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The Rohingya and the denial of the ‘right to have rights’

By now the story has been told countless times in the wake of the recent rioting in western Burma where tensions between the areas’ Rohingyas and Arakanese communities boiled over last month.  People were killed, houses destroyed, thousands were displaced and boatloads of Rohingyas crossing into Bangladesh were turned away.

The Rohingyas remain one of the most persecuted and vulnerable communities in the world. The group has been repeatedly portrayed as terrorists in both Bangladesh and Burma. The group cannot rightfully claim Burma as their own state while Rohingya men are perceived to be misogynist Muslims who threaten the ‘peace loving’ ethnically heterogeneous, but predominantly Buddhist communities of Burma.

During fieldwork on the Thai-Burma and Bangladesh-Burma border, I was deeply troubled by the vitriol attitudes aimed at Rohingyas.  I have asked this question over and over again to activists and the political elite, including 88-generation political activists from Burma, why there was such profound tension and anxiety to include Rohingyas in the otherwise inclusive activism that literally framed Burma’s democratic movement.

The international humanitarian discourse on refugees provides some insights on how in the age of the ‘Global War on Terror’, refugees are no longer welcome and are seen as security threats.  While citizens can be under surveillance and, at the same time ‘protected’ from outside threats, illegal immigrants, refugees, stateless residents and internally displaced people remain as threats, thus creating moral and ethical dilemmas for states.

Although it is poor practice as a member of the international community and detrimental for the global image to send away refugees, governments often claim that it is imperative for state security and for the protection of citizens.  In this kind of security architecture, borders are strictly controlled and identity differences are accentuated and securitized.

Burma’s fractured narrative

A state that had gone through more than 60 years of conflict, during which more than 30 insurgent, non-state armed groups have actively fought against the Burmese government is bound to have multi-layered internal divisions and security anxieties.

The intense militarisation processes penetrated Burma’s everyday discourses including its social, economic, cultural and political systems, norms and priorities.  The Tatmadaw’s strategies in the guise of modernisation, articulated as ‘Burmanisation’, was in effect a process of ‘homogenisation’ forcing out people whose appearance, religious belief, language and everyday practices reproduced their identity as the ‘other’ and, I would argue, the enemy within.

By deceptively producing the Muslims as the internal threat, the military regime sought to portray itself as the protector of its citizens.  Ironically, while some of the other undemocratic and authoritarian practices of the Tatmadaw have been challenged, the regime had largely succeeded in wiping out the idea of including Rohingyas in a multiethnic, heterogeneous national consciousness.  Through state-sponsored exclusion policies, Rohingyas were made aliens in their own land.

[pullquote]“The regime had largely succeeded in wiping out the idea of including Rohingyas in a multiethnic, heterogeneous national consciousness” [/pullquote]

Key exclusion policies and strategies were implemented after the military coup resulting in the restriction of free movement in 1962; the promulgation of the Emergency Immigration Act designed to prevent people entering from India, China and Bangladesh in 1974; the census program, Nagamin, to check identification cards and take action against illegal aliens in 1977; and the 1982 Citizenship Law following the 1978 exodus when many Rohingyas returned or attempted to return to Burma.

The State Peace and Development Council repeatedly invoked its moral authority through the lens of national security and state sovereignty in dealing with Rohingyas.  There is of course a historical context to it, which could perhaps be explained through the ‘good’ citizens model. A key source of anxiety had been the perceived disloyalty to the idea of a Burmese statehood by Rohingyas, such as when the political elite sought to be an independent state and made deals with the outgoing British Raj; when the community was divided in its support of the local and national political shifts; and when the armed resistance began.

Rohingyas taking up arms have generated a different source of anxiety under the pretext of the ‘war on terror’, unlike the other non-state armed groups such as the Karen National Liberation Army, which has roughly 3,000 to 4,000 troops, or the Shan State Army-South, which has between 6,000 and 7,000 troops.

