Photo: EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid, flickr.com
The Rohingya refugee crisis represents the most pressing humanitarian crisis in the Asia Pacific – one which challenges the moral compass of the international community and threatens peace and stability throughout the region.
The Rohingya peoples can trace their origins back to the 15th century, when thousands of Muslims migrated into the region from the former Arakan Kingdom. The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), asserts that many more Rohingyas arrived over the 19th and 20th centuries, when the Rakhine province in Burma was still governed under the colonial rule of British India. While Burma became independent in 1948, and was renamed Myanmar in 1989, both names have been used interchangeably by the international community.
Following decolonisation and independence, the U Nu government recognised the Rohingyas as a distinct indigenous ethnic group, but their citizenship was increasingly questioned by the military junta. In 1982, the Burma Socialist Program Party introduced the Citizenship Act, which stratified citizenship into three distinct categories. These categories include:
“Full” citizenship, given to those in one of the 135 official ethnic groups;
“Associate” citizenship for those who acquired it through the 1948 Union Citizenship Law; and
“Naturalised” citizenship for those who could provide conclusive evidence of entry and residence before the country’s independence.
However, the Rohingya were not identified as falling under any of these categories – their historical background and roots within Myanmar were refuted by authorities, and the government denied them recognition as one of the country’s official ethnic groups.
Both the central government, and many people throughout Burmese society, continue in their refusal to use the term “Rohingya” when addressing this ethnic group. Instead, these peoples have been repeatedly referred to as either “Rakhine Muslims” or “Bengalis”, furthering the predominant sentiment which considers them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Where Myanmar’s laws have enabled the continuing persecution of the Rohingya, this does not justify the measures adopted by the central government, and does not excuse actions which violate fundamental human rights and are contrary to international law.
The Beginnings of Persecution
The BBC reports that Rohingya Muslims represent the largest population of Muslims in Myanmar. The Rohingya are an ethnic Muslim minority whom practice a Sufi-inflected variation of Sunni Islam. However, the Berley Center asserts that the majority of the people sharing the Rakhine state with the Rohingya Muslims practice Buddhism – including the majority of Myanmar’s military. This is reflected within Myanmar’s religious demographics, where 88% of the population is Buddhist and only 3.9% are Muslim.
The Myanmar government uses a combination of religious and ethnic factors to segregate and discriminate against the Rohingya Muslims. Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing exists as one of the most powerful contributors to the ongoing crisis, who has been abusing his power and exercising his control over Myanmar’s security and military forces to support the brutal systematic eviction of the Rohingya Muslims. State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi appears to be powerless to stop the General and the military establishment from committing such heinous acts, and has been unwilling to stand against the popular opinion of the majority Buddhist society to remove this unwanted ethnic group.
Religious discrimination represents the most likely, and most significant contributing factor to the crisis in Myanmar. The Berley Center’s Tina Mufford outlines that the Rohingya Muslims have been stripped of their rights and their freedom to openly practice Islam, with their places of worship being repeatedly subjected to targeted attacks. Many Rohingyas do not have regular access to an imam because of mass displacement, and their ability to pray has been restricted by the poor conditions of refugee camps.
Under the regime of the Burmese military junta, the Rohingyas have been persecuted on religious and cultural grounds and forced to flee Myanmar, with the CFR reporting that many Rohingyas have fled to Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Bangladesh. The majority of these refugees have been living in camps, makeshift settlements and host communities in Bangladesh, where the authorities have reluctantly allowed Rohingyas to live in camps near the border of Myanmar.
The BBC states that before August 2017 there were 307,500 Rohingya refugees in these temporary housing situations – a number which increased to 687,000 by April 2018, and 909,000 refugees by March 2019 according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA). This number includes over 400,000 Rohingyas currently living in the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) border camps in Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh, which has become the world’s largest refugee camp. Bangladeshi authorities have been hesitant to provide substantial governmental support, as they fear an influx of the Rohingyas will exacerbate pre-existing domestic problems concerning chronic poverty and high population density.
