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Between a Rock and a Hard Place: The Life of ‘Unwanted’ Rohingyas

At a time when the world is debating measures to deal with the refugee influx from the Middle East, the plight of the Rohingyas in another part of the world is being met with indifference. Maybe, this is due to the few numbers involved or that the geo-political placement of this ‘refugee’ crisis is far away from the lands of Western hegemonic interest and the suffering of this community is falling on deaf ears – even those of a Nobel Peace Prize winner.

At the heart of the Rohingya crisis is a question that relates to their identity which has made them ‘unwanted’ both in the territory where they have settled – Myanmar – as also in the country of their origin, Bangladesh. Their identity, or the lack there of has made the Rohingyas a community that has been forced to live at sea, both literally and metaphorically. Forced out of the lands where they had settled due to political, cultural and economic persecution (Myanmar) and being denied acceptance in Bangladesh that is claimed by the Burmese government as their point of origin, many of these state-less Rohingyas have perished in the waters that lie between these two apathetic territories.

While their identity continues to elicit divided opinions as a distinct demographic community, it is believed that historically the Rohingyas used to make up 30-40 percent of the population in the Rakhine state of Myanmar. Their numbers and their presence in the Burmese state has been on the decline due to active socio-political persecution. Today they are compelled to flee Myanmar due to persistent violence targeting them on account of their distinct faith.

As an ethnic community, it is believed that the Rohingyas trace their roots back to the 10th century and claim that their ethnic identity is distinct from both the Burmese and Bengalis. However, the ‘official’ records and Burmese perspective mention that they emigrated from the present-day Bangladesh during the British period. It is these differing views that have been behind the conflict between the Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists in the Rakhine state since the Buddhist-majority state of Myanmar sees them as non-indigenous and thus, undesirable.

Since the independence of Myanmar from British colonial rule, this group has been subjected to state repression and violence. During this period, this group faced both “direct violence” – physical violence with the intent of inflicting visible and evident harm on someone, and “structural violence” – a kind of violence that is embedded in state practices and social customs that may or may not take active, tangible shape but which still causes harm and places impediments to their progress.

Under fire

Direct violence has often included day-to-day instances of physical abuse, forced labor, abductions of Rohingya leaders and rapes of Rohingya women. It is important to note that sexual violence against Rohingya women not only amounts to a war-crime, but is also a deliberate act aimed at reducing (and subsequently eliminating) the population of this distinct ethnic group; a kind of crime that makes their persecution an act of genocide.

Apart from these regular travails, this group has faced three major crackdowns and instances of horrific violence in 1978, 1991, and recently in 2012. The current round of physical violence has reportedly claimed the lives of 400 Rohingyas.

What have been termed by the Burmese government as ‘crackdowns’ against ‘unlawful elements’ in the society have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Rohingyas , with thousands having been forced to find refuge in different lands. They have, in international media reports, been termed as ‘state riots’ – acts of violence against the Rohingya population that was abetted by the state either due to direct participation or through deliberate dereliction of duty by the state to protect them.

The population that remains is mostly concentrated in the Rakhine region and is being forced to subsist in ghetto-like conditions. In fact, in the absence of state protection against persecution, ghettoization has been forced on this community that has not only stifled their progress but has made them more vulnerable to consolidated state and society-led assaults. It is important to note that besides the Buddhist population the state paramilitary, NASACA, has also been involved in these campaigns of direct violence.

‘Not our people’

Since independence from the British Empire, the Rohingya Muslims have been subjected to structural violence. Because of their perceived contested identity, the state of Myanmar does not consider them as the citizens of Myanmar. According to the Burma citizenship law of 1982, Burmese citizenship is restricted to those who can prove that their ancestors lived in the country before the first Anglo-Burmese war in 1824. This means that the Rohingyas have been subject to structural violence and according to Human Rights Watch, “including restrictions on their freedom of movement, discriminatory limitations on access to education, and arbitrary confiscation of property.”

For this reason, the Rohingya are not recognized as a national race and are considered as foreign residents according to the citizenship law. During my visit to a Rohingya refugee camp in New Delhi, this was confirmed by refugees who showed me their Mehman Cards, a kind of temporary cards in which the ethnicity is mentioned as Bengali. These refugees also confirmed instances of structural violence.

