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Contravention of Rohingya Refugees’ Human Rights in Myanmar

By Daruge Shayad Nasirsab


Myanmar, which was earlier known as Burma, is a country in Southeast Asia, bounded by the Bay of Bengal, Bangladesh and India to the West, and China, Laos and Thailand to the East. Democracy only recently emerged in Myanmar by arrangement with the military, which permitted a free election on 8 Nov, 2015, which elevated Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to power after years of house arrest.

Myanmar is predominantly Buddhist with small minorities of other faiths. Buddhists often target the Rohingyas. The Rohingyas are a distinct ethnicity with their own language and culture; they have a long historical connection to the Rakhine State. They describe themselves as descendants of Arab traders who settled in the region many generations ago. Scholars have stated that they have been present in the region since the 15th century. However, they have been denied citizenship by the government of Myanmar, which describes them as “illegal immigrants” from Bangladesh.

The abuse of human rights of the Rohingyas in Myanmar has a long history. According to the Myanmar state reports, armed individuals attacked several border police posts in Rakhine state, leaving nine police personnel dead. Weapons and ammunitions were also looted. The attack took place mainly in Maungdow Township. Following this incident, the Myanmar Military began a major crackdown in the villages on northern Rakhine state. In late November, the Human Rights Watch released satellite images which showed that 1,250 Rohingya houses in five villages had been burned down by security forces. The media and the human rights groups frequently reported intense human rights violation by the Myanmar military. To arrest or detain anyone without a proper reason is considered against human rights. The Myanmar authorities started arresting and arbitrarily detaining male Rohingyas between the ages of 15-40 years. Besides, they initiated acts to deprive Rohingya villagers access to food, livelihoods and other means of conducting daily activities and life. They committed repeated acts of humiliation and violence to drive out Rohingya villagers by declaring the Rohingyas as Bengalis and illegal settlers in Myanmar. The Rohingyas are under widespread fear and physical, emotional and psychological trauma because of state-sponsored killings, disappearances, torture, rape and other forms of violence. A large number of Rohingya people have been displaced and became refugees as a result of the military crackdown. The persecution against the Rohingya people garnered strong criticism across the world and created a grave concern about the human rights issues. The international communities and human rights bodies have described the violence as ‘ethnic cleansing’ and ‘genocide.’

The United Nations has given an important place to human rights in its objective. On 10 December, 1948, the United Nations proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A number of voluntary organizations such as Amnesty international and Human Rights Watch have been set up across the world to nurture and preserve human rights. The UN criticized the military crackdown on the Rohingya people by terming it as a ‘crime against humanity’. In addition, the UN in its report stated that the persecution of the Rohingyas included serious human rights violations. The UN Human Rights commissioner Zeid Raad Al Hussein stated, “The cruelty to which these Rohingya children have been subjected is unbearable – what kind of hatred could make a man stab a baby crying out for his or her mother’s milk?

Furthermore, the Myanmar military often opened fire with mortar shells and machine guns on fleeing Rohingya women and children. The dead bodies of many Rohingya people began to be washed ashore from the drowned boats as they attempted to cross the Naf River to enter Bangladesh. By the second week of September 2017, at least 1000 Rohingyas were killed. The majority of them died from gunshot wounds, while others were burned alive in their homes. There were also reports of mass killings of Rohingyas by the military and Buddhist vigilantes in various villages of the Rakhine state. The Myanmar authorities bulldozed, flattened and burnt Rohingya villages and mass graves in order to destroy the evidence of atrocities committed by the Myanmar military.

Every country must have a proper legal and judicial system to preserve human rights of every individual. The right to acquire nationality is the right of an individual to get the status of a citizen in his or her country. Since 1982, the Rohingyas have been denied citizenship in Myanmar, which has effectively rendered them stateless. They live in the western coastal state of Rakhine and are not allowed to leave without government permission. The state is the poorest in the country and lacks basic services and opportunities. Due to ongoing violence and persecution, hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas have fled to neighboring countries over the course of many decades.

According to many historians, Rohingya Muslims have been living in the area since as early as the 12th century. During the British rule (1824-1948), there was a significant amount of migration of labourers to Myanmar from India including today’s Bangladesh. Since Myanmar was a British-administered province of India, such migration was considered as internal. The British policy had encouraged Bengali inhabitants from adjacent regions to migrate into the then lightly populated and fertile valleys of Arakan as farm laborers. However, the East India Company extended the Bengal Presidency to Arakan. There were no international boundaries between Bengal and Arakan and no restrictions on migration between the regions. In the early nineteenth century, thousands of Bengalis from the Chittagong region settled in Arakan seeking work. Ironically, those who suffered exploitation under the British are now making the Rohingyas suffer by their illegal crackdown. After independence of Myanmar, the government viewed the migration illegal that took place during British rule. It is on this basis that they refuse citizenship to the majority of Rohingyas. Shortly after the independence of Myanmar in 1948, the union citizenship act was passed, defining which ethnicities could gain citizenship. The act did not allow citizenship to the Rohingyas, except for those whose families had lived in Myanmar for at least two generations. After 1962, all citizens were required to obtain national registration cards. The Rohingyas were only given foreign identity cards, which limited the job and educational opportunities they could pursue. In addition, in 1982 a new citizenship law was passed. Under the new law, the Rohingyas became stateless. In order to obtain the most basic level of citizenship, the proof was needed that the person’s family lived in Myanmar before independence (1948). Besides he or she should be fluent in one of the national languages. Many Rohingyas lack such paperwork because it was either unavailable or denied to them. The Rohingyas’ rights to study, work, travel, marry, practice their religion and access health services have been continually restricted. They cannot vote, and even if they navigate the citizenship test, they must identify as naturalized; limits are placed on them entering certain professions such as medicine or law or running for office. Besides, the freedom to practice one’s religion based on one’s choice is also one of the basic human rights. In Myanmar, the Rohingyas are deprived of basic human rights and this makes them the world’s largest stateless community.

