The Rohingya Crisis in Myanmar: Implications for National Reconstruction, Regional and Human Security
‘Rohingya Crisis: A Historical Overview’
Amb Rajiv Sikri, Former Indian Ambassador to Myanmar
The biggest debate in the Rohingya crisis is the use of the term ‘Rohingya’ itself. Burmese (Myanmar) historians and scholars deny the use of the term ‘Rohingyas’ in their history and prefer to call these people as Bengali Muslims, ‘Chittagongians’ or ‘Kalas’. They are considered as illegal migrants from Bangladesh and not Myanmarese citizens as per the 1982 Citizenship Act. This act states that as per the Treaty of Yandabo, singed during the First Anglo-Burmese war, anybody who was not a part of Burmese kingdom, he/she and his/her descendents cannot be given the citizenship of Myanmar.
However, the history is complicated as the movement of people between Myanmar and Bangladesh happened in various waves. The Muslims who are found in Myanmar today came, when Islam travelled from Arabia to the outer fringes of South Asia and East Asia through both land and sea routes during the 7th century. They are now located in various parts of Myanmar such as Yangon, Mandalay and mostly in the Rakhine state. During the 15th & 16th century there were close exchanges between Chittagong and Arakan, and the infiltration of Muslim from Bengal to Arakan took place. This constituted the beginning of the history of Arakan with two religious communities-Buddhist and Muslims.
The critical period was the year 1784 when reverse influx took place. The Burmese king invaded Arakan to the kingdom of ‘Ava’, Central Burma and as a consequence, people from Arakan flee to Cox Bazaar (presently in Bangladesh). Another major flow happened in 1824, when British colonized Burma, in the first Anglo-Burmese war and annexed Arakan to British India. The migration of people from Bangladesh-Burma and vice versa took place. In 1942 when Japan invaded Burma, British tried to seek support from the Muslims in Arakan and promised them an independent state. In 1948 when Burma became independent, a group of Muslims from Arakan began an armed rebellion demanding an independent state. This movement was suppressed and under Premier Yunu, Rakhine state was bought into existence.
A large number of Muslims from the Rakhine state flew to Chittagong and Cox Bazar in 1978 when under General Ne Win ethnic cleansing campaign known as Naga Min, or Dragon King. This process prosecuted illegal entrants, primarily in Rakhine state and drove out nearly 200,000 Rohingyas from Myanmar. Since then the dispersal of Rohingyas took place and presently, there are only about 750, 000 Rohingyas in Myanmar, nearly 20,000 are in the two refugee camps in Bangladesh and about 200,000 are dispersed in the Bangladesh community in and around those camps. They are now spread in other neighbouring countries of Myanmar, such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and India.
‘Perspectives of the Rohingyas: The Current Dilemma’
Ms. Rita Manchanda, South Asia Forum for Human Rights, New Delhi
The extra-judicial killings, restriction of freedom of movement are a common plight of the ethnic minorities in Myanmar. But, when it comes to the stateless Rohingyas, they are facing extreme racial prejudice at various levels. The 1974 Immigration Act stripped them of their nationality, the 1982 Citizenship Act of Myanmar created various categories such as associate citizens, naturalized citizens where the Rohingyas did not figure in any of these categories. At the policy and bureaucratic level too this community has been ignored. During the 1983 census, the Rohingyas were excluded from the process. The Registration of birth and death were not carried out in the areas with Muslim population.
The Rohingyas are clustered into forced labour and their lands have been confesticated by the Myanmarese Army. Their freedom of movement has been restricted; they are not even allowed to marry without permission. They do not have access to higher education or employment. The World food programme stated that, four out of five families of this community were in depth, as they did not have subsistence food. 20% of Rohingyas are stated to be malnourished whose life enhancing options are extremely limited. Due to their statelessness, most of the countries are reluctant to consider this community as a refugee and often label them as economic migrants. They are forcibly pushed back by the neighbouring countries to the sea considering them as an economic or security threat.
‘How state deals with Statelessness in the region?’
Dr. Zarin Ahmad, Centre de Sciences Humaines, New Delhi
Statelessness makes the position of a person vulnerable, legally and institutionally. Unlike refugees or the Internally Displaced People (IDPs) who at least have legal protection, the stateless people are denied any security or safety measures and are mostly detained.
The state does not take responsibility in such situation, because the stateless people are only seen as burden and threat. A state refuses to take the responsibility in three major circumstances, during a state dissolution, conflict and war and during arbitration derivation which the state can exercise.
It would be wrong to state that, there is no solution to the problem of statelessness. This issue of citizenship was previously tackled by intervention of two states in 1964. The Sirimavo (Srimavo)-Shastri Accord was reached between India and Sri Lanka regarding the status of Indian Tamils in the then Ceylon (1992, 1794). According to the pact, they agreed to confer citizenship on 5.25 lakh persons of Indian origin, with natural increase in their numbers, over a period of fifteen years. Another major pact was signed in 1974 between Sirimavo Bandranaike and Indira Gandhi as a result of which India was to receive another 75,000 persons of Indian origin, after those under the first agreement were repatriated. The entire process was expected to be completed by October 1981. Sri Lanka agreed, in turn, to absorb 3, 00,000 persons under the first agreement and another 75,000 under the second agreement as its nationals at the ratio of four Sri Lankan nationals for every seven repatriated to India. Although legally the issue was by large resolved, other essential elements such as education, health care facilities and employment were not considered. The plight of the stateless people will continue in this manner despite getting recognition, if they are not given the basin necessities. Similarly, in the case of the citizenship of the Bihari Muslim’s in Bangladesh, on 19 May 2008, the Dhaka High Court granted right of Bangladesh citizenship to the second generation of Biharis who were born in the camps. But here again the basic necessities and the process of acceptance of the stateless people into a new place remain unseen.
