The Plight of the Rohingya Minority in Burma

With nearly 1 million Rohingya living in Burma without citizenship, they make up one of the largest groups of stateless people in Asia and their rights are minimal.

In the past two years, Burma has undergone a great change in its political landscape. From the transition of junta military rule in 2011 to democracy and activist Aung San Suu Kyi winning a parliamentary seat earlier this year, it would seem as if the country’s transition to democracy is going surprisingly smoothly. In June of this year, a pogrom against the Rohingya Muslims began in the villages of the Rakkhine state, which is on the border with Bangladesh. After almost a month of violence between the Buddhist majority and Muslim minority, the Burmese government declared a state of emergency, unveiling the ugly side of Burma’s democratic transition.  The question of whether Burma will need the international community to aid them in this conflict remains.

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The Rohingyas have reportedly been living in Burma since the 8th century, and cruelty towards this group is nothing new. They are not the only ethnic minority in Burma and are also not the only Muslims, but their plight has been exacerbated by the fact that they are not recognized as citizens. In 1948 the Burmese constitution declared that they were not eligible for Burmese citizenship on the grounds that they did not live in Burma prior to British occupation, a claim that is arguably false. This contested history is at the centre of the plight of the Rohingya. They are recognizably different physically from the Buddhist majority in Burma, which makes it easier to identify and ostracize them. With nearly 1 million Rohingya living in Burma without citizenship, they make up one of the largest groups of stateless people in Asia and their rights are minimal. They are unable to own land, suffer from frequent food shortages and are even not allowed to travel outside of the Rakkhine state. Furthermore, a United Nations survey conducted in 2008 found that more than half the Rohingya in Burma were illiterate. When a Buddhist woman was raped and killed by three Muslims in late May, chaos ensued.

Following the detainment of three Rohingya Muslims, mob attacks plagued the Rakkhine state. Houses were burned, almost all Rohingyas were evicted from their homes and villages, and many lost their lives. It is important to point out that the violence of the past few months has not been completely one sided. Both groups have been responsible for numerous deaths and grave destruction. More surprising than this outburst of conflict has been the apparent government complicity in it. One of the main criticisms is that the violence could have easily been stopped. In The Economist, it was reported that in early June, Buddhist villagers attacked a bus and killed ten Muslim passengers while the police stood by and watched. Various human rights monitoring organizations have documented cases of Burmese security forces involving themselves in the violence.

One of the many aims of a democracy is to ensure the security and well being of a state’s citizens. When Thein Sein, the current president, was sworn into office, he pledged to work on national reconciliation between the Buddhist majority (Buddhists make up 90 percent of the population) and the various other ethnic groups in the country. Since the Rohingya are stateless, their security is not a concern to the Burmese government and there is no obligation to protect them. Instead of working on a solution for the Rohingya’s status, the president initially proposed to end the crisis by expelling them and having the United Nations (UN) resettle them. The UN quickly vetoed this proposal, but an ethnic cleansing of sorts did occur. The Rohingya have been moved into resettlement camps across the Rakkhine state. The conditions of these camps were revealed in a Channel 4 News exposé in August, where it was reported that the Rohingya had limited access to food, and aid organisations had trouble getting to the camps due to a determined campaign of obstruction by local Buddhists.

Perhaps one of the most surprising attributes of this conflict is the silence of Aung San Suu Kyi. Being a seasoned human rights advocate, she has been highly criticized for not advocating the right of citizenship to the Rohingyas. While these criticisms do hold some weight, she is now a politician and cannot take on the president as if she is a member of a human rights organisation.

It’s easy for an outsider looking in to criticize and question whether the Burmese government has really changed its ways. The fact of the matter is that the plight of the Rohingya is of international concern and the Burmese government cannot handle the situation on its own. The new government is coming out of years of isolation and is still trying to get acquainted with being a part of the international system. Priscilla Clapp, the former chief of the US mission in Burma from 1999 to 2002, stresses that the problem must be solved on both an international and local level.

“The Rohingya are not exclusive to Burma, but are stateless     everywhere.  Ultimately, it will probably require international mediation to convince several countries, most importantly Burma and Bangladesh, to give   them citizenship and allow them to lead an economically viable life,” she states.

Throughout the past few months, thousands fled across the Bangladeshi border to seek refuge; most were sent back. In an interview with Al Jazeera English in July, the Bangladeshi prime minister asserted that the Rohingya were not her country’s responsibility by saying, “Bangladesh is already an overpopulated country, and we cannot be under this burden.”

The conflict has yet to be completely resolved. President Thein Sein’s recent visit to the United States was a success in establishing Burma as a participant in the international system, and in his speech to the UN General Assembly he proudly declared that Burma was ushering in a new era.  The government decided to put forth a comprehensive inquiry into the situation in Rakkhine, but there will be no Rohingya representation in the commission. Just days after the establishment of the inquiry, there have been rumors that twelve Rohingyas who had spoken to the inquiry were arrested and tortured by local police forces. This has yet to be reported by the international media. Perhaps the Burmese government is not the only actor complicit in the neglect of this stateless population.