The divided system in various ethnic states such as in Karen state, Shan state and Mon state in effect gives the control to the Tatmadaw and those insurgency factions, which have entered into recent agreements with the Burmese state.  All these non-state armed actors claim to be the champions of their groups’ rights and hold the view that it is necessary to take up arms against Burma.

Similar to these groups, the Rohingya militant movement also claims to be the sole protector of the Muslim Arakanese/Rohingyas.   Unlike the other armed groups, the sharp reactions to their claims also come from various democratic platforms of Burma.

One of the leading groups, the Arakan Rohingya National Organisation (ARNO) agreed to ban the use of anti-personnel mines and victim activated explosive devices and signed the Geneva Call Deed of Commitment for Adherence to a Total Ban on anti-personnel Mines and for Cooperation in Mine Action (DoC) on 5 December 2003.

A document that was leaked in early 2012 from 10 October 2002 claimed the ARNO had links with various terrorist networks.  The ARNO was operating from Chittagong in Bangladesh and allegedly had contacts with groups on the Thai-Burma border. The document noted that the government of Bangladesh instructed the ARNO in May 2002 to move its bases from southeastern Bangladesh, which resulted in 195 Arakan Army members turning themselves in to the Burmese.

Over the last decade, the ARNO has significantly weakened in numbers and leaned towards moderate politics unlike some of the other splinter groups that attracted the more radical, extremist factions in the country.

For example, the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation that broke away from the Rohingya Patriotic Front in 1980s, and primarily operated across the border in Bangladesh, attracted a number of radical and militant Rohingya activists. RSO’s links with extremist groups in Bangladesh and associations with the international terrorist networks have been reported in media, which fuelled prejudice against all the Rohingyas.

According to reports, the Bangladesh Army in a few major operations almost disbanded the RSO as early as 2005. There are also a few small groups such as the Central Rohingya Jammatul Ulama, the Ittehadul Mujahiddial, the Rohingya Islamic Liberation Organisation and the Arakan Rohingya Islamic Front.  These groups joined the Democratic Alliance of Burma in May 1992, which is virtually inactive now.

The Burmese and Bangladeshi authorities in reality take advantage of the global climate of fear and anxiety that have securitised the discourse concerning refugees, in particular Muslim refugees. This ‘refugees as threat’ perception matters when it comes to the Rohingyas because the discourse actually drives policies and public support of specific policies. Those who remained in camps in Bangladesh are particularly vulnerable, since the barbed wire camps had their unique violent everyday narratives while the host communities from outside perceived the camps as breeding grounds for militancy.

The misleading and prejudicial information fed by the hostile state and non-state actors and the media in both Burma and Bangladesh created an image of Rohingya militancy as a massive security threat which in reality is simply not accurate.

The massive presence of the security sector in the North Arakan state has seen an increase in sexual and gender-based violence. In particular, the Nay-Sat Kut-kwey Ye (NaSaKa), established in 1992, has systematically targeted the Rohingyas.

NaSaKa members and soldiers have targeted Rohingya girls and women and many of their attacks have been racially motivated. Various human rights reports also noted how race was one of the major instigators of sexual violence against Rohingya women and children.

The strict licensing system to restrict movements, deportation and forced labour, land grabbing and torture have made the living conditions harsh for Rohingyas in their own homeland.  Racial hatred had been a huge factor in the human rights abuses perpetrated against Rohingyas.

During personal interviews taken over the span of the last few years, Rohingya refugees have talked about the use of derogatory and humiliating words by the security forces.   The more refined officials use newly accepted terms concealed beneath other politically correct categories accentuating difference such as culture, ethnicity and religion.

A recent report states that in 2009, in an open letter to other diplomats Burma’s consul general in Hong Kong, who is now a UN ambassador, described the Rohingya as ‘ugly as ogres’ and compared their ‘dark brown skin to that of the fair and soft ethnic Burmese majority’.

What is really demoralising for human rights activism is that members of ethnic communities, who have been oppressed for decades by the military regimes, also despise the Rohingya.

