No Country For Rohingyas

No Country For Rohingyas

According to the United Nations, Rohingya Muslims are considered to be the most persecuted minority group in the world. These unfortunate people are an ethnic Muslim minority numbering around one million living in the Buddhist majority country of Myanmar. The Rohingya have been residing in the northern parts of “Rakhine”, which is a geographically isolated state in western Myanmar. The word “Rohingya” is considered to be a taboo in a country where they have been residing for more than a century. The continued victimisation of Rohingyas at the hands of the Myanmar government is not a contemporary issue. The former British colony after achieving independence in 1948 has been struggling with armed ethnic and religious conflict.

In 1962, Myanmar witnessed its first military coup led by General Ne Win, which produced a military-state governed by socialist notions that lasted for more than six decades. The Rohingya have suffered from grave human rights violations ever since and acts of torture, murder and rape have been perpetrated by the national army against the vulnerable Rohingyas. The army has previously subjected the group to mass expulsions in the year 1977 and 1992, forcing the indigenous Rohingya to flee to an unwelcoming neighbour Bangladesh in order to seek momentary relief from the atrocities committed by the national armed forces.

However, the recent wave of violence against Rohingyas began in 2012, after the murder and rape of a young Buddhist woman. The backlash by the Myanmar authorities claimed hundreds of Rohingyan lives and resulted in the displacement of thousands of Rohingya. The situation for the Muslim minority group worsened this year in August, when militants belonging to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), branded as a militant group by the national authorities, reportedly attacked an army base in the western part of Rakhine province. The brutal military campaign launched against the Rohingya after this dubious attack has claimed dozens of lives including women and children. This has led to an unprecedented mass exodus to neighbouring Bangladesh. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 370,000 Rohingyas have since crossed the border in order to flee from the surging violence. The United Nations Human Rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein has termed the ongoing brutality as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

The tragic condition of Rohingya Muslims is predominantly exasperated by their official “statelessness”. Statelessness refers to individuals who do not possess the nationality of any state. Nationals of a state are those persons who owe permanent allegiance to a country. It signifies the legal tie between individuals and the state. The state guarantees its citizens and nationals full civil and political rights and as such is a custodian and protector of their rights. Rohingya Muslims were arbitrarily stripped of their citizenship rights in 1982 after the enactment of the draconian Citizenship Act. Under this law, Rohingyas were declared “non-national” or “foreign residents”. The act recognised 135 national races excluding the one million Rohingya, who were previously accepted as nationals under the Union Citizenship Act 1948. The 1982 Act was promulgated under the socialist military regime of Myanmar and has been a source of continued oppression for the Muslim minority group.

The introduction of the Citizenship Act of 1982 is a grave violation of international law. Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948, conceived by the United Nations states that “everyone has the right to a nationality” and that “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his or her nationality”. This deprivation of nationality has resulted in the widespread infringement of human rights. The Rohingyas do not have access to education, employment and face restrictions on their inherent right of movement and travel, including their right to vote. ‘Statelessness’ has made the Rohingyas more vulnerable to arbitrary detention, forced labour, discriminatory taxation and confiscation of property. It also snatches their basic human right to profess their religion freely as the state’s anti-discrimination laws do not afford any protection since they are non-nationals. The denial of citizenship has also provided the Myanmar authorities with a de facto licence to use unrestrained lethal force against the Rohingyas. The illegal deprivation of nationality has rendered Rohingya Muslims foreigners in their homeland and has exposed them to extreme violence and savagery.

The long-lasting solution to the Rohingya predicament lies in the repeal of the repressive 1982 Citizenship Act. The plight of Rohingyan Muslims can only be improved if they are granted full citizenship rights, which were arbitrarily taken away from them. The role of the United Nations in this context is of paramount importance. The UN should use its influence to pressurize the current democratic government led by Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to abrogate the 1982 Act. Moreover, Muslim countries should also move past their current rhetoric of condemning the human rights violations in Myanmar and take practical steps to improve the condition of Rohingyas. Pakistan should also reconsider its deal of selling 16 JF-17 aircrafts to Myanmar in order to pressurise the latter to ameliorate the Rohingya situation and grant them nationality, which was stripped arbitrarily in contravention to principles of international law.


Previously published in The Nation and republished here with permission.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of or any other organization with which he might be associated.

Usama Malik

Author: Usama Malik

The writer is a practising lawyer from Lahore who holds a Masters degree in International Development Law from the University of Warwick. He has experience practising with Aitzaz Ahsan and human rights lawyer Asma Jahangir.