|Volume 6 | Issue 08 | August 2012 ||
Rohingyas and the 'Right to Have Rights'
BINA D'COSTA examines a number of Burmese and international discourses that have legitimised the forced exclusion of Rohingyas from Burma.
By now the story has been told countless times, but from significantly different perspectives of course. We know that Rohingyas remain one of the most persecuted and vulnerable communities of the world. We are told repeatedly that Rohingyas are terrorists or extremists; they cannot rightfully claim Burma as their own state, and the most dangerous of all -- Rohignya men are misogynist Muslims who are threats to the 'peace loving' ethnically heterogeneous but predominantly Buddhist communities of Burma.
Derived from Rohang, the ancient name of Arakan, the Muslims of Burma's west coast identify themselves as Rohingya. Many members of the community in recent decades preferred to be labelled as Arakan Muslims. The widely accepted term for the Rohingya, in all formal and most of the informal discussions in Burma, is 'Bengali Muslims'.
During fieldwork on the Thai-Burma and Bangladesh-Burma border, I was deeply troubled by the vitriol against Rohingyas. I have asked this question over and over again to activists and political elites including 88-generation political activists of Burma why there was such profound tension and anxiety to include Rohingyas in the otherwise inclusive (albeit not without its multifaceted character) activism that literally framed Burma's democratic movement. To give a little bit of background, for the last six years I have been working on a research project on the edifice of political violence in refugee communities in South Asia. This research took me to many different areas where there are refugees in the region. Drawing from my work, I would argue that the apathetic attitude towards Rohingyas is unique in this region. No other group evokes such anxiety within their own state and elsewhere while seeking sanctuary.
The international humanitarian discourse on refugees provides us with some insights on how in the age of the 'Global War on Terror', refugees are no longer welcome and are seen as security threats. While citizens can be under surveillance and, at the same time 'protected' from outside threats, illegal immigrants, refugees, stateless people and internally displaced people remain as threats, thus creating moral and ethical dilemmas for states. Although it is detrimental for the global image to send away refugees, governments often claim that it is imperative for state security and for the protection of citizens. In this kind of security architecture, borders are strictly controlled; identity differences are accentuated and securitised.
What is also perplexing is the global media's reporting about the Rohingya refugees. Virtually unnoticed by the media except for the times when the images of refugees in leaky boats are captured, the human rights activism of Rohingyas has rarely been documented. Reflecting on the recent events, Trevor Wilson, former Australian Ambassador to Burma/Myanmar in a personal email wrote to me, 'I have just met five of the second group of 65 Rohingyas to protest at the Myanmar Embassy and Parliament House today (15 June). This group came all the way from Brisbane; yesterday's group was from Sydney. They were all “refugees”, and are now studying or working here, but cannot return to their families in Myanmar. They complained mildly that no journalists were asking to interview them. They actually have media releases prepared.'
The violence erupted with an allegation of rape and murder of Thida Htwe, a 27 year old Rakhine woman, resident of Thabyaychaung village in Ramee Township, Arakan State. The Rakhine/Buddhist mob retaliated by attacking a bus and publicly lynching ten Muslim men. The subsequent sectarian violence claimed at least 50 lives; left 2500 charred houses; and displaced 30,000 people. Some analysts have speculated that the hardline faction of the military may have had something to do with the recent event of sectarian violence. The predominantly Muslim district of Nazir in Sittwe was set ablaze. It was alleged that the police watched while members of an Arakanese paramilitary group known as Lun Htin carried out arson attacks in Bhumu, near Maungdaw.
The military took administrative control of the region and on June 10, a state of emergency was declared. On June 19, the Kyaukphyu District Court convicted three men -- Rawphi, Khochi and Htet Htet. One of the suspects Htet Htet allegedly committed suicide in prison on June 9 and was given a posthumous conviction, while the other two were sentenced to death.
Burma's fractured narrative
Through state-sponsored exclusion policies, Rohingyas were made aliens in their own land. The forced migration of Rohingyas that generated the recent crisis beginning from 1942 is well documented. We are also familiar with some of the key exclusion policies and strategies that started with the military coup after which freedom of movement was restricted in 1962; the promulgation of the Emergency Immigration Act designed to prevent people entering from India, China and Bangladesh in 1974; the census programme Nagamin, to check identification cards and take action against illegal aliens in 1977; and finally the 1982 Citizenship Law following the 1978 exodus when many Rohingyas returned or attempted to return to Burma.
