day.

Introducing the Rohingya

The Rohingya are described as one of the most persecuted minorities on the planet, but to understand how they acquired this undesirable distinction, it helps to understand their history. An ethnic and religious minority within Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist nation of 53 million people, they are mostly Sunni Muslims with their own language and culture. Most of the country’s Rohingya live within the Rakhine state on Myanmar’s western coast, where their ancestry dates back centuries. Muslim settlers and Arab traders are believed to have arrived and settled as early as the 8th century in what was known as Arakan: a small, independent coastal kingdom prior to its conquest by the Burmese Empire in 1784.

Burma, as Myanmar is also known, was itself colonised by the British Empire in 1824, with the newly conquered territory administered as a part of British India. Migration across the subcontinent was fluid and encouraged in line with labour demands, prompting many Bengali Muslims to arrive during the years of British rule, to the enduring resentment of many Burmese who saw them as uninvited workers. Complicating relations between the local Muslim and Burmese populations further was the advent of the Second World War, in which both communities supported opposing sides in the conflict. The Rohingya leant their support to the British, who had promised to aid the formation of an autonomous Muslim state in return; a promise that was never fulfilled. Whereas the Burmese backed Japan, hopeful that their victory would result in the end of British colonial rule.

Hardening attitudes

Burma gained its independence from Britain in 1948 and in the years following enjoyed a parliamentary democracy, however, this was undermined by a difficult period of political instability and conflict among the country’s many ethnic groups. After over a decade of turmoil and political reform, which weakened the democratic government's authority, a military junta took control of the country in a 1962 coup d’état, led by General Ne Win, who imposed a one-party military state which would rule the country until 2011. Amidst an increasingly nationalist and sectarian rhetoric, attitudes towards minorities in Burma hardened in the years following the military’s seizure of power, with the Rohingya subject to persecution at the hands of the state ever since. The Rohingyas heritage in Rakhine was summarily dismissed by the government, who adopted the hard-line nationalist stance that the Rohingya are illegal immigrants who entered the country during colonial times from neighbouring Bangladesh.

A policy of exclusion and discrimination was implemented, which by 1978 took the form of large scale, violent crackdowns as the government launched Operation Nagamin (Dragon King), an initiative to register its citizens and screen out foreigners and illegal immigrants before a national census. What transpired was a program of ethnic cleansing at the hands of the military, known as the Tatmadaw, prompting the displacement of nearly a quarter of a million Rohingya who fled to neighbouring Bangladesh. This would be repeated in 1991, when the Tatmadaw instigated Operation Phi Thaya, disturbingly translated as Clean and Beautiful nation, which triggered a further exodus of over 200,000 people fleeing across the border to escape the violence.

With the introduction of the Citizenship Act of 1982, things were to go from bad to worse for the Rohingya. The new legislation recognised a list of 135 ‘national races’ eligible for citizenship in Burma, of which the Rohingya were omitted. This officially rendered the Rohingya stateless, ceasing to exist legally and therefore unable to access the state benefits afforded to citizens including healthcare, education, and employment. Additional stringent restrictions have hindered the Rohingya’s freedoms of movement, religious practices and rights of marriage and childbirth, in what amounts to decades of state-sanctioned human rights abuses.

One family tries to wade across the border (REUTERS_Mohammad Ponr Hossain)

The Rohingya today

After 60 years of military rule and despite Myanmar’s gradual transition to democracy, there seems to be no end in sight to the persecution of the Rohingya, currently the world’s largest stateless population. Years of oppression in Rakhine has provoked armed Rohingya resistance fighters to take up arms, such as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) which formed in 2012 in the wake of sectarian rioting in Rakhine, in which Muslim communities were targeted by gangs of Rakhine Buddhists. Clashes have sporadically erupted since the group's formation, however, it was an attack claimed by ARSA militants on 30 military and police posts in August 2017, resulting in the deaths of 12 security personnel which triggered the ongoing humanitarian crisis across the borders of Myanmar and Bangladesh.

The response from the government was ferocious. A brutal crackdown ensued, described by the United Nation’s (UN) human rights chief as a textbook example of ethnic cleansing. Once again, the military stood accused of the rape of hundreds of women, gruesome murders and the burning of villages, with surveys conducted by the humanitarian organisation Medicines Sans Frontieres estimating that as many as 9,000 Rohingya died in Rakhine between 25 August and 24 September 2017 alone, in a program of targeted violence, purported to include the purposeful placement of landmines in areas utilised by fleeing refugees. Several hundreds of thousands fled, seeking sanctuary in Bangladesh where over 1 million refugees are currently believed to reside in woefully dilapidated camps in the Cox’s Bazaar area.