Since the 1970s, a number of crackdowns on the Rohingya in the Rakhine state has forced hundreds of thousands to flee to neighboring Bangladesh, Malaysia, Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries. During such crackdowns, refugees have often reported rape, torture, arson and murder by Myanmar security forces. After the killing of nine border police in October 2016, the government blamed what it claimed were fighters from an armed Rohingya group and troops started pouring into the villages of the Rakhine state. The security crackdown on villages where the Rohingya lived is encroachment of human rights. The residents and activists have described troops firing indiscriminately at unarmed Rohingya men, women and children.

In contrast, the government has claimed that nearly hundred people were killed after armed men from the Arkan Rohingya Salvation Army launched a raid on police outposts in the region. The Myanmar border guard police and Buddhist militias alongside the armed forces of Rakhine were also involved in these atrocities. The Rohingya women and girls were made the target of rapes and sexual violence because of their ethnic identity and religion. Other forms of sexual violence included sexual slavery in military captivity, forced public nudity, and humiliation. Similarly, some women and girls were raped to death, while others were found carrying raw wounds and being traumatized after they arrived in refugee camps in Bangladesh.

Since the violence erupted, the rights groups have documented fires burning down at least 10 areas of Myanmar’s Rakhine state. In February, 2018, the associated press released a video showing what they claimed was the site of a massacre and at least five undisclosed mass graves of Rohingyas in Myanmar. The UN’s special rapporteur to Myanmar said violence against the Rohingyas bears the hallmarks of genocide. Due to widespread persecution nearly one million Rohingyas fled Myanmar since the late 1970s to Saudi Arabia, UAE, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.

In addition, Myanmar has blocked media access and the visits of international bodies to the Rakhine state. The government charged and imprisoned Reuters journalists who had been covering the refugee story. Similarly, the government has often restricted access to northern Rakhine state for journalists and aid workers. Two Reuters reporters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, have been sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment in Myanmar. A Myanmar judge found them guilty of breaching a law on state secrets. When they collected and obtained confidential documents, they were held guilty for covering the murders of ten Rohingya men as part of their duty. The Deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, Phil Robertson says, “What  we’re seeing these two men being sent to prison simply for doing their jobs and this is sending a signals to the rest of the Myanmar reporters that if you cross the military, if you cross the government, they can make your life a living hell.

Similarly, the country has also denied visas to members of a UN probe agency investigating the violence and alleged abuses in Rakhine. Yanghee Lee, a UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, said that she was denied access to certain parts of Rakhine and was only allowed to speak to Rohingyas who had been pre-approved by the government. There are more than half a million Rohingya refugees living in mostly makeshift camps in Bangladesh. The majority of them remain unregistered.

The icon of democracy and State chancellor Aung San Suu Kyi is the de facto leader of Myanmar. However, she and her government denied the Rohingyas the status of an ethnic group and she also refused to discuss the plight of the Rohingyas. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate has been criticized for not having control over the military as well as for her failure to condemn the indiscriminate use of force by troops and to stand up for the rights of over one million Rohingyas in Myanmar. However, she entrusted former UN chief Kofi Annan with finding ways to heal the long-standing divisions in the region. Annan was not given the mandate to investigate specific cases of human rights abuses, but rather one to look at long-term economic development, education and healthcare. In addition, Suu Kyi, made a major televised speech on the crisis in which she said, “We condemn all human rights violations and unlawful violence.” She also indicated a desire to know why the Rohingya were fleeing. But she largely defended her prior position supporting the Myanmar military and its actions, and deflected international criticism by saying most Rohingya villages remained intact, and conflict had not broken out everywhere. She also added, “We are committed to the restoration of peace and stability and rule of law throughout the state.”

The Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina visited a Rohingya refugee camp in September and called on the UN and the international community to pressure Myanmar’s government to allow the return of hundreds of thousands Rohingya refugees. However, she said that Bangladesh would offer the refugees temporary shelter and aid, but that Myanmar should soon their ‘take nationals back’. The country’s National Commission for Human Rights also said that it was considering “pressing for a trial against Myanmar, and against the Myanmar army at an international tribunal on charges of ‘genocide’.”

