Most of the population of Myanmar identify as Buddhist, but about 1.1 million people, a majority of whom are Muslim, represent a Myanmar ethnic minority call the Rohingya. The Rohingya speak a distinct dialect and they are not listed among the country’s recognized ethnic groups. Since 1982, they have been denied Myanmar citizenship, which places them in a precarious position, since they live within the country (in the western state of Rakhine) and they cannot leave without government permission.
Rakhine is a very poor state, so its denizens lack the opportunities available elsewhere, but the Rohingya are often subject to violence and persecution when they attempt to flee.
Why are the Rohingya denied citizenship?
During British rule, thousands of Rohingya laborers migrated from India and Bangladesh into Myanmar, a migration considered legal and “internal” by the British. But native populations resented this influx, so when Myanmar gained independence in 1948, the migration was declared illegal, which has formed the historical grounds for the denial of citizenship to the Rohingya people. Many Myanmar Buddhists consider the Rohingya to be Bengali.
Why weren’t the Rohingya recognized after British rule ended?
In 1948, the newly independent nation passed the Union Citizenship Act, which included a list of ethnicities that could legally gain citizenship. The Rohingya were not included on the list, with limited exceptions granted for those who had resided in the country for more than two generations. After a military coup in 1962, that law changed, and all Myanmar citizens were required to obtain national registration cards. The Rohingya were an exception; they were not issued national cards, but instead were given foreign identity cards that limited their access to jobs and opportunities. In 1982, citizenship laws changed once again, and again, the Rohingya were excluded from a list of nationally recognized ethnic groups.
Since 1982, the Rohingya have been a stateless people. Without citizenship or paperwork allowing them access to many aspects of public life, they have limited opportunities to use public services, work, travel, marry, or leave. They also struggle to attain healthcare and they’re prevented from freely practicing their religion. When the Rohingya attempt to leave Rakhine and head for neighboring Bangladesh, Malaysia or Thailand, refugees typically face violence at the hands of Myanmar security forces. Sometimes they’re aggressively turned back by their destination countries.
What’s Happening Now?
In October of 2016, nine border guards were killed, and the government blamed armed Rohingya fighters. They responded with a series of crackdowns on Rohingya villages, involving an array of human rights abuses which the government has denied. By November of 2016, multiple UN officials were referring to the crackdown and abuses as “ethnic cleansing”. The abuses have been ongoing for the past year and have been reported to include extrajudicial killing, arson, rape, and troops firing indiscriminately on crowds. The Myanmar government has so far rejected these accusations.
State Chancellor Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, has not yet openly discussed the conditions endured by the Rohingya, their inability to flee, and the resulting untenable position in which they’ve been placed. The government and Aung San Suu Kyi herself have blamed the violence in Rakhine on Rohingya “terrorists”.
This United Nations Human Rights Commission report was produced in February of 2017, and it documents some of the abuses in detail.
At this point, it remains to be seen where fleeing Rohingya will turn after attempting the dangerous exodus from Rakhine, which nations will accept the influx of refugees, and how Southeast Asian nations and the rest of the world community will respond to Myanmar’s official denial of a growing list of allegations. Who will condemn the violence and stand up for the stateless Rohingya people? We’re watching these events and the reaction of the United Nations and the ICC. For more information on the state of Rakhine, follow our page or contact our office.