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‘Rohingya’: Stateless within their own State

Aung San Suu Kyi

The brutality and torture against the ‘Rohingya’ community has been ongoing since 1785, when the Burmese king ‘Bodapaw paya’ conquered Arakan. Immediately after, ethnic violence broke out and led to the mass migration of the Rohingya to Chittagong in Bangladesh. The most recent violence began in early October 2016 after the killing of a number of Myanmar police personnel by a group of armed insurgents and in response Myanmar’s military launched an intense crackdown. According to an Agence France-Presse (AFP) report, at least 70 people were killed, hundreds arrested and more than 30,000 fled to Bangladesh within the last two months. Human Rights Watch on November 21, 2016 said the latest satellite images bring the total number of razed buildings to 1,250. But all these reports could be the tip of the iceberg. Heavy restrictions on access to the area have made it difficult for journalists and independent observers to document abuses by the army. Gross human rights violations, extrajudicial killings, rape, torture, lack of basic healthcare, education and the absence of citizenship rights have pushed the ‘Rohingya’ community to the verge of being ethnically cleansed. The United Nations has described them as one of the most persecuted communities in the world. This write-up will try to explore the roots of Rohingya and their ongoing crisis.

The United Nations has described them as one of the most persecuted communities in the world.

Myanmar, officially known as the Republic of the Union of Myanmar got independence on 4th January, 1948. According to the 2014 census, its population is 51,486,253. Unfortunately the census did not include the ‘Rohingya’ community which is more than 1% of the total population and 4% of Arakan province’s population of Myanmar. The military led government defined them as illegal Bengali migrants during the census. In 2015, democratic transition and reform happened in Myanmar and the National League for Democracy (NLD) formed the government. Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi became the de-facto head of the country. Sadly, the new democratically elected government continues to follow the military ruler’s official position which denies recognition of the term Rohingya and regards them as illegal Bengali migrants.

The word Rohingya is an ethno-religious term which means Muslim people whose ancestral home is in Arakan. Rohingya are the descendants of Moorish, Arab and Persian traders, including Moghul, Turk, Pathan and Bangali soldiers and migrants, who arrived in Arakan state between the 9th and 16th centuries. During that period the Buddhist and Muslims lived in harmony and peace. There was free movement and mixing among all the ethnic communities. After the outburst of the Burmese king in 1785, many Rohingya fled to Chittagong, returning under British occupation in 1824. In 1935, when the Burmese nationalist movement started, Rohingyas again had to leave their homes. During that genocide more than 100,000 people were killed. In 1947, the British occupation of Burma led to the re-entry of Rohingyas into their homeland after decades in exile. After independence, General Aung San (Suu Kyi’s father) recognised them as citizens of independent Myanmar. After Aung San’s assassination, his work towards peaceful coexistence was carried forward to some extent by Mr. U Nu, under whose rule Rohingyas were allowed to vote and enjoy basic rights. But in 1962, when General Ne Win took the power after a military coup, the organized Rohingya genocide began. Under the 1974 Emergency Immigration Act, and with the Citizen Act of 1982, the Rohingyas were denied citizenship of Myanmar. The Constitution of Myanmar states that any ethnic group that has lived within Burmese territory before 1823 are natives. Regrettably, Rohingyas were not included under that clause.

At present, approximately 500,000 Rohingyas are taking shelter in Bangladesh, 400,000 in Saudi Arabia, 200,000 in Pakistan and more than 100,000 in Thailand. Rohingyas are now a stateless minority in the world. They have become the pawns in the game of Burmese politics. After the recent violence, The UN, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and other agencies have condemned this military atrocity although no constructive effort so far has been seen by the Myanmar government. The international community has been appealing to the Bangladeshi government to open their borders for the Rohingya on humanitarian grounds but it has not agreed to receive any more new refugees. It is true that temporary shelter in Bangladesh is not a judicious solution to this crisis. But the view of the Myanmar officials is very depressing. “We will send them away if any third country will accept them,” Myanmar President Thein Sein said to the chief of the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) and added: “This is what we are thinking is the solution to the issue.” In reply, UNHCR’s Asia spokeswoman Kitty McKinsey said, “Basically, Myanmar does not consider these 7, 35,000 Muslims in northern Rakhine state to be its citizens, and we think the solution is for them to get citizenship of Myanmar.”

They have become the pawns in the game of Burmese politics.

The international actors, especially the UN Security Council and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) should react actively and immediately on this issue. The current human rights situation should be closely monitored in Arakan state and necessary support should be provided to Myanmar government to bring more reforms if needed. The international community should no longer observe, but act. We expect a lot from the Noble Peace laureate, an ex-OXON, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi to control this transgression against humanity. It is high time for her to accept the fact that the Rohingya belong in Myanmar as much as the other 135 ethnic communities. Religion should not be mixed with politics.

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