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July 11, 2004

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Have we forgotten the Rohingyas?

Hussain M Fazlul Bari

For the last few decades, the ill-fated Rahingyas have gone through oppression, torture and frequent massacres in their historical homeland of Arakan. Since 1948, expelling the Rohingyas from their ancestral land and depriving them of properties have become almost a recurring phenomenon.

Bangladesh is the most affected neighbour
Millions of uprooted Rohingyas have taken shelter in many countries of the world since ethnic cleansing of 1942 in Arakan. The crisis took a serious turn in 1992 when 250877 refugees had trekked into Bangladesh fleeing persecution on the other side of border-Myanmar. Bangladesh has almost been successful in handling the issue by sending back 236490 refugees to their homeland. Bangladesh itself is encumbered with its vast population and beset with multifarious problems, yet the way it has dealt the crisis is hailed internationally. The UN (UNHCR in particular) has also played commendable role in this regard. Arithmetically the number of the refugees is now supposed to be around 2000; but in reality the figure exceeds 20000. Apart from new born babies in Rohingya camps, the influx of refugees has been continuous for years. The Bangladesh government provides inadequate facilities in the refugee camps where the vulnerable Rohingyas are passing their days in a shabby and inhuman condition. Again, many trespassers have been mixed with the local populace. It is almost impossible to identify the illegal immigrants as both are identical in appearance and complexion. Most of them are reluctant to return Myanmar as well. These settlers, being ill-paid labourers, are frequently engaged in criminal activities and environmental degradation in the hilly areas of Cox'sbazar, Chittagong, Bandarban etc. There is no official census available regarding their number and status.

Historical background
Arakan, a continuation of the Chittagong plain, was neither purely a Burmese nor an Indian territory until 18th century AD culturally, socially, economically and politically, the people of Arakan (also known as Rosang) were independent for centuries. It had remained district due to its topographical peculiarity. Arakan was virtually ruled by Muslim rulers under Sultanate system from 1430 to 1531. The Muslims (Rohingyas) and the Buddists (Maghs or Rakhines) constituted the population of this area. In addition to these majority groups, these are other minority people lived here. In fact, Rohingyas and Maghs had been peacefully co-existing in Arakan like twin brothers in perfect amity until Burmese occupation in 1784. During Burmese rule, two sister communities were put at loggerheads and this heinous policy has been continued with more intensity today.

Myanmar (preciously Burma till 1989) has been ruled by a despots or military junta since 1952. The successive ruling councils are bent on eradicating Rohingyas by terming them illegal settlers. The Buddist settlers have also gradually marginalized and allowed the Rohingyas out of their homestead under clear state-patronage. Actually, Myanmar under military dictatorship continues to be centre of instability and, political and ethnic persecution. The rule of law, human rights, democracy -- these phrases are still far cry in autocratic rule.

The doctrine of self determination
The doctrine of self determination is one of the major concepts in political theory and jurisprudence. If played an important role in the process of decolonisation and emergence of many sovereign states in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The issue of self determination and the right to secede versus the territorial integrity attracts huge discussion among scholars and politicians. Nevertheless, this concept has acquired new significance under the UN charter. Subsequently the UN General Assembly attempted to provide greater content to provisions of the charter on self determination through its resolutions and declarations, viz --

(a) Declaration on the Granting of Independence to the colonial countries and peoples (1960);
(b) Declaration on Principles of International Law Concerning Friendly Relations and co-operations among states (1970);
(c) Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, 1993

Neither General Assembly Resolutions nor Declarations provide legal framework for the right to self determination as they fall within the ambit of soft international law. Two International Covenants on Economic, social and cultural rights and on civil and political rights (1966), being directly binding on state-parties, contain the right to self determination in identical language in common article 1. Upon close examination of article 1 of both the covenants, self determination is classified as internal and external self determination.

Para 1 of Article 1 refers to the internal aspect of self determination when it states that 'all peoples have the right to self determination.' Here the reference is not only to the people of dependent countries, but also to the peoples of sovereign states as well. Therefore, internal aspect of self determination is universally applicable to all people. Article 1 conveys two ideas. Firstly, the choice of domestic political institutions must be ascertained by the peoples themselves through free and fair election. Secondly, it necessitates other related rights enshrined in the covenants such as freedom of speech and expression, the right to peaceful assembly, association, right to vote and to be elected and more importantly right to take part in the conduct of public affairs through representatives. Wherever these rights are recognised and respected, the people enjoy the right of internal self determination: and whenever it is tramped down, it is infringed.

Article 1(3) commits all state parties to respect and promote the right to self determination. A close study of the provision reveals that the emphasis is clearly on the trust and other non-self-governing territories.

While the internal self determination is closely linked to the realisation of basic human rights, the external aspect played a key role in ending colonialism.

Is self determination relevant for Rohingyas?
With the passage of time, wave of change all over the world, human thirst for knowledge, honour and dignity, a man can no longer tolerate the oppression and injustice of another man. No government is allowed to treat its people in any damn way it likes. Non interference in the domestic affairs of a country is no more available in contemporary international law when it concerns the human rights. The UN charter places human rights in a pivotal position. Several international treaties and declarations in unequivocal terms affirm that gross violations, as seen in Myanmar, of human rights is an issue of international concern. The barbaric and inhuman acts of the junta with an indigenous minority Muslim community is not only insult to UN charter, it is a dangerous signal to the peace & security of the region.

As indicated earlier, Arakan is a territory geographically separate to Myanmar. Its people particularly the Rohingyas are ethnically and culturally distract from others. Besides, it has been arbitrarily placed in a situation of subordination. Furthermore, they are not listed among 135 ethnic nationalities of the country. Since they been persistently subjected to persecution, genocide and expulsion from their homeland, their right to self determination accrues from many standpoints. As the UN practice has not been to endorse the right to secede outside decolonization at least internal aspect of self determination is quite relevant for Rohingyas.

Concluding remarks
Regarding Rohingya issue the most important of all is a permanent solution to their long-standing problem. It inter alia involves inviolable human rights commitment about rights and freedoms of the Rohingyas that should be incorporated in the constitution of Myanmar. In this regard, a true representative government is welcome in the process of roadmap to Democracy in Myanmar. Bangladesh, as the affected neighbour, may come forward for viable political solution of the crisis. Actually the conclusion is declared by the then UN Secretary General Boutros B Ghali at the time of Rohingya influx to Bangladesh in 1992.
'UN should endeavour to achieve a political solution to the crisis not merely for the time being but for future as well."

Hussain M Fazlul Bari is an advocate.

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