The State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) repeatedly invokes its moral authority through the lens of national security and state sovereignty in dealing with Rohingyas. There is, of course, a historical context to it, which could perhaps be explained through the 'good' citizens model. Firstly, as the anti-Rohingya discourse indicates, a key source of anxiety had been the perceived disloyalty to the idea of a Burmese statehood by Rohingyas, such as when the political elite sought to be an independent state and made deals with the outgoing British Raj; when the community was divided in its support of the local and national political shifts; and when the armed resistance began.
Related to this, secondly, Rohingyas taking up arms have generated a different source of anxiety under the pretext of the 'war on terror'. Even before 9/11, unlike the other non-state armed groups such as the KNLA (Karen National Liberation Army) which has roughly 3 or 4 thousand troops, Shan State Army (SSA-South) which has between 6000-7000 troops, and the Karenni Army, between 800-1500 troops. The Chin National Front has roughly 200 and the Arakan Liberation Army 100 troops. Thein Sein, the country's reformist president, has signed several ceasefire agreements with a number of non-state armed groups. On 13 January of this year for example, the government signed an agreement with the Karen National Union (KNU).
The divided system in various ethnic states such as in the Karen State, Shan State and Mon State in effect gives the control to the Tatmadaw and those insurgency factions, which have entered into agreements with the Burmese state. All these non-state armed actors claim to be the champions of their groups' rights and hold the view that it is necessary to take up arms against Burma. Similar to these groups, the Rohingya militant movement also claim to be the sole protector of the Muslim Arakanese/Rohingyas. Unlike the other armed groups, the sharp reactions to their claims also come from various democratic platforms of Burma.
One of the leading groups, the Arakan Rohingya National Organisation (ARNO) agreed to ban all use of anti-personnel mines and victim activated explosive devices and signed the Geneva Call Deed of Commitment for Adherence to a Total Ban on anti-personnel Mines and for Cooperation in Mine Action (DoC) on 5 December, 2003. A document that was leaked in early 2012, dated 10 October 2002 claimed that the ARNO had links with various terrorist networks. The ARNO, was operating from Chittagong in Bangladesh and allegedly had contacts with groups on the Thai-Burma border. The document noted that the government of Bangladesh instructed the ARNO in May, 2002 to move its bases from south-eastern Bangladesh following which 195 Arakan Army members turned themselves in to the Burmese.
Over the last decade the ARNO has significantly weakened in numbers and leaned towards moderate politics unlike some of the other splinter groups that attracted the more radical/extremist factions. For example, the RSO (Rohingya Solidarity Organisation) that broke away from the Rohingya Patriotic Front (RPF) in 1980s and primarily operated across the border in Bangladesh attracted a number of radical and militant Rohingya activists. RSO's links with extremist groups in Bangladesh and associations with the international terrorist networks have been reported in media, which fuelled prejudice against all the Rohingyas. According to reports, the Bangladesh Army in a few major operations almost disbanded the RSO as early as 2005. There are also a few small groups such as the Central Rohingya Jammatul Ulama, the Ittehadul Mujahiddial, the Rohingya Islamic Liberation Organisation, and the Arakan Rohingya Islamic Front (ARIF). These groups joined the Democratic Alliance of Burma (DAB) in May, 1992, which currently is virtually inactive.
The Burmese (and also Bangladeshi) authorities in reality take advantage of the global climate of fear and anxiety that have securitised the discourse of refugees, in particular Muslim refugees. This 'refugees as threat' perception really matters when it comes to the Rohingyas because discourse actually drives policies and public support of specific policies. Those who remained in camps in Bangladesh are particularly vulnerable, since the barbed wire camps had their unique, violent everyday-narratives and on top of that, the host communities from outside perceived the camps as breeding grounds for militancy.
The misleading and prejudicial information fed by the hostile state and non-state actors and the media in both Burma and Bangladesh created an image of Rohingya militancy as a massive security threat, which in reality is simply not accurate.
Thirdly, the massive presence of the security sector in the North Arakan State has seen an increase in sexual and gender-based violence. In particular, Nay-Sat Kut-kwey Ye (NaSaKa), established in 1992 had systematically targeted the Rohingyas. NaSaKa members and soldiers have targeted Rohingya girls and women and many of their attacks have been racially motivated. Various human rights reports also noted how race was one of the major instigators of sexual violence against Rohingya women and children.
