GAYETI SINGH | 4 NOVEMBER, 2016

Myanmar's Rohingya Problem: Journalist Sacked, Non-Muslims Armed, Suu Kyi Says Investigations Underway


NEW DELHI: Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Friday said that investigations were underway into the situation in Rakhine State, where the country’s persecuted Rohingya minority are based and against whom human rights workers have alleged abuse by the military.

"We have not tried to hide anything on Rakhine," Suu Kyi said whilst speaking on the situation in Tokyo, adding that an investigation had been ordered to get to the root of the situation. Suu Kyi is facing increasing criticism from human rights organisations and bodies that have demanded that the Myanmar government take action against the abuse being faced by the Muslim minority group. The United Nations recently called for an investigation into allegations that security forces have killed, raped and arbitrarily detained thousands of Rohingya civilians and razed their homes to the ground in a crackdown following the October 9 attacks.

Meanwhile, a journalist who worked at the English-language newspaper the Myanmar Times, accused her former employer of firing her for an article she wrote on allegations of rape by security forces in Rakhine. Fiona MacGregor’s article, published on 27 October and titled “Dozens of rapes reported in northern Rakhine state”, quoted Chris Lewa, the head of a Rohingya rights organisation, saying around 30 women had been raped by security forces in a single village. It further cited the Burma Human Rights Network’s statement that it was “extremely concerned” by at least 10 alleged rape cases “including one woman who was three months pregnant and later suffered a miscarriage” at the hands of the military.

In an email sent out to fellow journalists, MacGregor states that she was told this week that the piece, as well as several “other unidentified articles I had written, breached company policy by damaging national reconciliation and the paper’s reputation”.

Separately, as tensions continue to simmer -- especially in the last month as Rakhine has been under a military lockdown following deadly attacks on police -- reports have emerged that security forces have begun arming and training non-Muslim residents in the north of the state. Colonel Sein Lwin, Rakhine police chief, told Reuters news agency on Wednesday that his force had started recruiting new "regional police" from among Buddhist Rakhine and other non-Muslim ethnic minorities in the border town of Maungdaw. Further, Min Aung, a minister in Rakhine parliament and a member of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party, said only citizens would be eligible to sign up for the police training -- which effectively rules out the 1.1 million Rohingya in the state as they are not considered citizens of Myanmar and remain a stateless population.

Human rights advocates have raised concern that the move will only escalate tensions.

This escalation, although severe, has become endemic to Rakhine, as Rohingyas -- described by the UN as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world -- are routinely discriminated against, harassed and denied the basic right to citizenship. Some 140,000 Rohingya remain displaced in squalid camps since fighting erupted in Rakhine State between Buddhists and Muslims in 2012. The conditions and violence have forced them to leave -- making the treacherous and dangerous journey by sea to countries that often close their borders and restrict entry. Last year, for a brief period, the Rohingya claimed international attention as several boats carrying members of the group who were fleeing their home country were stranded at sea, being denied entry from destination countries such as Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia.

The voyage, however, is a yearly occurrence -- as large numbers of the minority community make the treacherous journey in hope of a better life. Every year, several die trying to make the journey, with the media barely reporting these casualties.

In addition to the lack of international support and attention, the Rohingya continue to be persecuted against in their home country. The conditions are so bad that around 300 000 Rohingya are in need of humanitarian aid, including 140 000 still living in camps meant to be temporary, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Despite the change in government -- where a democratic government led by Aung Saan Suu Kyi has finally ended the military’s categorical dominance -- the Rohingyas plight remains just as miserable. In fact, the National League for Democracy has remained virtually silent on the issue of the Rohingya -- prompting a UN official to recently warn that Myanmar’s Rohingya minority risked being forgotten in the afterglow of the recent elections, a process they were not part of. John Ging, director of operations at the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), made a statement after visiting Rohingya camps in Myanmar's western Rakhine state. "It was heartbreaking to see so many children in these dreadful conditions," Ging said. "One mother told me that her baby, less than a month old, died from lack of oxygen in December after she was denied access to treatment at the nearby township hospital.”

