On September 14, 2016, State Counsellor, Aun San Suu Kyi, came to visit the United States hoping to get the rest of the U.S. imposed sanctions lifted. The United States announced that it planned to lift the rest of the sanctions and reinstate trade benefits after a meeting between Suu Kyi and President Obama. In May, President Obama had lifted some sanctions due to the political reforms in Myanmar that began five years ago. This announcement has been seen as another great victory for Myanmar. First, Myanmar has successfully transitioned from a military regime to a democracy. Second, the country’s de facto leader is a 71-year-old, a Nobel Peace Prize winner woman.
The country has really transformed and improving for the better, right!? Well, this isn’t entirely true. Myanmar has a dark horrifying situation that has been going on for decades, serious human rights violations that could amount to crimes against humanity against: the Rohingya.
WHO ARE THE ROHINGYA?
Myanmar has recognized 135 minority groups within its country. However, it refuses to accept its 136th: the Rohingya. The Rohingya, are a Muslim group located in the Rakhine State of Myanmar and make up one third of Rakhine’s population. While, Myanmar is a predominately Buddhist country and the Rakhine State is the poorest and least developed state in Myanmar.The poverty and religious differences are part of the conflict between the Buddhists and the Rohingya. However, the Buddhist population claim that due to the belief that the Rohingya are descendants of Bengali migrants that were used as laborers and later fighters during British Occupation. However, the Rohingya claim they are indigenous to the Rakhine State.
“THE MOST PERSECUTED REFUGEES IN THE WORLD”
Since the 1960s, the Rohingya had to flee to Bangladesh to escape the human rights abuses they suffered at the hands of the army and government. In 1982, the Myanmar government passed a law denying the Rohingya citizenship. The Rohingya have suffered torture, cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment and punishment, extra-judicial killing and summary execution, arbitrary arrest and detention, rape, destruction on homes, forced labor, forced relocation and eviction, confiscation of land and property. Since the 1980s, many mosques and religious schools have been demolished and repairs to any mosque are often prohibited. Also, Muslim cemeteries, monuments, places and historical sites are often appropriated by the government or destroyed. In the 1990s, the State, Peace, and Development Council policies have been using discriminatory practices aimed at reducing the Rohingya in the Rakhine State. Since 2001, traveling restrictions have been placed on the Rohingya. They are required to have a traveling pass to travel within the townships and outside of the Rakhine State.
In 2012, tension turned into violence. A Rakhine State Buddhist woman was raped and murdered, allegedly by a group of Rohingya men. Buddhists nationalists burned Rohingya homes and killed more than 280 people and tens of thousands of Rohingya were displaced. Currently, more than 120,000 Muslims are being housed in forty internment camps. The Ma Ba Tha, a group of radical Buddhists, have since been on a campaign of ethnic cleansing. They will target anyone offering a different opinion or speaking for non-discrimination, although their attacks and threats are primarily directed against the Rohingya
“NOBODY KNOWS THE TROUBLE I’VE SEEN”
In 2012, 86,000 Rohingya fled to neighboring countries. The Rohingya have been denied resettlement in Indonesia, Thailand, Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Australia. The Rohingya are, essentially, stateless. They are denied basic rights-freedom of movement, access to education and services, employment, property, and healthcare. Since they are not considered citizens of Myanmar, they lack the proper identification documents needed to become a citizen anywhere else. On March 31 2015, all temporary registration cards, the main identification document held by Rohingya expired. In June, the Government announced that those who had submitted their card by the deadline (approximately 469,000 people) were eligible to apply for new identity cards. However, many Rohingya do not trust the government and therefore have not gotten new cards. The only identification some Rohingya have managed to have is a household registration card. The situation became dire between January 2014 and May 2015 when more than 88,000 Rohinya fled to the Bay of Bengal. This resulted in thousands being abandoned and stranded at sea.
In May 2015, due to international pressures over the migration crisis Bangladesh, Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia have been playing a game of Maritime ping pong.
- Bangladesh: more than 32,000 Rohingya have been registered refugees and it is believed that more than 200,000 additional unregistered Rohingya refugees are there but the refugee camps are horrific which caused many to flee to the Bay of Bengal.
- Malaysia: In June 2016, Malaysia reported 150,700 registered refugees; 90% are Rohingya but have no legal status and therefore unable to work and denied the same rights
- Indonesia: the numbers are relatively low and under international pressure admitted 1,000 Rohingya with emergency assistance and protection.
“CHANGE’S A COMING??”
In August, one month before her visit to the United States, Suu Kyi announced the establishment of a nine-person committee, led by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, to provide options and suggestions to the government for resolving the ethnic conflict in the Rakhine State. The final report of the committee is due at the end of August 2017.
While this represents a step forward, there are no Rohingya on the committee and the Rakhine State is one of the most xenophobic areas in the world. This could cause a problem for Mr. Annan as the new Myanmar government has not taken an active role in taking a stance for the Rohingya. In fact, Suu Kyi instructed the new U.S. ambassador not to use the term Rohingya and she herself has never addressed the Rohingya as Rohingya. Furthermore, in the past Suu Kyi stated that “she didn’t know if the Rohingya could be considered citizens” and recently “that everyone who was entitled to citizenship should get it.” However, her feelings are not just targeted at the Rohingya, but have more of an anti-Muslim sentiment, in general. It will be interesting to see if this committee will be effective at all in assessing and resolving the situation.
Kia Roberts-Warren is a 3L at UB Law. She is concentrating in international law. Kia graduated from Temple University receiving a BA in East Asian Studies during that time she spent a semester in Tokyo, Japan. Kia has an interest in international trade and human rights. She is also interested in fashion law and art law in the international context. Last year, she held the position of Career Development Director of the International Law Society and participated in the 2016 Philip C. Jessup Moot Court Competition. She recently attended UB’s Aberdeen Summer Abroad Program.