The strict licensing system to restrict movements, deportation and forced labour, land grabbing and torture have made the living conditions harsh for Rohingyas in their own homeland. Racial hatred has been a huge factor in the human rights abuses perpetrated against Rohingyas. During personal interviews taken over the span of the last few years, Rohingya refugees have talked about the use of derogatory and humiliating words by the security forces. The more refined officials use newly accepted terms concealed beneath other politically correct categories accentuating difference such as culture, ethnicity and religion.
A recent report states that in 2009, in an open letter to other diplomats, Burma's consul general in Hong Kong, who is now a UN ambassador described the Rohingya as 'ugly as ogres' and compared their 'dark brown skin to that of the fair and soft ethnic Burmese majority (Todd Pittman, 'Arakan Conflict Spurs Hatred for Asia's Outcasts', Irrawaddy, 14 June 2012).
What is really demoralising for human rights activism is that Rohingyas are despised by members of ethnic communities that have been oppressed for decades by the military regimes. The Irrawaddy report cites Ko Ko Gyi, a prominent former political prisoner who was released in January. He notes that the Rohingya should not be mistreated but stressed that they were not an ethnic group of Burma. There are numerous political/human rights/women's groups and activists who firmly believe that Rohingyas do not belong to their Burma. Burmese women's networks, for example, which are champions of human rights and gender sensitive strategies, often deliberately exclude Rohingya women's rights activists following the obstruction by particular Rakhine women's rights groups. Following my question to activists on the Thai-Burma border, why Rohingya activists were not included in their programmes, one of the most common responses that I heard was that it was an internal issue which needed to be resolved by the Rakhine and Rohingya leadership first. The lack of political will, for a variety of reasons and also, to some extent the capacity of other ethnic groups to intervene had also compounded the problem.
All these events took place just when Aung San Suu Kyi was about to leave the country for her Europe tour on 13 June. Some even criticised her for leaving Burma during such a sensitive period. Suu Kyi, during her trip in Thailand and in Europe has stressed that the rule of law is necessary to bring stability in Burma. Responding to a question on the citizenship issue of Rohingyas at the Oslo Forum, Suu Kyi pointed out, 'We are not certain exactly what the requirements of citizenship law are…, If we were very clear as to who are the citizens of the country under the citizenship law and who qualify, then there wouldn't be this problem… We have to have rule of law, and we have to know what the law is. We have to make sure that it is properly implemented' (Sai Latt 'Aung San Suu Kyi and the Rule of Law', The Voice of Rohingya, 27 June, 2012)
The citizenship question remains at the core of Rohingya persecution, statelessness and insecurity. Sadly, the winds of change in Burma do not automatically signal a change in the question of legality and illegality for Rohingyas. Their lack of bargaining power and the deep resentment and racist attitude of various key stakeholders towards Rohingyas indicate that this is not going to be resolved in a priority basis in the near future by Burma's leaders either.
Burma-Bangladesh border and the 'right to have rights'
An internal displacement was caused after communal violence erupted in Burma that also spilled over in the whole of Arakan in 1942. The Buddhist Rakhine and the Muslim Rohingya were engaged in a bitter battle after which the Buddhist Arakanese moved to the south and the Muslim Rohingyas to the north, including 22,000 who crossed the border to Bengal. The second wave of migration occurred following a nationwide census project, Nagamin, during which over 200,000 fled across the border in Bangladesh.
During 1991 and 1992, more than 270,000 Rohingya refugees crossed the border from Burma. With them they brought their experiences of horrific violence, forced labour, rape, executions and torture. As a persecuted group, which share a similar Muslim identity, Bangladesh initially welcomed the refugees. It viewed the issue as a short-term problem and wanted to resolve it through bi-lateral negotiations with Burma. Also, the Bangladeshi government saw it as a moral boost to be offering assistance for once and not seeking it. Initially it welcomed the UNHCR, the Red Cross and various other international agencies to assist the refugees.