The roots of the crisis lie in the denial of rights to the Rohingya in Myanmar. In fact, his continuation of denying the Rohingya the right to a nationality makes direct violence against the Rohingyas far more possible and likely than it would be otherwise. The system’s context lies in the 1982 Citizenship Act, which supersedes all citizenship regimes in Myanmar. The Act created three classes of citizens - full, associate, and naturalised. Full citizenship is reserved for those whose ancestors settled in Myanmar before the year 1823 or who are members of one of Myanmar’s 135 recognized national ethnic groups - which, according to the recent census, continues to exclude the Rohingya. Associate citizenship applies to those who have been conferred citizenship under a previous 1948 law, which requires an awareness of the law and a level of proof that few Rohingyas possess. Naturalised citizenship is applicable to those who have resided in Myanmar on or before 1948, and here too, the Rohingya are denied citizenship as the government of Myanmar retains the discretion to deny citizenship even when criteria are adequately met.

It is under the legal system and the denial of recognition that the Rohingya continue to remain a stateless people. Myanmar, which as a member nation of the UN is obligated to promote “universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction,” fails to do so for the Rohingyas who are subjected to policies and practises that constitute violations of their fundamental rights and freedoms. They face restrictions on movement, forced labour, land confiscation, forced evictions, extortions and arbitrary taxations, restrictions on marriage, employment, healthcare and education.

There is an element of political opportunism in reference to the Rohingya in Myanmar. In 1990, Rohingya were permitted to form political parties and vote in multiparty elections. Myanmar even accepted about 250,000 repatriated Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh in 1992 and 1994 issuing Temporary Resident Cards to some. Rohingyas were permitted to vote in the 2008 constitutional referendum and 2010 elections. In fact, in the 2010 elections the voting rights were tied to the promise of citizenship if the Rohingya voted for the military regime’s representatives. However, Rohingyas are yet to be included as a part of any reconciliation programme involving ethnic groups, with Myanmar’s former President Thein Sein, in the wake of the 2012 violence, stating that the Rohingya could not and would not be accepted as citizens or residents of Myanmar, going as far as to asking the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to consider placing the Rohingya in camps outside of the country and resettling them to others. While it is true that Thein Sein and other Myanmar officials then, and Suu Kyi and her party now, have had to moderate their position since due to external international pressure, Myanmar continues to violate UN convention by rendering the Rohingya stateless. A relevant convention is the Convention of the Reduction of Statelessness which obligates states to prevent, reduce, and avoid statelessness by granting “its nationality to a person born in its territory who would otherwise be stateless.” The Myanmar government is in clear violation of this convention, with hundreds of thousands of Rohingya having been displaced in the last 25 years.

It is this system that has perpetuated violence against the Rohingyas in Myanmar, with violent clashes between the country’s majority Buddhist population and the Rohingyas leading to deaths and displacement of the minority muslim community in 2012, 2009, 2001, 1978 and 1992, amongst other instances. In the recent case of widespread violence in 2012, hundred of Rohingya villages and settlements were destroyed, tens of thousands of homes razed, and at least 115,000 Rohingyas displaced in camps in Myanmar, across the Bangladesh border, or further afield on boats. The situation today looks equally grim.

The UN has termed the Rohingyas one of the most persecuted minorities in the world, a condition aggravated by the role of countries such as Bangladesh and Thailand that have turned back genuine refugees, with Thailand’s military being accused in 2009-10 of towing hundreds of Rohingya out to sea in poorly equipped boats and scant food and water after they tried to flee Myanmar. Although Thailand “categorically denies” the charge, the accusations have some merit as about 650 Rohingya were rescued off India and Indonesia, some saying that they had been beaten by Thai soldiers.

It is under these circumstance that rights groups have alleged that the Myanmar government is supporting a policy of “ethnic cleansing” of the Rohingya, with William Schabas, a member of the International Association of Genocide Scholars saying that “the Rohingya are the prima facie victims of the crime against humanity of persecution,” consisting of “the severe deprivation of fundamental rights on discriminatory grounds.”

It is a combination of the actions of the Rakhine Buddhist majority and the inaction of the Myanmar government, within the context of a legal system that ratifies, condones, and perpetuates the systematic discrimination of the Rohingya in Myanmar.

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