‘Bangladesh perspective on the Rohingya Crisis’
Medha Chaturvedi, Research Officer, IPCS
After providing shelter for nearly three decades, the Bangladesh government is now concerned about the increasing influx of Rohingyas and are now turning back and forcibly pushing them into the sea.
The Foreign Minister of Bangladesh, Mr. Dipu Moni states that Bangladesh has its own domestic concerns of demographic pressure, resource scarcity and internal security. There are already 29,000 Rohingyas registered with the UNHCR living in Bangladesh and nearly 200,000 illegal migrants and the increasing influx of asylum seekers is mounting the pressure on the country.
Moreover, the data on how many Rohingyas are living within Bangladesh and along the borders is not available. There are only official data, which may or may not be accurate. The media and human rights organization are denied access to those areas on both sides of the borders, due to which a head count of displacement of people, birth or death rates of the Rohingyas are not available. Also, there are no records on the asylum seekers who are detained or deported by the Bangladesh authorities.
‘Thailand perspective on the Rohingya Crisis’
Panchali Saikia, Research Officer, IPCS
Due to the denial of protection in Bangladesh, the Rohingyas in large numbers are trying to escape to Malaysia via the sea route through Thailand. But they are denied entry by the Thai authorities and are forcibly pushed back into the sea. In January 2011, few boats were found by the Indian authorities along the coast of Andaman Islands, who were identified as the Rohingyas and were forcibly pushed back by Thailand.
The Rohingya crisis has become a major concern for Thailand, as most of these migrants/refugees who escape are landing in Thailand. They are apprehensive of the influx and suspect that the Rohingyas are assisting the Muslim-led insurgency in southern Thailand in criminal, illegal drugs trade activities. Unlike the other migrants in Thailand who play a major role contributing to the Thai economy, the Rohingyas are only a liability and burden; they cannot get a work permit in Thailand as this requires a nationality verification certificate which the Rohingyas do not have. Henceforth they cannot be considered an economic migrant. Thailand is already hosting nearly 1 million other migrants from Myanmar in the nine refugee camps along Thai-Myanmar border. The influx of Rohingyas will increase the burden for the country. Also, the resettlement programme of the Rohingyas is a complicated issue, there is no official data on how many Rohingyas are living in Thailand and due to fear of detention and deportation they do not reveal their identity. As they are not considered as a citizen of Myanmar, reaching an understanding on repatriation and resettlement becomes difficult.
• The bottom-line is that it is an identity issue and it is only the political decision that will give this community recognition by the state.
• The problem is extremely complex; it is not only the Rohingyas, but the whole Muslim community in Myanmar which faces discrimination. There are several groups of Muslims in Myanmar including the Rohingyas, and the discrimination against them has been practiced since the ethnic cleansing campaign that started in 1978.
• Therefore, the primary problem and solution lies with Myanmar. The Myanmar government should consider accommodating this community as their nationals. The Rohingyas are not fighting for land or employment; they are just demanding recognition, dignity and equal rights in their homeland. The Rohingyas deserve to be accepted in the integration, social reconciliation and economic development process of Myanmar.
• The neighbouring countries of Myanmar are reluctant to host the Rohingyas because they are seen not only as an economic burden but there is a fear that they might be involved in terrorist activities. For instance, in southern Thailand, they are watched in great suspension as the authorities suspect that the Rohingyas are assisting the Muslim-led insurgency in southern provinces. Although it is evident that the Rohingyas have formed militant groups but linking them to any international terrorist groups could be wrong.
• However, being a stateless group of people, it is possible that the Rohingyas can be indoctrinated and used by the terrorist outfits in order to increase its influence in the region. The Rohingyas pushed back to the sea are vulnerable to being recruited by sea pirates and getting involved in arms and drugs smuggling.
• It also cannot be ignored that there have been elements from the Rakhine area who have participated in political conventions in Lashkar-e-Taiba and the threat of their links to international terrorist groups persists.
• The plight of the Rohingyas and the growing concern over their influx is not only confined to Myanmar, Bangladesh or Thailand. Other regional powers like India, Indonesia and Malaysia must also engage themselves considering its security implications.
• According to sources from the UNHCR, there are nearly 2000-2500 Rohingyas who have escaped to India, and are living in Hyderabad and West Bengal. They are provided assistance and protection by the UNHRC India office. However, this is only who have registered to the UNHCR, there might be a larger number in the Indian states along the India-Bangladesh border.
• Unless Bangladesh and Myanmar come to a settlement on the issues, things will remain complicated.
Even if legal status is granted by Myanmar to this community, will the country be able to accommodate the Rohingya populations who are living in the refugee camps in Bangladesh.
• The social media can play a pivotal role in bringing a settlement to this crisis. It must act sensitively without exaggerating the issues, as it did in the recent conflict in the Rakhine state over an incident that was hyped as an ethnic conflict between the Buddhist and the Rohingya. Under such circumstances where a conflict is altered, it would increase the influx of Rohingyas to the neighbouring countries.
• Also, a wider role by the international organization such as the UNHCR is essential to provide a humanitarian road to the problem.
Report Prepared by Panchali Saikia, Research Officer, IPCS