The Rohingyas of Myanmar: The Most Persecuted Minority in the World
By Sabzar Ahmad Bhat
There are various state-centric conflicts in contemporary nation-states. Due to these conflicts, we find people are forced to leave their country for neighboring countries that do not want them. They flee in order to avoid violence, threats and persecution of their lives which are often produced by the governments or the elites among them who live. Furthermore, people suffer from systematic discrimination; their governments treat them as stateless people. Denying them citizenship rights, stringent restrictions have been placed on people’s freedom of movement, access to education, medical assistance and other basic services. Such a situation approximately fits the condition of the Rohingyas in Myanmar. According to the United Nations, the Rohingyas have been identified as the “world’s most persecuted people” (UNSC, 2018: 17).
It is estimated that there are about two million Rohingyas in Myanmar, approximately 800,000 of whom live in the northern Rakhine state of Myanmar. About half a million of the Rohingyas have migrated to its neighboring countries like Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan. It is estimated that around 328,500 live in Bangladesh. The central question for the Rohingyas is their political identity and belonging. The Rohingyas claim the Myanmar citizenship as their natural right, which ought to entitle them to enjoy all citizenship rights, including state protection, just like any other Myanmar citizen. In contrast, the Myanmar government considers the Rohingyas as Bengali illegal immigrants. Hence, they are excluded from Myanmar’s identity. The Bangladeshi state, on the other hand, states that the Rohingyas were not originally from Bangladesh. They were not officially known until 1977, when they first crossed the border from Myanmar in huge numbers because of political turmoil in their land of origin. Consequently, such political denials on both sides of Myanmar and Bangladesh increase the complexity of the situation, and prolong the crisis by pushing the Rohingyas back and forth across state boundaries (Farzana, 2017: 2-3). Similarly, as pointed out by Rohini Mohan (2018), the Rohingyas are not claimed by any country and their own country wants to throw them into the sea. This study would engage with the Rohingya question and how they are persecuted.
Who are the Rohingyas?
The Rohingyas are the ethnic native community of the Rakhine state of Myanmar. They are a majority-Muslim ethnic group who have lived in Myanmar for centuries (Asrar, 2017). Further, the Rohingyas are known for their preservation of national and ethnic heritage for centuries. They have their own language and culture. One concise definition by Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN) was a briefing document which states: “the Rohingya are a Muslim minority ethnically related to the Bengali people living in neighboring Bangladesh’s Chittagong District. They form 90 percent of the one million people living in the north of Rakhine State in Myanmar, which borders Bangladesh and includes the townships of Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Rathedaung.” Moreover, there is considerable evidence that the Rohingyas have inhabited the Arakan region, now called the Rakhine state, for centuries. The report further states:
Muslims living along the coast of Rakhine State can be traced back to the eighth and ninth centuries when Arab traders settled in the area. Muslims and Buddhists have historically lived on both sides of the Naaf River, which marks the current border with Bangladesh. The British annexed the region after an 1824-26 conflict and encouraged migration from India, including that of laborers, merchants and administrators.
In an article in the International Policy Digest, Ramzy Baround writes:
Rohingya Muslims, however, are native to the state of “Rohang,” officially known as Rakhine or Arakan. If one is to seek historical accuracy, not only are the Rohingya people native to Myanmar, it was in fact Burma that occupied Rakhine in the 1700s. Over the years, especially in the first half of the 20th century, the original inhabitants of Arakan were joined by cheap or forced labor from Bengal and India, who permanently settled there.
However, the Myanmar government, a predominantly Buddhist state, denied citizenship rights to the Rohingyas and even excluded them from the 2014 census, refusing to recognize them as their own citizens. Hence, the Rohingyas have become stateless through a sophisticated de-nationalization process which has automatically turned them into the most persecuted minority in the world. The cultural, ethnic, racial, linguistic identity of the Rohingyas is strategically excluded from Myanmar. The Rohingyas have become victims of structural violence, human rights violations, confiscation of property, forced labor, rape, gender abuse, etc. A report prepared by United Nations Security Council, “The Situation in Myanmar” argues that the history of the Rohingysa has been characterized by discrimination and exploitation since 1960.