Soon, the strain on localities where camps were constructed started to worry the ruling regimes. Over the last two decades, public support in Bangladesh has significantly decreased that also contributed to subsequent governments to be less sympathetic to the refugees. There are three causes behind the decrease in support. The recent anti Rohingya xenophobic attitude displayed by Bangladeshis is primarily coming from the ultra-nationalistic front, which claims that the Rohingyas are being supported and armed by Jamaa't-i-Islami, the party that questioned and violently opposed the liberation war of Bangladesh in 1971. Those who hold the view believe that the Rohingyas would also be used as vote bank for the next election.
Burma's propaganda implying that the fleeing people were mostly Islamic insurgents added to the anxiety of the Bangladesh government. This accusation took the consideration away from the inhumane condition of the Rohingya living in various camps, by making them a national security concern. The UNHCR viewed repatriation as the most logical response and in many instances resorted to involuntary repatriation of the Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh. Currently, there are 26, 311 Rohingya refugees living in various camps in border areas. Although the UNHCR is providing support to 21, 716 Rohingya refugees living in camps, the Bangladeshi government has repeatedly denied UNHCR requests to set up self-reliance activities both inside and outside the camps. According to the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission (RRRC), the numbers of undocumented refugees are 200,000.
Further, the increase in numbers of undocumented Rohingyas, an unknown number of whom are also economic migrants in the greater Chittagong area particularly in Bandarban district, in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) have angered the local communities.
Meghna Guhathakurta, a researcher who is working on Rohingyas in a personal conversation notes, 'Rohingyas have come in (Bangladesh) anyway over the years and have (now) settled in Bandarban only because they have been chased away from the plain land. The construction boom in Cox's Bazar is one of the main attractions, so they would naturally want to settle in the plain lands, but (after) meeting hostility in the host community, they therefore are driven to woods and hill lands.'
The CHT, homeland for indigenous Bangladeshis is yet to recover from its own experience of a protracted conflict that formally ended with signing of an accord in 1997. Continual human rights abuses, major displacements of indigenous communities (both internally and across the borders) and land grabbing by illegal Bengali settlers from the plain land have produced multi-layered insecurities for its indigenous population. Rohingya migration to the CHT adds to these insecurities as there were reports of Rohingya involvement in illegal logging, drugs trafficking and various other unlawful activities. However, it is actually the security sector and the Bengali settlers who run these activities and take advantage of Rohingya labour in the CHT.
With regard to the legality argument, Bangladesh needs to adhere to international norms and laws. The Partition of India displaced millions from West Bengal and Bihar who took refuge in East Pakistan, which later became Bangladesh. An estimated 10 million people were forcibly displaced to India during its independence in 1971. A large number returned when it became independent. Since breaking away from Pakistan, it was the home of 300,000 Biharis who became stateless and were interned in 66 camps within the country, at least until 2007. It has a large indigenous population, which were displaced during development projects and/or during the conflict in the CHT. Also, every year, thousands of people are internally displaced in Bangladesh due to floods and waterlogging. Thus, one could argue that its population has a variety of experiences of displacement and the nation-state had been built by refugees of history wars.
Yet, it does not have any legal regime that could protect people who are refugees, internally displaced or stateless. As mentioned above, it is not a signatory of the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol. However, it is party to a number of international human rights instruments, the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and International Conventions. Bangladesh is bound to offer protection to the refugees by Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR); Article 2 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR); Article 22 of the Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC); Articles 2, 3 (this is paralleled to non-refoulement of the 1951 Convention) and 6 of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; Article 44 and 45 of the fourth Geneva Conventions. Most importantly, Bangladesh's Constitution in its Preamble pledges to protect fundamental human rights of all.
Both the Burmese and the Bangladeshi government have strategically employed misperceptions, fears and prejudice to portray all Rohingyas as terrorists. Neither the states nor in many cases, the human rights and political activists from these states separate armed groups activities from the plight of the civilian Rohingyas.
Following the forced migration in 1991 and 1992, both states and, to some extent, the UNHCR, provided inadequate information and suggested that it would make more sense to send the refugees back 'home'. Bangladesh ignored their stateless status in Burma and the UNHCR stated that refugees would not be any worse off in Burma. As repeated events of desperate attempts by Rohingya refugees demonstrate, power inequalities, repatriation politics and the discourse of national security not only made the Rohingya community more vulnerable but also denied them the 'right to have rights'.
Acknowledgement: The author thanks Francis Wade and David Stout for their feedback.
Bina D'Costa is a member of Drishtipat Writers' Collective and author of Nationbuilding, Gender and War Crimes in South Asia.
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