Preventing mass atrocities against The stateless Rohingya in Myanmar: a call for solutions.

Author:Southwick, Katherine
Position:Refugees and Statelessness
 
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This article constitutes a call for solutions to the prolonged and worsening plight of the Rohingya, a largely stateless, Muslim minority based in western Myanmar. Over the past year, a number of experts have invoked the possibility of genocide against this group, citing a dangerous combination of ethnic and religious tensions, discriminatory deprivation of basic rights, restricted access to food and medicine, hate speech, and large numbers fleeing the country. Yet up to now, domestic and international responses to the Rohingya crisis have been weak, with serious consequences for this community, the prospects of democratic transition and rule of law in Myanmar, and the integrity of international law. This article highlights the basis for why the possibility of genocide has been raised and argues that the international community has legal obligations to act. These considerations could contribute to sharpening focus on the urgent need for regionally coordinated solutions, based on enforceable principles of nondiscrimination and inclusion, specifically guarantees of citizenship rights and protection. These are critical elements of democratic development in divided societies like Myanmar.

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A number of human rights concerns accompany Myanmar's historic transition from authoritarianism to democracy, such as the recruitment of child soldiers, the continued imprisonment of political critics, restrictions on freedom of expression, land grabs, and police abuses, among others. (1) Some observe that any one of these issues, alone or in concert with others, threatens to undermine the success of reform. (2) Others tacitly suggest that the process of transition will not be smooth, and that it is only realistic to compromise and adjust expectations with respect to human rights. (3)

This article does not presume to rank or evaluate the importance of each human rights concern in Myanmar. Ideally, they should be treated together to maximize the prospects for the country's long-awaited transition, as well as the normative values of human rights, consistent with the country's constitution

and international obligations. Yet one issue requires a certain level of moral and legal clarity in light of international law and public discourse: the prolonged and worsening persecution of the Rohingya, a largely stateless, Muslim minority group based in western Myanmar. Over the past year, a number of experts have invoked the possibility of genocide against this group, citing a dangerous combination of ethnic and religious tensions, discriminatory deprivation of basic rights, restricted access to food and medicine, hate speech, and large numbers fleeing the country. (4) Deepening discrimination and hatred against this group, including among certain Burmese democracy activists, precludes democratic principles from taking root, and increasingly complicates the international community's engagement with the country. (5) As Buddhist nationalist groups drum up support in the lead-up to general elections in October and November this year, the lives of the Rohingya, along with those of other Muslims and minorities, seem to hang ever more in the balance. (6)

Yet up to now, domestic and international responses to the Rohingya crisis have been weak, with serious consequences for this community, the prospects of democratic transition and rule of law in Myanmar, and the integrity of international law. This article constitutes a call for solutions, based on the gravest obligations of international law and shared interest in supporting a credible and sustainable transition in Myanmar. In short, greater political will, imagination, and resources are needed to protect the Rohingya and resolve their predicament once and for all.

This article begins with some background that illustrates how, under current dynamics, the plight of the Rohingya will continue to worsen. As the Rohingya face an increasingly desperate situation in Myanmar, the conditions they face in other countries also deteriorate. Moreover, discrimination and denial of this group's rights to identity and citizenship are linked with the deprivation of other human rights, to the point where concerns about persecution and genocide begin to arise. The article will highlight the basis for why the possibility of genocide has been raised and make the argument that, in accordance with the United Nations (UN) Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine and the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (Genocide Convention), the international community has obligations to act. These considerations could contribute to a sharpening focus on the urgent need for regionally coordinated solutions, ideally through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Myanmar is a member. Solutions must be based on enforceable principles of nondiscrimination and inclusion, specifically guarantees of citizenship rights and protection. These are critical elements of democratic development in divided societies like Myanmar.

BACKGROUND

The Rohingya constitute a Muslim minority that has lived in Rakhine State in western Myanmar bordering Bangladesh for at least 200 years. (7) The Myanmar government and others in the country refer to them as "Bengalis" or "illegal migrants," referring to the nineteenth-century migration of laborers and merchants from India during the British colonial period. (8) Others contend that the Rohingya are descended from Muslims who arrived in the region in the ninth century. (9) Long-standing tensions are partly rooted in perceived Indian and Muslim support for the British during World War II, when Burmese leaders were seeking independence, as well as a period in the 1950s during which armed factions from both ethnic Rakhine and Muslim communities separately demanded autonomy from the central government. (10)

The Rohingya were effectively stripped of citizenship under a law enacted in 1982. (11) For decades, they have suffered discrimination, forced labor, and campaigns of violence--most notably between 1977-1978 and 1991-1992--largely inflicted by government security forces. Inter-communal violence among radical Buddhists in Rakhine State and Rohingya Muslims erupted in 2012 and 2013, resulting in more than 200 deaths and around 125,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs). (12) Buddhist nationalist movements helped to inflame tensions through hate speech against Muslim minorities, referring to them as "crude and savage" and "a most dangerous and fearful poison." (13)

CONDITIONS IN MYANMAR

The displaced Rohingya are confined to camps and villages where they must obtain a permit to leave or seek healthcare. Based on alleged concerns about "population explosion," for almost ten years Rohingya in certain townships have faced onerous marriage restrictions and have been subject to a two-child policy. (14) Fear of prosecution has compelled many pregnant women to seek unsafe abortions. (15) Youth have no access to formal education, and infants and young children are especially vulnerable to starvation and death. In July 2012, a UN nutrition assessment found that

Some 2,000 acutely malnourished children were facing a high risk of mortality, with 650 of these children in a severe condition and in urgent need of therapeutic feeding, and an additional nearly 9,000 children in need of micronutrient supplements. A further 2,500 children were likely to develop acute malnutrition if adequate food, healthcare, and water and sanitation were not provided. (16)

Almost two years later, in February 2014, the government banned Doctors Without Borders, also known by its French name, Medecins sans Frontieres, (MSF), the main healthcare provider for the country's estimated 1 million Rohingya. The organization was ejected after caring for the victims of a violent assault on a Rohingya village that the government denied had ever occurred. (17) Less than a month later, radical Buddhists, claiming that humanitarian assistance organizations disproportionately favored the Rohingya, raided Red Cross and UN aid agencies, forcing some 700 foreign aid workers to evacuate. (18) After assistance was cut off, deaths in the displacement camps were feared to have increased sharply. (19) In July 2014, the government announced that MSF could resume operations in Rakhine State, and by December, it was able to reopen a few primary health clinics. (20)

In 2014, the Myanmar government carried out its first census in three decades, which, partly in an effort to appeal to Buddhist and Rakhine nationalist sentiment, required Rohingya individuals who wished to be counted to register as "Bengalis." In October of that year, the government released its Rakhine State Action Plan, which stipulated that Rohingya could apply for citizenship, again provided that they register as "Bengalis." Those who "refuse to be registered and without adequate documents" would be placed in camps. (21) Fluman Rights Watch claims that this plan would "entrench discriminatory policies that deprive Rohingya Muslims in Burma of citizenship and lead to forced resettlement." (22)

Government officials have further pressured foreign officials not to use the word "Rohingya," and UN representatives have said they avoid using the term in public so as to avoid raising tensions between Buddhists and Muslims. (23) However, during a July 2014 visit to the country, UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, rejected this approach:

I was repeatedly told not to use the term 'Rohingya' as this was not recognized by the government. Yet, as a human rights independent expert, I am guided by international human rights law. In this regard, the rights of minorities to self-identify on the basis of their national, ethnic, religious, and linguistic characteristics is related to the obligations of states to ensure non-discrimination against individuals and groups. (24) On a visit to Myanmar in...

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