Ko Ko Gyi, a prominent former political prisoner who was released in January, has said that the Rohingya should not be mistreated but stressed that they were not an ethnic group of Burma.

There are numerous political/human rights/women’s groups and activists who firmly believe that Rohingyas do not belong to their Burma.  Burmese women’s networks, for example, which are champions of human rights and gender sensitive strategies often deliberately exclude Rohingya women’s rights activists following obstructions made by particular Arakanese women’s rights groups.

When I questioned activists on the Thai-Burma border why Rohingya activists were not included in their programs, one of the most common responses that I heard was that the Arakanese and Rohingya leadership needed to resolve internal issues first. The lack of political will for a variety of reasons and also to some extent the capacity of other ethnic groups to intervene had also compounded the problem.

All these events took place just when Aung San Suu Kyi was about to leave the country for her European tour on 13 June.  Some criticised her for leaving Burma during such a sensitive period.  Suu Kyi, during her trip in Thailand and in Europe, has stressed that the rule of law is necessary to bring stability in Burma.

Responding to a question on the citizenship issue of Rohingyas at the Oslo Forum, Suu Kyi pointed out: “We are not certain exactly what the requirements of citizenship law are…, If we were very clear as to who are the citizens of the country under the citizenship law and who qualify, then there wouldn’t be this problem… We have to have rule of law, and we have to know what the law is. We have to make sure that it is properly implemented”.

The citizenship question remains at the core of Rohingyas’ persecution, statelessness and insecurity.  Sadly, the winds of change in Burma do not automatically signal a change in the question of legality and illegality for Rohingyas.  Their lack of bargaining power and the deep resentment and racist attitude of various key stakeholders towards Rohingyas indicate that this is not going to be resolved on a priority basis in the near future by Burma’s leaders either.

The Burma-Bangladesh border and its discontents 

While six boats carrying the distraught and traumatised refugees from Sittwe were stranded on the Naf River, Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister Dipu Moni stated in a parliamentary session that this was an internal issue of Burma, which was not persecuting the Rohingya and that Bangladesh had no obligation to provide humanitarian assistance because it was not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol.  She further stated that Bangladesh had to protect its national security.

Similar internal displacement was caused after communal violence erupted in Burma in 1942 that also spilled over into the whole of Arakan.  The Buddhist Arakanese and the Muslim Rohingya were engaged in a bitter battle after which the Arakanese moved to the south and the Rohingyas to the north – including 22,000 who crossed the border to Bengal.  The second wave of migration occurred following a nationwide census project, Nagamin, during which more than 200,000 fled across the border in Bangladesh.

From 1991 to 1992, more than 270,000 Rohingya refugees crossed the border from Burma.  With them they brought their experiences of horrific violence, forced labour, rape, executions and torture.

Bangladesh initially welcomed the persecuted refugees. The country’s leadership viewed the issue as a short-term problem and wanted to resolve it through bilateral negotiations with Burma. The Bangladeshi government saw it as a moral boost to be offering assistance for once and not seeking it.  Initially, the country welcomed the UNHCR, the Red Cross and various other international agencies to assist the refugees.

But soon, the strain on localities where the camps were constructed started to worry the ruling regimes. Over the last two decades, public support in Bangladesh has significantly decreased and subsequent governments have been less sympathetic to the refugees.

The recent anti-Rohingya xenophobic attitude displayed by Bangladeshis is primarily coming from the ultra-nationalistic front, which claims that the Rohingyas are being supported and armed by Jamaa’t-i-Islami, the party that questioned and violently opposed the liberation war of Bangladesh in 1971.  Those who hold this view believe that the Rohingyas would also be used as a vote bank for the next election. Burmese propaganda also implied that the fleeing people were mostly Islamic insurgents added to the anxiety of the Bangladesh government.

This accusation took the consideration away from the inhumane condition of the Rohingya living into various camps, by making them a national security concern.  The UNHCR viewed repatriation as the most logical response and in many instances resorted to involuntary repatriation of the Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh.