A young refugee at the camp at Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. (REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton)

International response

The humanitarian catastrophe has provoked outcry amongst the international community, as well as fierce criticism of the country’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. The daughter of Burmese independence icon General Aung San, Suu Kyi co-founded the National League for Democracy (NLD) in 1988 and campaigned relentlessly for democracy in Burma (renamed ‘Myanmar’ in 1989 by the military government). Her resistance resulted in multiple periods of detention between 1989-2010, including 15 years of house arrest. Hailed as a human rights icon, Suu Kyi was revered for her peaceful opposition to the military junta’s rule, earning her a Nobel Peace Prize laureate in 1991. With the transition from military to civilian rule in 2011, Suu Kyi’s transformation from prisoner to power was completed in 2015 after she led the NLD to a landslide victory in the first open election held for 25 years.

It is this illustrious political and human story that makes Suu Kyi’s fall from grace all the more extraordinary. Her response to the crisis in Rakhine has been lambasted by the international community, largely owing to her persistent refusal to condemn the actions of the Tatmadaw, which claim to be engaged in an armed struggle against militants and repeatedly denied targeting civilians and involvement in clearance operations, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. The crimes perpetrated against the Rohingya are well documented and have prompted the UN to investigate. The findings of a recent independent fact-finding mission, published in 2019, were predictably damning; concluding that actions of Aung San Suu Kyi’s government are part of an enduring “widespread and systematic attack” on Rakhine’s dwindling Rohingya population. The crimes described in the report are grotesque and amount to crimes against humanity, with the disturbing conclusion that genocidal intent exists on the part of the state against the Rohingya. The report identified a “serious risk of genocidal action” with Myanmar failing to meet its obligation under the Genocide Convention not only to prevent and investigate, but also in enacting effective legislation criminalizing and punishing the crime of Genocide.

The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, otherwise known as the Genocide Convention, emerged in the aftermath of the Second World War and horrors of the holocaust. Adopted in 1948, it has since been ratified by 152 states, of which Myanmar is included, having signed the treaty in 1956. The Convention obliges parties to prevent and punish the perpetrators of genocide at home or abroad, with article IX stating that disputes between Parties regarding the “interpretation, application or fulfilment of the present Convention” including those related to the “responsibility of a state” should be submitted to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague.

It was this legislation that, in an unprecedented move, led the small west African republic of The Gambia to file a case against Myanmar in November 2019; with the backing of the 57 member states of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. The case is the first of its kind, in which the small Muslim majority nation, with no direct connection to the alleged crimes, utilised its membership to bring a case before the ICJ. The three-day court trial took place in December 2019 and in a surprise appearance, Aung San Suu Kyi attended in person to defend her country, imploring the panel of 17 judges to dismiss the allegations of Genocide; accusing The Gambia of presenting an “incomplete and misleading factual picture of the situation”. Suu Kyi instead maintained Myanmar’s military is engaged in an “internal armed conflict” and offered assurance that appropriate action would be taken against those who had committed war crimes.

In the event, the panel of 17 judges voted unanimously in their ruling, delivered in January 2020, in which they ordered Myanmar to take all measures within its power to prevent further genocidal acts against the Rohingya. The court’s ruling is legally binding, without the right to appeal and includes a series of provisional measures which obligate Myanmar to: prevent genocidal acts, prevent military and police forces from committing genocide and preserve evidence of genocidal acts. Additionally, Myanmar must provide a report within a period of no more than four months detailing how it has fulfilled these obligations. Whether the government in Myanmar is compliant with the orders remains to be seen, given that the ICJ does not have the power to enforce such measures.

Aung San Suu Kyi at the International Court of Justice, The Hague (AFP/Koen Van Weel)

A rock and a hard place

With over a million people now displaced in camps across the Bangladeshi border, the future of the Rohingya remains uncertain. In a 2019 report presented to the UN, it was deemed that conditions for the “safe, voluntary, dignified and sustainable return” of refugees did not yet exist, despite Myanmar’s assertion that it is ready to receive returning Rohingya. Understandably, many Rohingya are unwilling to return to Myanmar until their citizenship rights are guaranteed and sufficient assurances that further persecution does not await them; yet this leaves them stuck somewhat between a rock and a hard place. Bangladesh is itself a largely impoverished country, ill-equipped to absorb the large population influx from across the border and reports suggest that tension has begun to grow between the local populations and refugee community.

For now, the displaced Rohingya are confined to squalid, overcrowded camps with poor sanitation, insufficient food and basic shelters in what, despite the best efforts of NGOs on the ground, is rapidly developing into a humanitarian disaster; exacerbated further by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Medical research journal The Lancet described how conditions lend themselves to a high risk of outbreaks in infectious diseases, with measles and diphtheria having already struck the camps. As of this week, the first positive tests for Covid-19 were reported, prompting sincere concern that the already dangerously overcrowded, confined living spaces could provide the ideal conditions for transmission of the virus in an environment where social distancing is all but impossible and medical facilities are woefully lacking.

With the prospect of an uncertain return to Myanmar or a bleak existence within the camps in Bangladesh, many more will be tempted by the alternatives offered by gangs of human traffickers, boarding dangerously overcrowded vessels bound for South-East Asia. In a desperately sad reality, not all will reach their destination.


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