ODVV Interview: There is little doubt that...
The Rohingya people, an ethnic minority practicing a Sufi-inflected rendition of Sunni Islam, have lived in Myanmar’s Rakhine State for generations, and have historically endured systemic discrimination and repression at the hands of a government that does not recognize their right to citizenship, which means they are in effect a stateless entity. The plight of the Rohingyas came under international scrutiny when the outbreak of sectarian violence in 2015 strong-armed thousands of the Muslim inhabitants of Rakhine State into leaving their villages and camps, desperately questing for shelter and safety in the neighboring countries on hazardous journeys. Thus far, over 1 million Rohingyas have been forcibly displaced, often submitting themselves to the fatal seductions of migrant smugglers who promise them protection but leave them stranded to die on high seas.
As reported by the Ontario International Development Agency, since August 2017, at least 24,000 Rohingya Muslims have been killed, more than 34,000 of them have been thrown into fires and 114,000 others have been tortured. Shockingly enough, as many as 18,000 Rohingya girls and women have been sexually assaulted by members of Myanmar army and police. At least a total of 400 Rohingya villages have been burned and demolished in their entirety to be replaced by police barracks and government offices. These atrocities are alternatively described by international rights and charity organizations as campaigns of ethnic cleansing, genocide and crimes against humanity. Yet, the media coverage of the emergency has been way less restricted than its magnitude seems to warrant. The Rohingya crisis has implicated several other countries that presently bear the brunt of thousands of asylum-seekers in need of healthcare, education and food to be able to survive. Only in the city of Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, 914,000 Rohingyas are settled in what is known as the most densely populated refugee camp in the world.
Ali Riaz is a distinguished professor of political science at Illinois State University. A non-resident senior fellow of Atlantic Council, Prof. Riaz is the President of American Institute of Bangladesh Studies (AIBS). He is an expert on South Asian politics and was a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in 2013.
Organization for Defending Victims of Violence has talked to Prof. Riaz to discuss the complexities of the Rohingya refugee crisis, the role of international organizations in addressing the dilemma and the performance of the Myanmar government in responding to violations of human rights.
Q: Rohingya Muslims have been living in Myanmar for a long period of time, and they are first believed to have arrived in the Arakan Kingdom in the 15th century. Since independence in 1948, the government of Myanmar has refused to grant them citizenship and has excluded them from the 135 ethnic groups it constitutionally recognizes, effectively rendering them stateless. Why does the government insist on refraining from upholding the rights of the Rohingyas and granting them equal citizenship privileges?
A: The marginalization of Rohingyas within Myanmar began soon after independence as the original constitution remained ambiguous on the rights of the ethnic community, but the denial of citizenship was the result of the 1982 Citizenship Law. The 1982 Law put a cutoff point of being a citizen of Myanmar who belongs to the National Races. The State considered those who have settled prior to 1824, the date of first occupation of Myanmar, as eligible to be citizens. The presence of Rohingyas in Myanmar can be traced back to 8th century, yet Rohingyas were not considered as a national race. The 1982 law has categorized citizenship into three categories: citizenship, associate citizenship, and naturalized citizenship. This law was promulgated after thousands of Rohingyas were repatriated from Bangladesh where they took refuge in 1978-79 after the Myanmar military launched Operation Dragon in 1977 ahead of the census. As such, the goal to deprive Rohingyas of citizenship was planned well ahead of 1982.
The government’s argument is that Rohingyas have arrived from Bangladesh and therefore most of the members of the ethnic community have been officially labeled as resident foreigners. Two factors are commonly cited for the denial. Firstly, Rohingyas had supported the British during the colonization of Myanmar, and that religious tensions between Buddhists and Muslims are being fomented by Rohingyas who are adherents of Islam. However, these arguments are a result of a highly skewed narrative of history, and propaganda of Buddhist extremists.
The primary reasons for the state policies towards the Rohingyas are two-fold. Firstly, the Amyo or nation, batha or individual belief or religion, and thathana or religious institutions were the basis of the independence movement and continued to be the premise of the nation state. This is the reflection of exclusionary Bamar nationalism, and the state has seen any kind of diversity as a challenge to national identity. This is more so because of the religion of the Rohingya community. The exclusionary Bamar identity has gained strength and has been radicalized in recent decades through the movements named the 969 Movement and Ma Ba Tha – Association for the Protection of Race and Religion. The second factor is the regional political economy. In the past decade, the Rakhine State has become important to both China and India. There has been massive investment in the region by China for strategic reasons and it has become an integral part of the Chinese endeavor to extend its sphere of influence.
Q: The Myanmar government has institutionalized discrimination against the Rohingya Muslims, including by placing curbs on their marriage, family planning, occupation, education and freedom of movement. In the cities of Maungdaw and Buthidaun, for example, the Rohingya couples are allowed to have only two children, and in order to get married, they should obtain certain permissions from the authorities. What are the driving forces of these discriminatory policies? Is the government concerned about the growth of the population of Muslims and the proliferation of Islamic practices?
A: Although the government policies do not speak of religion, there is no doubt religion played a key role in the decisions. We must recall that Muslims were expelled from the army in 1962. However, it is not because of the growth of population or proselytizing of Muslim community, but as religion is one of the factors of Bamar nationalism, it is viewed as a major hindrance in creating a homogenous nation. Islamophobia has been a part of the society, as in many other places. But it has been nurtured by the Myanmar state, heightened by social practice and then brought to the forefront by Buddhist organizations. Unfortunately, the democratization process allowed these forces to become the mainstay of politics. Aung San Suu Kyi has ridden on this sentiment and didn’t face it because her primary focus was somewhere else. She has benefited from the sentiment and organizations.