Rohingyas: The World’s Most Persecuted Minority
The United Nations has described the Rohingyas as one of the “most persecuted people” in the world. Since the government of Myanmar has officially denied them their citizenship rights, they have no right to own land and properties. They are unable to travel outside their villages, unable to receive education, repair their decaying places of worship, or even marry and have children without rarely granted government permission. Apart from this, they are subjected to modern-day slavery and forced labor. As Al-Jazeera reports, the denial of citizenship rights to the Rohingyas has curtailed “their rights to study, marry, travel, practicing their religion and assess health services.” Similarly, The Guardian further explains the persecuted status of the Rohingyas in Myanmar: “The Rohingya are reviled by many in Myanmar as illegal immigrants and they suffer from systematic discrimination. The Myanmar government treats them as stateless people, denying them citizenship. Stringent restrictions have been placed on Rohingya people’s freedom of movement, access to medical assistance, education and other basic services.” Todd Pitman gives a harsher description of the status of the Rohingyas: “They have been called ogres and animals, terrorists and much worse – when their existence is even acknowledged. Asia’s more than 1 million ethnic Rohingya Muslims are considered by rights groups to be among the most persecuted people on Earth. Most live in an anachronistic purgatory without passports, unable to travel freely or call any place home.” The Foundation of Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief traces these atrocities to 1962: “In the years following the 1962 coup, the Rohingyas were subjected to unlawful detention, torture and maltreatment. Communal prayers and Qurban ritual were banned. It is known that during the 1978 King Dragon Operation large numbers of Muslim women, men and elderly people were subjected to torture, imprisoned or executed. Arakanese Muslims are still facing arbitrary detentions, torture and mistreatment.”
A similar campaign followed in 1992, when a military operation forced another 250,000 Rohingyas into exile. In June 2012, it was estimated that more than 1.5 million Rohingya refugees lived in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. In a deadly crackdown on the Rohingyas in 2017, mass atrocities such as sexual violence and murder were committed, leading to the displacement of over 700,000 people who escaped to Bangladesh. The news also mentioned:
Witnesses describe soldiers dragging people out of their home, shooting them at point-blank range or slitting their throats; women brutally raped; some of the victims were tied naked by their hands or hair to trees. In an ambush on a village in Rakhine state, security forces ripped infants away from their mothers and drowned them in the river. While about 10,000 Rohingya were killed in the first two months of the crackdown, satellite imagery showed nearly 400 villages wiped off the map.
Additionally, a report prepared by United States Commission on International Religious Freedom writes:
Of the myriad religious freedom challenges the government of Burma (also known as Myanmar) confronted in 2017, the crisis in Rakhine State was the most exigent. Military and security forces launched a brutal response to attacks carried out by Rohingya Muslim insurgents against border guard and law enforcement personnel in October 2016 and August 2017. The retaliatory acts included indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks against innocent civilians, even children: looting, burning, and destroying property; arbitrary detentions and arrests; rape and other sexual violence; enforced disappearances; and extrajudicial killings. (16)
The violence against the Rohingyas was also committed by non-state actors in the Rakhine state of Myanmar. The Rohingyas were targeted because of extreme nationalist sentiment, spurred by some Buddhist leaders propagating racism and chauvinism. Decades long discriminatory policies and practices continued by successive governments and the army also contributed to the restriction of religious freedoms for religious and ethnic minorities.
The United Nations report on the situation in Myanmar states that the actions committed by the security forces against the Rohingyas must be considered as crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and possible genocide. Further, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Raad Al Hussein has called it “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” At a town-hall meeting with students, civil society and journalists on Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary in India, the current United Nations General Secretary, Antonio Guterres, said, “I have never seen a community so discriminated in the world as the Rohingyas. They couldn’t even move within Rakhine state, they couldn’t marry without permission, and their children could not go to good schools or colleges. And then there was the violence against them: homes burnt, women raped, villages destroyed.” He appealed to the government of India not to send Rohingya refugees back to their countries of origin where they might still face persecution against their will. Also, he made an impassioned plea for India to support Bangladesh in its humanitarian efforts for the Rohingya people.
To conclude, we must remember that the Rohingya crisis is a human rights crisis with serious humanitarian consequences. Due to the denial of their citizenship rights and strict movement on their restrictions, they have very limited access to basic services and viable livelihood opportunities. This has rendered them one of the largest stateless populations in the globe. In this regard, a number of solutions have been recommended by various commentators to the Rohingyas crisis. Thein Sein, the Myanmar president, said, “We will send them away if any third country would accept them.” The spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Asia, Kitty Mckinses said, “Basically Myanmar does not consider these 735,000 Muslims in northern Rakhine state to be their citizens and we think the solution is for them to get citizenship in Myanmar.” Similarly, the Human Rights Watch suggested that “the government should quickly amend discriminatory provisions in the 1982 Citizenship Law so that Rohingya are treated in the same way as members of the eight other ethnic groups named in the citizenship law, as well as the unnamed ethnic groups still protected under the law and who are treated as citizens. All other discriminatory laws, policies, and practices should be revised or repealed.”
Farzana, K. F. (2017). Memories of Burmese Rohingya Refugees: Contested Identity and Belonging. Springer.
Sabzar Ahmad Bhat is a Ph.D. Scholar at the Centre for Studies and Research in Gandhian Thought and Peace, School of Social Science, Central University of Gujarat, Gandhinagar, India. His research interests includes Peace and Conflict Studies, Conflict Resolution, Migration and Human Rights. The author is also a freelancer writer of newspapers such as Greater Kashmir, Pakistan Horizon, Rising Kashmir, Kashmir Reader, Kashmir Horizon, Kashmir Observer, etc. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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