All eyes are on Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi as intense violence unfolds in the country, with the total population of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar dropping by almost ten percent within a span of just a week — and over 25 percent in the last 11 months.
The situation has led to widespread international condemnation, as concerns grow that Myanmar’s targeted counter-insurgency campaign is less about wiping out militants, and more in line with definitions of ‘ethnic cleansing.’
The United Nations, in a flash report, has said that the violence indicates the very likely commission of crimes against humanity. “The devastating cruelty to which these Rohingya children have been subjected is unbearable – what kind of hatred could make a man stab a baby crying out for his mother’s milk. And for the mother to witness this murder while she is being gang-raped by the very security forces who should be protecting her,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein. “What kind of ‘clearance operation’ is this? What national security goals could possibly be served by this?”
The United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) noted that more than half of the women its human rights team interviewed reported having suffered rape or other forms of sexual violence. Many other interviewees reported witnessing killings, including of family members and having family who were missing.
The United Nations secretary-general, António Guterres, has appealed to Myanmar to end the violence, with the UN predicting that more than 300,000 Rohingya people will flee the country for Bangladesh. About 125,000 Rohingya people have already crossed into Bangladesh as a result of the recent violence.
Condemnation has come in from international organisations and human rights watchdogs, leading experts and a number of nobel laureates — with one notable exception: Aung San Suu Kyi. Petitions to revoke Suu Kyi’s nobel prize have failed to exact a result as the Nobel Foundation’s statutes do not account for the possibility. In popular perception, however, Suu Kyi has gone from being a symbol of peace and democratic rights to a leader accused of gross human rights violations.
In reality, however, Suu Kyi has never defended the Rohingya, not even when she was in opposition. Exalted by the West for her non violent stand against Myanmar’s former military junta, Suu Kyi’s politics were construed as pro democratic and human rights. Now, as almost year years have passed since the historic election in which Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy Party swept to power, the international community has watched in horror as the plight of the persecuted minority has only gotten worse.
Given the scale of the violence, the Rohingya cause barely gets the attention it is warranted. The plight of the Rohingya makes headlines only sporadically.
The roots of the crisis lie in the denial of rights to the Rohingya in Myanmar. In fact, his continuation of denying the Rohingya the right to a nationality makes direct violence against the Rohingyas far more possible and likely than it would be otherwise. The system’s context lies in the 1982 Citizenship Act, which supersedes all citizenship regimes in Myanmar. The Act created three classes of citizens – full, associate, and naturalised. Full citizenship is reserved for those whose ancestors settled in Myanmar before the year 1823 or who are members of one of Myanmar’s 135 recognized national ethnic groups – which, according to the recent census, continues to exclude the Rohingya. Associate citizenship applies to those who have been conferred citizenship under a previous 1948 law, which requires an awareness of the law and a level of proof that few Rohingyas possess. Naturalised citizenship is applicable to those who have resided in Myanmar on or before 1948, and here too, the Rohingya are denied citizenship as the government of Myanmar retains the discretion to deny citizenship even when criteria are adequately met.
It is under the legal system and the denial of recognition that the Rohingya continue to remain a stateless people. Myanmar, which as a member nation of the UN is obligated to promote “universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction,” fails to do so for the Rohingyas who are subjected to policies and practises that constitute violations of their fundamental rights and freedoms. They face restrictions on movement, forced labour, land confiscation, forced evictions, extortions and arbitrary taxations, restrictions on marriage, employment, healthcare and education.
There is an element of political opportunism in reference to the Rohingya in Myanmar. In 1990, Rohingya were permitted to form political parties and vote in multiparty elections. Myanmar even accepted about 250,000 repatriated Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh in 1992 and 1994 issuing Temporary Resident Cards to some. Rohingyas were permitted to vote in the 2008 constitutional referendum and 2010 elections. In fact, in the 2010 elections the voting rights were tied to the promise of citizenship if the Rohingya voted for the military regime’s representatives. However, Rohingyas are yet to be included as a part of any reconciliation programme involving ethnic groups, with Myanmar’s former President Thein Sein, in the wake of the 2012 violence, stating that the Rohingya could not and would not be accepted as citizens or residents of Myanmar, going as far as to asking the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to consider placing the Rohingya in camps outside of the country and resettling them to others. While it is true that Thein Sein and other Myanmar officials have had to moderate their position since due to external international pressure, Myanmar continues to violate UN convention by rendering the Rohingya stateless. A relevant convention is the Convention of the Reduction of Statelessness which obligates states to prevent, reduce, and avoid statelessness by granting “its nationality to a person born in its territory who would otherwise be stateless.” The Myanmar government is in clear violation of this convention, with hundreds of thousands of Rohingya having been displaced in the last 25 years.
It is this system that has perpetuated violence against the Rohingyas in Myanmar, with violent clashes between the country’s majority Buddhist population and the Rohingyas leading to deaths and displacement of the minority muslim community in 2012, 2009, 2001, 1978 and 1992, amongst other instances. In the most recent case of widespread violence in 2012, hundred of Rohingya villages and settlements were destroyed, tens of thousands of homes razed, and at least 115,000 Rohingyas displaced in camps in Myanmar, across the Bangladesh border, or further afield on boats.
The UN has termed the Rohingyas one of the most persecuted minorities in the world, a condition aggravated by the role of countries such as Bangladesh and Thailand that have turned back genuine refugees, with Thailand’s military being accused in 2009-10 of towing hundreds of Rohingya out to sea in poorly equipped boats and scant food and water after they tried to flee Myanmar. Although Thailand “categorically denies” the charge, the accusations have some merit as about 650 Rohingya were rescued off India and Indonesia, some saying that they had been beaten by Thai soldiers.
It is under these circumstance that rights groups have alleged that the Myanmar government is supporting a policy of “ethnic cleansing” of the Rohingya, with William Schabas, a member of the International Association of Genocide Scholars saying that “the Rohingya are the prima facie victims of the crime against humanity of persecution,” consisting of “the severe deprivation of fundamental rights on discriminatory grounds.”
It is a combination of the actions of the Rakhine Buddhist majority and the inaction of the Myanmar government, within the context of a legal system that ratifies, condones, and perpetuates the systematic discrimination of the Rohingya in Myanmar. In this context, Suu Kyi’s stand doesn’t come as a surprise; it was the west’s mistake in confusing her politics to be pro-democratic and human rights, when in reality Suu Kyi fits neatly within the Buddhist majority nationalist exclusionary politics of Myanmar.
This article first appeared on The Citizen.