Plight of Rohingyas

  • Massive cleansing operations have triggered the exodus of over 126,000 Rohingya refugees
- MAHENDRA P LAMA, Kathmandu

Sep 13, 2017-The recent Rohingya exodus from the Rakhine region of Myanmar has brought to light three critical aspects of refugee movement in South Asia. Who is a refugee, why do they cross borders, and what are the responsibilities of both the countries they leave and those that receive them? 

As per international convention, refugees are those who have fled their country of origin mainly on the grounds of well founded “fear of persecutions due to reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion; or those who, since they no longer enjoy the protection of their government, are compelled to flee to escape the violence of armed conflict or widespread violations of human rights”.  In South Asia’s refugee movements, states have been a key player. Firstly, the states have been the main actors in forcing emigration as a means of achieving cultural homogeneity or asserting dominance of one ethnic community over another in socio-economic and political arenas. As Gil Loescher stated, forced emigration “stem(s) from officially instigated or organised state actions”. 

Secondly, governments have used forced emigration as a means of dealing with political dissidents who are particularly hostile to the regime. And thirdly, forced migration has been used as  part of a strategy to achieve a foreign policy objective. The origin of the Rohingyas’ plight today is well documented. In Myanmar, ethnic cleaning is ingrained in state policy and has been inherited and consolidated by the National League for Democracy (NLD) led government of Aung San Suu Kyi. 

Tumultuous history

Until 1936 Burma (Myanmar) was administered from New Delhi under the Governor General. In 1785 the King of Burma invaded and occupied Arakan, leading to large scale persecution of Arakan Muslims. Arakan was ruled by a King until it became part of the Province of Burma of British India in 1885. It was merged with Burma after its independence in 1948. Two of the northern districts of Arakan province were under the Chittagong Division (East Bengal) and hence there was hardly any restriction on crossing from one area to the other. After the first Anglo-Burmese War and the annexation of Arakan by British India in 1824-26, the demographic condition of Northern Rakhine State witnessed drastic changes. In Akyab district alone, the population increased from 95,100 in 1831 to 530,000 in 1911. This was mostly attributed to Muslim immigration encouraged by the British India government. 

Many of these people were displaced when the Japanese forces invaded and occupied Burma during the Second World War. In 1948, large scale killings took place as the Muslims launched a Mujahid movement primarily to separate northern Arakan from Burma and to unite it with East Pakistan. A clear division thus emerged between Muslims and the Arakanese Buddhists in the south of Arakan. The Mujahid had given up their resistance by 1961, when under the Mayu Frontier Administration Area the Buddhist Arakanese were granted autonomy. This autonomy was dissolved in 1964. The creation of “Rohingya Patriotic Front”, another militant organisation, raised the demands of the Mujahid once again. 

The attitude of legitimising a wider stigmatisation of ‘immigrant’ communities was strengthened during the successive military juntas after General Ne Win overthrew the ruling party to install ‘revolutionary administration’ in 1962. Despite historical evidence that Muslim settlements in the Arakan and the adjoining hills started sometime between the 8th to 9th century, the Rohingyas are very often considered “illegal immigrants” and a “Bengali minority”. They are not included in the declared national races of Myanmar such as the Burmans, Shans, Kachins, Karens, Mons and Maghs. Operation Nag Min (King Dragon) was fiercely conducted by the Burmese army in 1978 in certain areas within the states of Kachin and Arakan. As per the statement given by the Home and Religious Affairs Ministry on November 16, 1977, this was primarily done to “scrutinise each individual living in the State, designating citizens and foreigners in accordance with the law and taking actions against foreigners who have filtered into the country illegally”. 

Fleeing violence

The declaration of some Rohingyas as aliens and their arrests led to protests, violence and further suppression. This was further conflagrated by the involvement of the Buddhist Arakans in anti-Rohingya violence. Along with this, the system of excessive unpaid community labour, denial of citizenship rights, arbitrary taxation and extortion, concept of model villages, forced relocation, restriction on freedom of movement and poor level of food security led to their massive exodus. Marking a first exodus, over 200,000 Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh in 1978. 

The State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) with a clearly anti-democratic slant intensified army operations in the Arakan in the late 1980s. By 1994, there were over 116,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. A fresh lot of refugees fled Myanmar again in 1996. This marked the second exodus.

The communal violence in 2012 and the militant attacks of October 2016 led to a new sense of insecurity among the Rohingyas. Many of them fled to South and South East Asia. A series of attacks on various police posts by the Rohingya insurgents, such as the attack by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army on August 25, 2017 saw unprecedented retaliation from the Myanmarese security forces. Such deadly retaliation with what the UN Human Rights body stated as “devastating cruelty” against the civilian population is widely condemned by countries including the US, UK, India and Bangladesh. Reports mention that the retaliation seems to have evolved into a final fight against the creation of an independent Islamic state and has led to massive cleansing operations, thus triggering the third exodus of over 126,000 refugees into Bangladesh. 

1.1 million Rohingyas in northern Arakan remain targets for state forces. This is occurring against the backdrop of a release of a report by an Advisory Commission led by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. While describing Rohingyas as “the single biggest stateless community in the world” the report recommended scrapping restrictions on movement and citizenship for Burma’s Rohingya minority to avoid fuelling extremism and to bring peace. It even warned of a real risk of “further radicalisation within both communities”. It recommended “shutting down refugee camps—which hold more than 120,000 people in often miserable conditions”. It called to invest heavily in the region and to allow the ‘media unfettered access’ there.

No South Asian countries have acceded to international instruments like the 1951 UN Convention and 1967 Protocol on Refugees. The lack of ratifications and the absence of permanent institutional structures to oversee issues of migration and refugees have put the granting of refugee status into the hands of political authorities. The absence of forthright and comprehensive national legal regimes has made the issues more fragile and the management distinctly ad hoc. 

Lama is a High End Expert in Sichuan University, China and a Member of the Eminent Persons Group from India on Nepal-India Relations

Published: 13-09-2017 07:34

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