Author: Ashby Henningsen, UMBC
Within the Rakhine state in Myanmar, one of the most beleaguered groups of people in the world continues to face ethnic oppression and brutality. For decades, the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority in Myanmar, have struggled to attain equality under from the law in a country that has overtly acted to deprive them of critical human rights. This past month, Myanmar’s Foreign Minister, Wunna Wuang Lwin, announced before the United Nations the enactment of new national policy that will, he claimed, extend new legal protections to the Rohingya in his country . It is the sort of declaration that human rights advocates and other scrutinizing ears would hope to hear: a possible initiative to improve the Rohingyas’ political and social situation in Myanmar and progress the Southeast Asian country’s human rights record. If UN delegates present at his announcement scratched at the surface behind Lwin’s proclamations, however, they would find little beyond policy enacted two years ago: policy that not only incites little hope of genuine reform, but that in fact threatens to plunge the Rohingya into even further calamity. Furthermore, it may be the passivity of the very states that could come to their aid–such as the United States–that could ultimately seal their fate.
To adequately appreciate the magnitude of the Rohingyas’ somber circumstances, one must first understand how extensive their hardship at the hands of their government has been. The trend of forced repatriation and persecution of the people now known as the Rohingya arguably began in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when invasions of the region today comprising the Burmese state of Rakhine forced them to temporarily flee–first from the Burmese, then from British colonizers in a series of conflicts . The trend of violence persisted during the Second World War, when the Japanese invasion of the then-British colony created a dearth of authority and encouraged armed conflict between the Muslim Rohingya and Buddhists in the region . Burmese sovereignty beginning in 1948 failed to alleviate the Rohingyas’ plight, as continued dissent stemming from unequal treatment by the new government compelled Rohingya leaders to unsuccessfully push for their own separate state from 1948-1961 . The situation deteriorated drastically in 1971 when Burmese military leader Ne Win conducted Operation Naga Min (Dragon King), resulting in a surge of executions, rape, and forced removal of thousands of Rohingya. 250,000 were ultimately forced into exile in Bangladesh . Rohingya persecution ultimately peaked with the enactment of the Burmese Citizenship Law in 1982. Denying citizenship to any group that had entered the country after 1823 (when the first of several British-Burmese wars commenced) , the law effectively designated the Rohingya as open targets for institutionalized discrimination–culminating ultimately in the human rights abuses inflicted up to the modern era.
Which brings us to the events unfolding today. Although Burmese officials claim to have constructed legislation to protect the maligned ethnic group and alleviate its current apartheid-like conditions, the policy-in-question would merely recycle laws proposed in 2012. Those laws would have resulted in the Rohingyas’ forced removal from their current settlements in Myanmar to a neighboring country—for all intents and purposes, deporting them. Despite being rejected by the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), those laws received little outside attention, much less condemnation . Its proposed reincarnation features only a minor redesign. It will offer the Rohingya the “choice” of accepting forced detention in “temporary” camps followed by resettlement in another country–all with the UNHCR’s acquiescence. Or, they can subject themselves to reclassification as “Bengali,” with the prospect of hollow citizen-status—despite the fact that the majority of them can trace their lineage to individuals who lived in Myanmar well before its independence in 1948 . In other words, the Rohingya are being forced to decide between indefinite detention, with ensuing hopelessness for a higher quality of life, or wrongful ethnic relabeling and the slim chance of improved legal protection. Already, the Rohingya continue to suffer from state-sanctioned hate speech from Burmese Buddhist opposition, statutory discrimination, inadequate shelter and food, organized discriminatory violence, and widespread sexual violence. This latest development will inflict even greater suffering upon them, and regress their country’s human rights record even further.
Worse yet, countries with the opportunity to stand up for the Rohingya—including the United States—are seemingly doing nothing to pressure the Burmese government into reversing this trend. In fact, there recently has been minimal public criticism toward Myanmar whatsoever, aside from a statement from U.S. president Barack Obama that “abuses in the Rakhine state [were] one reason for maintaining some economic sanctions” against Myanmar . Evidence indicates that the U.S. is even implicitly supporting the latest Burmese legislation. Unnamed individuals among the Rohingya have recently described meetings with U.S. officials who “implicitly urged them to ‘cooperate with government in doing verification [sic] according to [the] 1982 citizenship law.’” Other U.S. officials “view the plain as ‘a positive step’ and had been working behind the scenes…to provide an opening through which some Rohingya might gain citizenship rights” .
If that is the best defense that the U.S. and the rest of the global community can muster for the Rohingya, then perhaps it ought to take a hard, honest reassessment of how true its professed support for human freedom rings. It is now clear that the Burmese government has no intentions to seriously reverse its policies toward the Rohingya. Only the global community has the capability to turn its foreign policies towards Myanmar around, revamp its coordination with NGOs in the country, and pressure Naypyidaw into initiating genuine human rights reforms. Failure to do so would thrust this long-maligned minority group into the path of even greater atrocity.