Rohingya Mosque Destroyed, Tensions Escalate Again in Myanmar
NEW DELHI: Tensions are high as police were deported to guard a village in Myanmar after a Rakhine Buddhist mob destroyed a Rohingya mosque. Violence erupted last week as angry mob of around 200 Buddhists attacked a village in Bago province, destroying not just the mosque but also a religious school and a Muslim cemetery.
Police said that around 70 Rohingya villagers, mostly children and women, had to take refuge in the police station in the village.
The tensions come as Rohingyas -- described by the UN as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world -- find themselves in the centre of a political controversy once again. The country’s leader, known ironically for her pro-democracy stance, Aung San Suu Kyi told the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights that the government will avoid using the term "Rohingya" to describe the minority community. The stance was reiterated by Myanmar's military-backed opposition, who also refused to accept the ethnonym "Rohingya," instead using "Bengali" to describe the community.
Rohingyas identify themselves by that name, as the connotation of the word “Bengali” is that of a foreigner -- enabling the Myanmar government to deprive the community of basic rights on the basis of them being outsiders. Rohingya, however, have lived in Myanmar for generations.
The controversy comes as the UN released a new report last week, saying the Rohingya have been deprived of nationality and undergone systematic discrimination and severe restrictions on movements. They have also suffered executions and torture that together may amount to crimes against humanity, the report said. U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said in the report the Rohingya are excluded from a number of professions and need special paperwork to access hospitals, which has resulted in delays and deaths of babies and their mothers during childbirth. It was the first time Zeid said these and other long-standing violations could add up to crimes against humanity, an international crime.
Some 140,000 Rohingya remain displaced in squalid camps since fighting erupted in Rakhine State between Buddhists and Muslims in 2012. The conditions and violence have forced them to leave -- making the treacherous and dangerous journey by sea to countries that often close their borders and restrict entry. Last year, for a brief period, the Rohingya claimed international attention as several boats carrying members of the group who were fleeing their home country were stranded at sea, being denied entry from destination countries such as Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia.
The voyage, however, is a yearly occurrence -- as large numbers of the minority community make the treacherous journey in hope of a better life. Every year, several die trying to make the journey, with the media barely reporting these casualties.
In addition to the lack of international support and attention, the Rohingya continue to be persecuted against in their home country. The conditions are so bad that around 300 000 Rohingya are in need of humanitarian aid, including 140 000 still living in camps meant to be temporary, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Despite the change in government -- where a democratic government led by Aung Saan Suu Kyi has finally ended the military’s categorical dominance -- the Rohingyas plight remains just as miserable. In fact, the National League for Democracy (NLD) has remained virtually silent on the issue of the Rohingya -- prompting a UN official to recently warn that Myanmar’s Rohingya minority risked being forgotten in the afterglow of the recent elections, a process they were not part of. Last month, John Ging, director of operations at the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), made a statement after visiting Rohingya camps in Myanmar's western Rakhine state. "It was heartbreaking to see so many children in these dreadful conditions," Ging said. "One mother told me that her baby, less than a month old, died from lack of oxygen in December after she was denied access to treatment at the nearby township hospital.”
The roots of the crisis lie in the denial of rights to the Rohingya in Myanmar. In fact, his continuation of denying the Rohingya the right to a nationality makes direct violence against the Rohingyas far more possible and likely than it would be otherwise. The system’s context lies in the 1982 Citizenship Act, which supersedes all citizenship regimes in Myanmar. The Act created three classes of citizens - full, associate, and naturalised. Full citizenship is reserved for those whose ancestors settled in Myanmar before the year 1823 or who are members of one of Myanmar’s 135 recognized national ethnic groups - which, according to the recent census, continues to exclude the Rohingya. Associate citizenship applies to those who have been conferred citizenship under a previous 1948 law, which requires an awareness of the law and a level of proof that few Rohingyas possess. Naturalised citizenship is applicable to those who have resided in Myanmar on or before 1948, and here too, the Rohingya are denied citizenship as the government of Myanmar retains the discretion to deny citizenship even when criteria are adequately met.
It is under the legal system and the denial of recognition that the Rohingya continue to remain a stateless people. Myanmar, which as a member nation of the UN is obligated to promote “universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction,” fails to do so for the Rohingyas who are subjected to policies and practises that constitute violations of their fundamental rights and freedoms. They face restrictions on movement, forced labour, land confiscation, forced evictions, extortions and arbitrary taxations, restrictions on marriage, employment, healthcare and education.
There is an element of political opportunism in reference to the Rohingya in Myanmar. In 1990, Rohingya were permitted to form political parties and vote in multiparty elections. Myanmar even accepted about 250,000 repatriated Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh in 1992 and 1994 issuing Temporary Resident Cards to some. Rohingyas were permitted to vote in the 2008 constitutional referendum and 2010 elections. In fact, in the 2010 elections the voting rights were tied to the promise of citizenship if the Rohingya voted for the military regime’s representatives. However, Rohingyas are yet to be included as a part of any reconciliation programme involving ethnic groups, with Myanmar’s former President Thein Sein, in the wake of the 2012 violence, stating that the Rohingya could not and would not be accepted as citizens or residents of Myanmar, going as far as to asking the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to consider placing the Rohingya in camps outside of the country and resettling them to others. While it is true that Thein Sein and other Myanmar officials have had to moderate their position since due to external international pressure, Myanmar continues to violate UN convention by rendering the Rohingya stateless. A relevant convention is the Convention of the Reduction of Statelessness which obligates states to prevent, reduce, and avoid statelessness by granting “its nationality to a person born in its territory who would otherwise be stateless.” The Myanmar government is in clear violation of this convention, with hundreds of thousands of Rohingya having been displaced in the last 25 years.
It is this system that has perpetuated violence against the Rohingyas in Myanmar, with violent clashes between the country’s majority Buddhist population and the Rohingyas leading to deaths and displacement of the minority muslim community in 2012, 2009, 2001, 1978 and 1992, amongst other instances. In the most recent case of widespread violence in 2012, hundred of Rohingya villages and settlements were destroyed, tens of thousands of homes razed, and at least 115,000 Rohingyas displaced in camps in Myanmar, across the Bangladesh border, or further afield on boats.
The UN has termed the Rohingyas one of the most persecuted minorities in the world, a condition aggravated by the role of countries such as Bangladesh and Thailand that have turned back genuine refugees, with Thailand’s military being accused in 2009-10 of towing hundreds of Rohingya out to sea in poorly equipped boats and scant food and water after they tried to flee Myanmar. Although Thailand “categorically denies” the charge, the accusations have some merit as about 650 Rohingya were rescued off India and Indonesia, some saying that they had been beaten by Thai soldiers.
It is under these circumstance that rights groups have alleged that the Myanmar government is supporting a policy of “ethnic cleansing” of the Rohingya, with William Schabas, a member of the International Association of Genocide Scholars saying that “the Rohingya are the prima facie victims of the crime against humanity of persecution,” consisting of “the severe deprivation of fundamental rights on discriminatory grounds.”
It is a combination of the actions of the Rakhine Buddhist majority and the inaction of the Myanmar government, within the context of a legal system that ratifies, condones, and perpetuates the systematic discrimination of the Rohingya in Myanmar.
(A photograph of a mother and child at a Rohingya refugee camp in New Delhi. The entire photoessay is available here).