The Burmese Government restricts freedom of movement of the Rohingya population within the Rakhine state and in other parts of Burma thus violating Article 13 of the Universal declaration of Human Rights. Furthermore, the Burmese reserve secondary education for citizens only.

Therefore, the Rohingya cannot go beyond the 10th grade and therefore, are unable to secure jobs in the government, bureaucracies nor the private sector. Since the Rohingyas are not considered citizens, they are not allowed to keep their property. During crackdowns their properties were confiscated as one Refugee Sultan Ahmad from Delhi refugee camp revealed during a survey, “I was a rich farmer who owned his own land; only to see it getting taken away by the Buddhists.”

Leading a ‘bare life’

Persecuted in the land that their ancestors had made theirs, the current population of Rohingyas in the state of Myanmar presents a peculiar case. While their condition is certainly not unique, yet the denial of citizenship due to state mandated policies has made them state-less within the state they have inhabited for years. On the other hand, the refusal to accept Rohingyas by the state of Bangladesh has added to their misery since there is no land they can claim as their ‘homeland.’ An ‘unwanted’ existence of this community has made them a contemporary living version of Agamben’s bare life – a life that is exposed to death especially at the hands of sovereign violence.

Interestingly, while the state of Myanmar refuses to treat the persecution of Rohingyas as genocide Buddhist leaders and Rakhine nationalists have often invoked terms such as “race,” “ethnicity,” and “culture” in order to substantiate and justify their actions to the Buddhist majority of Myanmar. Drawing a legitimate parallel, it will be instructive to note that before and during the Holocaust, the Nazi leadership relied on the same terms to give authenticity to their plans. Besides, it is also evident from the behavior of offenders that they are aware of the fact that their actions will cause damage to the Rohingya population.

Therefore, by utilizing definition outlined by the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, Spencer’s qualitative approach, and Melson’s classification of genocide, it can be argued that the actions of State of Myanmar and Buddhist Rakhine are violating the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide; and thus falls under the category of ‘partial’ genocide. In an interview, Professor William Schabas, the former president of the International Association of Genocide Scholars, argued in 2103: “We’re moving into a zone where the word can be used (in the case of the Rohingya). When you see measures preventing births, trying to deny the identity of the people, hoping to see that they eventually no longer exist, denying their history, denying the legitimacy of the right to live where they live, these are all warning signs that mean that it’s not frivolous to envisage the use of the term genocide.”

Whether the state of Myanmar acknowledges it or not, it is indeed involved in violation of the fundamental human rights of the Rohingyas. In fact, a statement that was issued by the former President of Myanmar, Thein Sein, soon after the 2012 crackdown, highlights that the solution (to the Rohingya problem) is either “refugee camps or deportation.” The military junta was seen as the problem and its removal from power as the probable first step towards ending such state-perpetrated ethnic violence. Tridib Deb, the co-chair of the Bangabandhu Lawyers Council, UK, has also noted in an interview that the presence of the military junta has been the real reason behind this conflict and believed democratization of Myanmar as the only solution at this point of time by uttering “It is the intention of the [Myanmar] government to force the Rohingya out of their ancestral homeland…but in order to have a solution we have to first democratize [Myanmar]…because [Myanmar] is not a democracy – the military junta can do anything.”

However, wanting, Myanmar today is a democratic state, but the plight of the Rohingya continues to remain the same. Has then faith in the power of democracy to bring a solution to this problem been ignored? The answer is not clear. While one can still blame the constitutional provisions that mandate a considerable presence of the military in the Parliament as the stumbling block in the path towards addressing the Rohingya issue, the fact that the State Counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi has turned a blind eye towards the issue is not unknown. It is quite ironic that a known crusader for peace and democracy, one who was placed under house arrest for years, is least empathetic to the plight of those who are being persecuted similarly.

Now, since the Rohingyas are not considered citizens of Myanmar and the state is itself involved in violations of human rights, therefore, it becomes the responsibility of the international community to protect them, as the third pillar of the Responsibility to Protect clearly argues; “[T]he international community has a responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other means to protect populations from these crimes. If a State is manifestly failing to protect its populations, the international community must be prepared to take collective action to protect populations, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.”