The UN secretary General issued a statement on September 13, 2017, in which he implied that the situation facing the Rohingyas in the Rakhine state was ‘ethnic cleansing.’ He urged Myanmar authorities to suspend military action and stop the violence, insisting that Myanmar government uphold the rule of law, and recognize the refugees’ right to return to their homes. The UN and several rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have consistently decried the treatment of the Rohingyas by Myanmar and neighboring countries. Similarly, the UN human rights chief Zeid bin Ra’ad al-Hussein urged Myanmar to end its brutal security operation against the Rohingya in Rakhine. The Arkan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) is formally categorized as a terrorist organization by the Myanmar government. Ra’ad announced that the Rohingya persecution may constitute genocide under international human rights laws. The British Prime Minister Theresa May and the United States secretary of state Rex Tillerson described the situation as ‘ethnic cleansing.’ Besides, the French President Emanuel Macron called it ‘genocide’.

Malaysia initially refused to provide refuge to the people reaching its shore but later agreed to provide temporary refuge to the Rohingyas. Similarly, Indonesia agreed to provide temporary refuge to the Rohingyas. Besides, Thailand said that it will provide humanitarian assistance and would not turn away boats that wish to enter its waters. The Philippines government expressed its wish to provide shelter for Rohingya Refugees from Myanmar. Likewise, the Gambia government expressed their deep concern over the issue and said that it was a sacred duty to help alleviate the untold hardships and sufferings of fellow human beings. The Bangladesh government announced a plan to relocate the 32,000 registered Rohingya refugees who have spent years in camps near the Myanmar border.

India refused to let the Rohingya refugees enter the country citing that they “posed national security threats”. However, it was found that around 40,000 Rohingya immigrants have taken shelter in Assam, West Bengal, and Jammu and Kashmir. Kiran Rijiju, a Cabinet Minister of India, said, “All the Rohingya refugees are illegal immigrants and will be deported back.” Besides, the Supreme Court of India has stated that it will hear the arguments based only on points of law and have asked to avoid emotional arguments as the issue is related to the humanitarian cause. In response to the crises, the Government of India began ‘Operation Insaniyat’ as humanitarian aid to Bangladesh government to manage the huge Rohingya refugee population in Bangladesh. The Sikh volunteers of Khalsa Aid reached Bangladesh-Myanmar border and distributed langar to thousands of refugees living in camps.

Right to live means the right to live with dignity. It implies the fulfillment of all basic needs as well as having an environment conducive to one’s development. The Rohingya refugees are being denied bare necessities like education, health care, right to vote and property rights. A person can develop a well-rounded personality only if s/he can think feely and has the freedom to express. Every individual is a rational being. Thus he or she must have the freedom of thought and expression. But the Rohingyas, the most persecuted minority in Myanmar, have been deprived of the fundamental and basic rights like right to live, freedom of thought, expression, and religion, right to acquire nationality, right of protection against arrest and detention, right to education, right to own property, and right to asylum.


Man is the supreme creation of God. One doesn’t have right to discriminate against others on the basis of religion, caste, gender and complexion. As we consider the crackdowns all over the world, it seems that human beings have forgotten that they are distinguished from other animals by superior mental development, power to articulate speech, and an upright stance. Every fanatic person is in race to show how his religion, caste, creed, tribe is superior to others. Instead of getting deep knowledge of the doctrine and principles of his or her religion and implementing it in his or her life, he tries to prove how other caste, creeds, religions are inferior. In this foolish attempt, the majority community of a country often persecutes the minority communities and wishes to displace them forcibly out of a country.

Myanmar is predominantly Buddhist with small minorities of other faiths. Buddhists often target Rohingya Muslims due to their distinct ethnicity with their own language and culture. Similarly, the Rohingyas are deprived of rights to study, work, travel, marry, practice their religion and access to health services. By considering Rohingyas as illegal settlers in the Rakhine state, the Myanmar military often open fire with machine guns on Rohingya children and women. During such crackdowns, Rohingysa have often reported rape, torture, arson and murder by Myanmar security forces. In addition, Myanmar has blocked media access and the visits of international bodies to the Rakhine state. They have also imprisoned two Reuters journalists who were covering the incidents. In addition, they started arresting and detaining Rohingyas without a proper reason. It exposes the government’s failure to stop this violence and persecution. This encroachment of human rights of Rohingyas needs to end. The UN, UNCHR, Amnesty International, HRW, and the international community need to make positive efforts for the resettlement and socio-economic and educational empowerment of Rohingyas. In this process they should impose certain restrictions on the Myanmar government so that they cannot exploit the Rohingyas in future.

Photo: The Daily Star

Dr. Daruge Shayad Nasirsab is an Assistant Lecturer in VDF Polytechnic, Latur, Maharashtra India. His area of interest includes Professional English, Life Skills, Personality Development, Contemporary Literature, Diaspora Literature, and Indian Writing in English. He can be reached at


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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