Tuesday 10 July 2012

Homeless in Burma

Source from Asian Age, 9 July 2012

Even as the world watches the reforms shaping Burma, violence against Rohingya Muslims in last month’s ethnic clashes in Rakhine province once again brought the focus back on the troubled relationship between the ethnic minority and the Burmese state. The Burmese government has been in the process of normalising its ties with various troubled ethnic minorities in the country, but the Rohingya community remains at loggerheads with the Rakhine Buddhist community. The Thein Sein government, in fact, had to declare martial law in many districts of Rakhine to quell the clashes in which nine Rohingya Muslims were killed.

This is one of the more protracted conflicts affecting the Burmese ethnic mosaic, which has 135 communities. The Rakhine province is home to both the Rakhine Buddhist community and the Rohingya Muslims. The Rohingya community claims to be the original settlers of the Rakhine (or Arakan) province, whose ancestry is traced to Arab traders. It is believed that these Muslim settlers have been in the region since the 8th century, but were a minority within a largely Buddhist Burma. Despite this, the Rohingya Muslims were part of the Burmese state with citizenship rights under colonial rule and in the early post-independence period.
During the British period, the Rohingyas were even incorporated into the administrative structure, albeit at lower levels. This continued even under independent Burma’s first President, U Nu.

Their rights as citizens were lost only in 1982 when the dominant Burmese ethnic community was identified as those who could establish their ancestry as going back to 1823. The ethnic communities such as the Karens and Kachins were considered minority communities within the Burmese nation. But Rohingyas lost their right to citizenship and also lost access to education and freedom of movement even within the country. There is a view that they lost their citizenship because of the “Muslim phobia” of the junta under Gen. Ne Win.

In fact during the first government under U Nu, which was a parliamentary form of government, the Rohingyas were recognised as an indigenous ethnic group within Burma. It is after 1982 that they lost their rights. Under the Citizen Act of 1982 those who could establish their ancestry were given three categories of citizenship, in various degrees — like associate citizenship, normal citizenship etc — but the Rohingyas were just removed from the indigenous ethnic nationalities list.
This affected nearly two million Rohingyas who were forced to migrate to other countries to escape persecution in Burma. Today nearly 800,000 of the community live within Burma, while several have moved to neighbouring countries such as Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia and even to India and Pakistan. In fact nearly 50 countries across the world have received Rohingya refugees.

The largest homeless ethnic group in the world, their status has not been fully recognised by international bodies like the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, which has registered only about 50,000 officially with legal and refugee rights.

Last month’s riots in Burma revealed that there is little space for negotiation between the Burmese government and the Rohingya protesters, as the plight of the community is barely understood even in their own country. Most view the Rohingyas as complete outsiders and they are associated with petty thievery and criminal activities.

The latest onslaught occurred when a Rohingya community member was allegedly held responsible for the rape and murder of a Rakhine Buddhist girl. This triggered the most vocal protests from the Rohingyas, including against the use of a derogatory racial word — “kala” — which is often used to refer to people from neighbouring countries who are darker in complexion and have migrated to Burma. While incidents like this may look like simple ethnic clashes, they are indicative of complete marginalisation of the Rohingyas in their own home country.

In April 2011, the ethnic community’s attempts to escape in makeshift boats in search of a new home earned them the title of “the new boat people” — a reference to the Nineties when refugees fleeing their country would use rickety boats as a mode of transport on high seas, often leading to the boats capsizing and their deaths by drowning. The Rohingya problem has been festering since then without a viable political mechanism to address it.

Within Burma there is very little political initiative in this direction. Several political leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi, have said that the current citizenship law should be implemented. But this means little, as the law itself is flawed. Any resolution must look at changing the Citizenship Act of 1982, which led to the disenfranchisement of Rohingyas. This will be the biggest hurdle since there is no political will to change or reform the citizenship laws.

While Burma is going through a phase of reform since the 2010 elections, the Thein Sein government will make great headway if the issue of the Rohingyas is addressed at the earliest. However, the degree to which the Rohingyas are resented within Burma may not allow for any solution in the immediate future.
At the regional level, too, there is a need to tackle the problem. Mr Thein Sein’s visit to Bangladesh is scheduled for mid-July, where the two countries may look at a bilateral approach. In the recent crisis, the Bangladesh government actually sealed off its borders to prevent the Rohingyas’ infiltration. Bangladesh is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. Bangladesh treats this as a problem that Burma will have to tackle on its own.

The Asean Summit last year failed to have any impact on the plight of the Rohingyas. In fact in 2009 Asean shifted the onus of addressing the Rohingya problem to the Bali process, which was an initiative started in 2002 to deal with human trafficking and people smuggling. This Bali process had 50 member countries to assist in framing mechanisms for addressing such crimes. However, since it deals with trafficking it was not equipped to address the problems of Rohingya refugees. Even as the reform process shapes Burma and its integration into the international community, turning a blind eye to the Rohingya problem is going to leave a festering wound for the future.

The writer is an associate professor of Southeast Asian Studies at the School of International Studies, JNU

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