Acknowledging the Ongoing Discrimination in Myanmar
On 8 February 2019, UNHCR released a statement on the humanitarian impact of the crisis in Myanmar: “UNHCR stands ready to support the humanitarian response in the affected areas in Myanmar. UNHCR has also offered its support to the Government of Bangladesh to assess and respond to the needs of people who have arrived seeking safety from violence in Myanmar.” Herein, UNHCR expressed that it and the international community were committed to seeking to alleviate the resulting humanitarian crisis, while conveniently avoiding addressing its primary causes.
However, several months later the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, presented a more critical report regarding the continuing human rights abuses perpetrated against the Rohingya. In the report Bachelet states, “Systematic discrimination and pervasive restrictions on freedom of movement continue to severely damage the human rights and fundamental freedoms of members of the Rohingya community.”
UNHCR desires to see intentional steps made towards the “safe, dignified, voluntary and sustainable return of the Rohingya and others” to their home country, for the Rohingya to be granted citizenship rights and statehood by the Burmese government, and for the fundamental human rights of the Rohingya to be respected in line with international agreements.
This noted escalation in tone by the UNHCR indicates the UN’s growing concern over the intensified persecution of Rohingyas by the Burmese government, and the deteriorating situation within refugee camps.
Wider Impacts of the Crisis
The continuing persecution of the Rohingya on religious, cultural, and ethnic grounds has resulted in the Burmese government denying their rights to statehood and citizenship – causing a significant humanitarian crisis while setting a dangerous precedent which threatens the course of social development, political stability and economic prosperity across the region.
This crisis has forced many Rohingya to flee to neighbouring countries, with the majority of refugees having taken refuge along the border in Bangladesh, adjacent to Myanmar’s Rakhine province. While this mass influx of Rohingya into Bangladesh has already placed an increased strain upon the government of a developing state and its limited resources – already stretched over a large population of 164.7 million – the number of Rohingya refugees continues to increase daily. Temporary housing solutions including camps, makeshift settlements and host communities are only temporary stopgap measures and are inadequate for sustaining such a significant refugee population over a protracted period.
The continued mass persecution and discrimination perpetrated by the Burmese government against its people is unacceptable, and has given rise to the mass displacement of the Rohingya from their country of origin through methods increasingly bordering on genocide. While Myanmar is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the persecution experienced by the Rohingya is a violation of customary international human rights law as outlined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). This includes:
Article 3 – Specifying the right to life, liberty and security of person; and
Articles 6 and 7 – Stating that every person has the right to be recognised and seen as equal before the law.
Accordingly, it falls upon the government of Myanmar to respect such human rights under international conventions, and upon the UN to fulfil its duties and promises as enshrined in the UDHR by taking sufficient actions necessary to safeguard fundamental human rights across the region and applying diplomatic and moral pressure vis-à-vis Myanmar.
The Rohingya possess inherent moral and ethical rights to be recognised as citizens of Myanmar, to practice their religion freely, and to be recognised as a legitimate ethnic group. However, until significant action is taken by the UN in addressing the disconnect between the domestic law in Myanmar and international human rights conventions, it appears unlikely that widespread oppression and discrimination against the Rohingya will cease.
The ongoing crisis in Myanmar demands that the international community act in collectively devising an all-encompassing solution that addresses the social, political, economic and human rights concerns pertinent to protecting the rights and liberties of the Rohingya peoples. Immediate diplomatic measures must aim to discourage further human rights abuses and engage in constructive dialogue with the Burmese government, should the international community seek to avoid a repeat of the failures observed in Bosnia and Rwanda.
The Rohingya have the right to citizenship in Myanmar and experience ethnic and religious freedom. However, until significant action is taken to address the underlying causes of this humanitarian issue, it appears unlikely that we will see changes towards the end of the persecution.
Madison Davis is currently studying a Bachelor of Business, majoring in Human Resources, at the Queensland University of Technology. She is passionate about human rights and an avid follower of the affairs of the United Nations.