Q: After the government declared the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army a terrorist group in 2017 and launched large-scale incursions into Muslim-inhabited villages and carried out campaigns of killing, an exodus of Rohingya Muslims was set in motion and large populations of them sought refuge in such countries as Bangladesh, Malaysia, India, Thailand and Indonesia. Yet, even in these host countries, they face a litany of challenges including in access to education and healthcare, and are considered as illegal immigrants. Has the United Nations been able to introduce a reliable mechanism enabling these refugees to enjoy an average life with basic amenities?
A: The UN and its various organizations have been working closely with the Bangladeshi government to provide as much support as possible. The International Organization for Migration and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees are integral parts of the Rohingya refugees’ camps. The Bangladesh government has never complained that the support was grossly inadequate, but there is no doubt that there is more to do.
The living conditions are atrocious, and camps have been deteriorating in the past years as these were not meant to be used for such a long time. Besides, other facilities barely meet the basic minimum standard. The Bangladesh government has moved thousand of refugees to a distant island, despite serious objections of the international community. The facilities appear to be better, but it has created problems of isolation. The most devastating thing that is happening is the absence of educational opportunities for youth. We are witnessing the growth of a lost generation. As for other countries, especially the Southeast Asian countries, they have sheltered a small number of refugees. Most importantly, these countries have continued to support the Myanmar government which is contributing to the continued persecution and weakening the likelihood of repatriation.
Q: The first democratic government of Myanmar was installed in 2016, but critics say Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the civilian government, hasn’t capitalized on her power and international credibility as a Nobel Peace Prize laureate to mitigate the suffering of the Rohingya Muslims, only because she is concerned about alienating the Buddhist nationalists and undermining the power-sharing agreement with the military. Why has the government been unable to address this humanitarian morass?
A: What you are describing as humanitarian morass, is essentially a political issue. The decision about the Rohingya question is not about a matter of providing some help to a group of people but to decide whether an inclusive national identity is acceptable to the regime. Aung San Suu Kyi built her power base within the supporters of Bamar nationalism. Her decision to share power with the military was described by many as pragmatic and a step towards gradual democratization. But she only provided a veneer of democracy and it collapsed like a house of cards. The hybrid regime that came into existence through the 2016 election returned to the authoritarian path with the coup d’état of February 2021.
Q: The United Nations has identified the developments of the recent years in the Rakhine State in Myanmar as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” Aung San Suu Kyi, however, has repudiated the allegations of ethnic cleansing and even told an International Criminal Court hearing that no genocide had taken place in her country, and had this been the case, Myanmar’s military justice system would have duly investigated the crimes. What’s your view? Can terms such as ethnic cleansing or genocide be deployed to describe what is going on there? Does this make a difference to how the international community responds to the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding?
A: There is very little doubt that genocide has taken place in Rakhine. At the diplomatic level, these terms have implications as they determine the response. But on the ground, they have very little differences, particularly when you are on the receiving end. For Rohingyas, this is nothing short of a process to annihilate. There are implications of the terms used. Genocide is well defined in international laws, and intent to eliminate an entire group of people is described as the key feature; but this is difficult to prove whereas ethnic cleansing is still to be defined and is not considered a crime under international law. If violence is described as genocide, it forces the international community to act, doing nothing is no longer an option. As for Myanmar, the ongoing proceedings in the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court will determine how this diplomatic maneuvering of words play out.
Q: Nearly 914,000 Rohingya refugees live in the Cox’s Bazar district of Bangladesh, and the majority of them survive only with the help of international aid organizations contributing meals periodically. Half of these refugees are children who are severely malnourished. Does Bangladesh retain the infrastructure and resources needed to support this relatively large population living in what is called the world’s largest, most densely crowded refugee camp?
A: The Bangladesh government has responded very generously and in the utmost humanitarian way to the Rohingya refugees. Despite being a small country with limited resources, it has been doing a remarkably good job. Sheltering the million refugees in a small area has caused serious damage to the environment and impacted the local community. However, there is no doubt that this is not enough. Bangladeshi should not be solely responsible for taking care of the refugees. The international community has provided financial support. More needs to be done.
The most important issue is to find a way to ensure that the refugees can return home with dignity and security. The international community has miserably failed on that count. The Bangladesh government has also made serious mistakes when it signed a bilateral agreement with the Myanmar government regarding the repatriation. The absence of a guarantor and measures to hold Myanmar accountable have enabled Myanmar to delay the process. Myanmar has essentially benefited from the agreement.
Q: In what ways do the recent military coup in Myanmar and the declaration of a one-year state of emergency change the status quo for the Rohingya Muslims, 600,000 of whom still live in the embattled Rakhine State? Is the military commander Gen. Min Aung Hlaing able to avoid international prosecution for his alleged crimes against humanity owing to taking over the government?
A: The coup has altered the political landscape in Myanmar. The new situation is more likely to be affecting the minorities in the country, especially the Rohingyas. The army will have no reason to exercise any restraints. The status quo will not change, except for getting worse. The military takeover, at least in the short term, will be able to protect its leaders including Gen. Min Aung Hlaing from international prosecution. But whether that will be the case in the long run depends on the success of the pro-democracy movement. The ongoing pro-democracy movement is increasingly gaining ground and appears to be becoming more inclusive. That is the sliver lining. Hopefully, a majority of the Myanmar population will be able to realize that the battle for democracy must be inclusive and a new national identity of a multiethnic and multireligious Myanmar is to be forged.
By Kourosh Ziabari