Who are the Rohingya?

“Painting the enemy as being as inhuman as possible is a great way to win a war,” quoted Rae Carson in The Bitter Kingdom. Such has been the portrayal of the Rohingya people by the people of affluence in Myanmar.

The Rohingya are an ethnic group, the majority of whom are Muslim, who have lived for centuries in the majority Buddhist Myanmar. Currently, there are about 1.1 million Rohingya in the Southeast Asian country.

The Rohingya speak Rohingya or Ruaingga, a dialect that is distinct to others spoken throughout Myanmar. They are not considered one of the country’s 135 official ethnic groups and have been denied citizenship in Myanmar since 1982, which has effectively rendered them stateless.

Nearly all of the Rohingya in Myanmar live in the western coastal state of Rakhine and are not allowed to leave without government permission. It is one the poorest states in the country, with ghetto-like camps and a lack of basic services and opportunities.

Due to ongoing violence and persecution, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have fled to neighboring countries either by land or boat over the course of many decades.

Where are the Rohingya from?

Muslims have lived in the area now known as Myanmar since as early as the 12th century, according to many historians and Rohingya groups. The Arakan Rohingya National Organisation said: “Rohingyas have been living in Arakan from time immemorial,” referring to the area now known as Rakhine

During the more than 100 years of British rule (1824-1948), there was a significant amount of migration of laborers to what is now known as Myanmar from today’s India and Bangladesh. Because the British administered Myanmar as a province of India, such migration was considered internal, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).

The migration of labourers was viewed negatively by the majority of the native population. After independence, the government viewed the migration that took place during British rule as “illegal, and it is on this basis that they refuse citizenship to the majority of Rohingya,” HRW said in a report issued in 2000.

This has led many Buddhists to consider the Rohingya Bengali, rejecting the term Rohingya as a recent invention created for political reasons.

Status of Rohingya

Shortly after Burma’s independence from the British in 1948, the Union Citizenship Act was passed, defining which ethnicities could gain citizenship. According to a 2015 report by the International Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School, the Rohingya were not included. The act, however, did allow those whose families had lived in Myanmar for at least two generations to apply for identity cards. 

Rohingya were initially given such identification or even citizenship under the provision of the generation. During this time, several Rohingya also served in parliament. After the 1962 military coup in Myanmar, things changed dramatically for the Rohingya.

All citizens were required to obtain national registration cards. The Rohingya, however, were only given foreign identity cards, which limited the jobs and educational opportunities they could pursue.

In 1982, a new citizenship law was passed, effectively rendering the Rohingya stateless. Under the law, Rohingya were again not recognised as one of the country’s 135 ethnic groups. The law established three levels of citizenship. In order to obtain the most basic level (naturalised citizenship), proof that the person’s family lived in Myanmar before 1948 was needed, as well as fluency in one of the national languages. Many Rohingya lack such paperwork because it was either unavailable or denied to them.

As a result of the law, their rights to study, work, travel, marry, practice their religion and access health services have been and continue to be restricted. The Rohingya cannot vote, and even if they navigate the citizenship test, they must identify as “naturalised” as opposed to Rohingya, and limits are placed on them entering certain professions such as medicine or law or running for office. 

The Persecution of Rohingya

Since the 1970s, a number of crackdowns on the Rohingya in Rakhine State have forced hundreds of thousands to flee to neighboring Bangladesh, as well as Malaysia, Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries. During such crackdowns, refugees have often reported rape, torture, arson and murder by Myanmar security forces.

After the killings of nine border police in October 2016, the government blamed what it claimed were fighters from an armed Rohingya group and troops started pouring into the villages of Rakhine State. A security crackdown on villages where Rohingya lived ensued, during which government troops were accused of an array of human rights abuses including extrajudicial killing, rape and arson – allegations the government denied.

In November 2016, a UN official accused the government of carrying out ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya. It was not the first time such an accusation has been made.

Myanmar’s government razed at least 55 villages once populated by Rohingya, destroying with them evidence of crimes against the minority, according to Human Rights Watch.

The rights groups released images in February that showed between December 2017 and mid-February, areas that were once full of buildings and greenery had been completed cleared. 

HRW described the actions by Myanmar security forces as an “ethnic cleansing campaign” and called on the UN and Myanmar’s donors to demand an end to the demolitions.

A total of 362 villages have been destroyed either completely or partially since Myanmar’s military began a campaign against the Rohingya in August last year, according to HRW.

Since the late 1970s, nearly one million Rohingya have fled Myanmar due to widespread persecution. According to the most recently available data from the United Nations in May, more than 168,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar since 2012.

Following violence that broke out, more than 87,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh from October 2016 to July 2017, according to the International Organization for Migration. Many Rohingya also risked their lives trying to get to Malaysia by boat across the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. Between 2012 and 2015, more than 112,000 made the dangerous journey.

The Repatriation Deal

In November 2017, Bangladesh and Myanmar signed a deal for the return of 650,000 Rohingya refugees, who fled in the recent violence.

Both countries agreed to complete a voluntary repatriation in two years. The plan is based on a similar agreement that was signed in the 1990s to repatriate Rohingya who have fled a previous crackdown led by the Myanmar military.

Myanmar set up two reception centres and what it is believed to be a temporary camp near the border of Rakhine to receive the first arrivals.

On the deal, Director of Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) refugee rights programme said: “Before the start of actual returns, Myanmar should agree to a set of prerequisites for return.” That includes “unfettered, independent monitoring” of returnees, restoration of lost homes and properties among others.

The future of the Rohingya seems to be very bleak. The countries where they fled are branding them illegal immigrants and want to send them back to Myanmar and the country which they really belong to, doesn’t really accept the Rohingya to be their own and if sometime they do, still the inhumane conditions of living prevails.

“This inhuman world has to become more humane. But how?” – Friedrich Durrenmatt

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