[pullquote] “The Burmese and the Bangladeshi government have strategically employed misperceptions, fears and prejudice to portray all Rohingyas as terrorists” [/pullquote]

Currently, there are 26,311 Rohingya recognised refugees living in various camps in border areas.  Although the UNHCR is providing support to 21,716 of the Rohingya refugees living in camps, the Bangladeshi government has repeatedly denied UNHCR requests to set up self-reliance activities both inside and outside the camps. According to the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission (RRRC), there are about 200,000 undocumented refugees.

Further, the increase in numbers of undocumented Rohingyas settled in Chittagong, particularly in the hills, have angered local communities.

Meghna Guhathakurta, a researcher studying the Rohingyas, noted in a personal conversation: “Rohingyas have come in (Bangladesh) anyway over the years and have (now) settled in Bandarban only because they have been chased away from the [plains]. The construction boom in Cox’s Bazar is one of the main attractions, so they would naturally want to settle in the [plains], but [after] meeting hostility in the host community they therefore are driven to the woods and hills.”

The Chittagong Hill Tracts, which is home to indigenous Bangladeshis, has yet to recover from its own experience of a protracted conflict that formally ended with signing of an accord in 1997. Continual human rights abuses, major displacements of indigenous communities and land grabbing by illegal Bengali settlers from the plains have produced multi-layered insecurities for its indigenous population.

Rohingya migration to the CHT adds to these insecurities as reports spread concerning the Rohingya’s involvement in illegal logging, drug trafficking and various unlawful activities.  However, it is actually the security sector and the Bengali settlers who run these activities and take advantage of Rohingya labour in the CHT.

With regard to the legality argument, Bangladesh needs to adhere to international norms and laws.  The Partition of India displaced millions from West Bengal and Bihar who took refuge in East Pakistan, which later became Bangladesh.  An estimated 10 million people were forcibly displaced to India during its independence in 1971.  A large number returned when it became independent.  Since breaking away from Pakistan, it was the home of 300,000 Biharis who became stateless and were interned in 66 camps within the country, at least until 2007.

It has a large indigenous population, which were displaced during development projects and/or during the conflict in the CHT.  Also, every year, thousands of people are internally displaced in Bangladesh due to floods and waterlogging.  Thus, one could argue that its population has a variety of experiences of displacement and the nation-state had been built by refugees and a history of wars.

Yet, it doesn’t have any legal regime that could protect people who are refugees, internally displaced or stateless. As mentioned above, Bangladesh is not a signatory of the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol.  However, it is party to a number of international human rights instruments, the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and International Conventions.

Bangladesh is bound to offer protection to the refugees by Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; Article 2 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; Article 22 of the Convention of the Rights of the Child; Articles 2, 3 (this is paralleled to non-refoulement of the 1951 Convention) and 6 of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; Article 44 and 45 of the fourth Geneva Conventions. Most importantly, Bangladesh’s Constitution in its Preamble pledges to protect fundamental human rights of all.

Both the Burmese and the Bangladeshi government have strategically employed misperceptions, fears and prejudice to portray all Rohingyas as terrorists.  Neither the states nor in many cases, the human rights and political activists from these states, separate armed groups activities from the plight of the civilian Rohingyas.

Following the forced migration in 1991 and 1992, both the states and, to some extent the UNHCR, provided inadequate information and suggested that it would make more sense to send the refugees back ‘home’.

Bangladesh ignored their stateless status in Burma and the UNHCR stated that refugees wouldn’t be any worse in Burma.  As repeated events of desperate attempts by Rohingya refugees demonstrate, power inequalities, repatriation politics and the discourse of national security not only made the Rohingya community more vulnerable but also denied them the ‘right to have rights’.

Dr Bina D’Costa, Fellow, Politics and International Affairs, School of Culture, History and Language, the Australian National University. She is currently working on a manuscript focusing on the edifice of political violence in refugee communities in South Asia.


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